📝 by Suzie Cool | AHL On The Beat
It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and no, we’re not talking about Christmas.
We’re talking about the final month of the American Hockey League’s 2021-22 regular season, where, in the North Division, the playoff race is so tight between each team that one loss can have you sitting in seventh place and a win can have you squeezing into the top five.
For the Rochester Americans, this is exactly how we’ve seen the last few weeks play out for the team in its first full season under the helm of head coach Seth Appert.
The second-year coach joined the Amerks amid the pandemic, leading the squad to an 11-15-2-1 mark during the condensed 2020-21 campaign. Since then, Appert has gone on to compile a 43-40-11 mark in 94 career games in Rochester, becoming the sixth straight head coach to reach the 30-win mark in his first full season behind the Amerks bench.
With no Calder Cup awarded in 2021, this is Appert’s first time coaching his team through a true playoff push. Appert ― along with most of his younger players who are also embarking on their first glance at the playoffs in the pro ranks ― is starting to notice just how good your game has to be to make it past the regular season.
“It’s hard, big-boy hockey, so to speak,” said Appert. “There’s more offense, but then there’s less time and space at this time of year. It’s more physical, there’s less line-rush opportunities and things like that. For the younger guys, they’re having to adjust to that.”
Since the turn of the new year, Appert and his staff have been dealing with a major influx of roster moves made up of injuries, players call-ups to the Buffalo Sabres, and players being signed to tryouts just hours before a game. Despite the constant changes and sometimes lack of chemistry when coordinating a lineup, the Amerks have still found ways to string together wins and keep themselves in the hunt.
In 40 games since the start of 2022, the Amerks have a 16-16-5-3 record and 40 points. With 10 games remaining in their regular season, Rochester’s .545 points percentage has them sitting sixth in the North Division, barely outside the last playoff spot.
It’s not lost on Appert and the Amerks that every game and every point matter, and one play can literally change the outcome of a contest at this point in the year.
“These are things we’ve been stressing all year… one play can change the outcome of a game,” said Appert. “All those little plays, all the details and the execution start to come even more into focus. So, you have to have those things in order in this final push.”
With the Amerks roster being almost back to where it was at the start of the 2021-22 campaign, they’re at 25 healthy active players, and it’s incredible how young the team looks.
Of those 25 players, 17 have never made a playoff push in professional hockey. This total does include players like forward Arrtu Ruotsalainen and defenseman Oskari Laaksonen because we know they’ve seen the postseason in Europe, but never in North America.
Forwards Michael Mersch, Mark Jankowski, Sean Malone, and Ryan MacInnis, along with defensemen Ethan Prow and Mark Alt and goaltender Aaron Dell make up the leadership group that Appert will continue to rely on in April.
“I lean on them all the time,” said Appert. “I talk to Mersch every day and, a lot of times, I’ll talk with the captains individually or collectively. A lot of the time I’ll just talk to Merschy and let him speak to the leadership group as well and do his own thing.”
Appert and his leadership core are so in sync that they usually know what he needs or wants before he even talks with them.
“We’re so in lockstep with each other that usually we don’t need to talk because we’re already thinking the same thing, but we do anyway. So, I lean on those guys a ton, we have a great leadership group and I’m very confident in them.”
Three weeks remain on the Amerks schedule, with each game holding extreme value as to where they’ll end up in the North Division standings. While Rochester inches closer to solidifying a playoff spot for the first time since the 2018-19 season, Appert and his team know that they’ll have to adjust along the way amidst the physical battles.
Buckle up everybody, the playoffs are right around the corner and it’s anybody’s game.