Appert’s steady hand guided Amerks through tough week

Photo: Micheline V

📝 by Patrick Williams

Sometimes a coach just knows.

The Rochester Americans felt pretty good a week ago when they arrived in Charlotte to start their four-game Atlantic Division swing. By the time they packed their bus Sunday night to head home, a happy mood pervaded the team as well.

But a lot happened in between.

For their trip down to Charlotte, the Amerks possessed a five-game winning streak and a hold on second place in the North Division. One of only two teams to knock off the powerhouse Utica Comets this season, the Amerks had pulled off another win against their New York Thruway rival, a 4-3 overtime decision Dec. 8. Two nights later, they took a 5-3 home win against the Laval Rocket before going into a rare weekend without a game Saturday or Sunday.

But head coach Seth Appert, who had spent the past 10 days in COVID-19 quarantine, had sensed otherwise watching those two wins from home. Call it a coach’s hunch, but it turned out to be far more correct than he would have liked.

A day after arriving in Charlotte for a two-game set against the Checkers, the American Hockey League schedule jolted the Amerks back to reality with an 11-1 loss. Charlotte became the first team to tag the Amerks with 11 goals since 1984, and the Checkers exposed some of the deficiencies that Appert is still working to correct in his inexperienced team.

“We’ve been a really good offensive team this year,” Appert said. “We’ve been really physically committed. We’re physical. We’re finishing checks within puck battles. We get to the net. We block shots. We fight for each other.

“But we’re not good enough defensively. We’re young. So there are times that our maturity hurts us. And particularly defensively, we haven’t broke the puck out well enough. That’s as a group. That’s not our D corps. That’s our forwards as well. [And] we haven’t defended the line rush well.

“That night against Charlotte, those two areas got exposed.”

Among the many reasons that the Buffalo Sabres brought Appert into the pro game in August 2020 was his know-how in handling these kind of delicate developmental situations.

Appert had just spent three seasons with the United States National Team Development Program working with some of the top young talent in the game. Alongside current Ontario Reign head coach John Wroblewski, the program generated 17 picks in the 2019 NHL Draft, eight of them first-round choices. Development had long been Appert’s strong suit, and he had gone to the USNTDP in Plymouth, Mich., following 11 seasons as head coach at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and another nine campaigns as a University of Denver assistant coach.

That night in Charlotte posed a test.

A loss like that one easily could have put the Amerks into dangerous territory. Certainly that has happened before to AHL teams. Rochester, a young team that had been feeling some success, had just run into a force, and the potential to damage confidence was there. And this already was a team dealing with the losses of Mark Jankowski, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, and Brett Murray on recall to the Sabres as well as top prospect Jack Quinn remaining out of the lineup with mononucleosis.

Despite being handed their worst loss in 37 years on Dec. 14, the Amerks have won seven of their last nine overall. (Photo: Micheline V)

Just as there were some rough nights in Appert’s rookie pro season amid a crush of injuries and recalls to Buffalo, the Amerks would need Appert to guide them again.

“That night [the coaching staff] talked a lot about things, watched video,” Appert said. “I think that we handled it the right way. We didn’t overreact.

“Sometimes when you’ve got a five-game winning streak, it can mask some deficiencies. You can start sliding on your identity and on details, because you’re winning, and you’re kind of on a roll. We saw those things in our game.

“But it’s hard to point them out as much when you’re winning. And then you get punched in the face like that. It was just a good opportunity to talk about the things we got to get better. I thought we were pretty darn good the second game in Charlotte and could easily have won that game.”

The Amerks did lose that rematch in Charlotte, 4-2, but it halted some of the bad energy from that first loss. Then it was off to Pennsylvania for two more weekend games, but Rochester had to deal with the loss of top defenseman Casey Fitzgerald on recall to the Sabres. The Amerks put in a good practice before a Saturday night date with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, and behind 27 saves from the recently assigned Aaron Dell, Rochester came from behind in the third period and then survived the Phantoms tying the game in the final minute of regulation. Top prospect JJ Peterka finished the night with a shootout winner.

Sunday night in Hershey, the Amerks found themselves in a similar hole. This time it was Peyton Krebs who went to work.

Down 3-1 in the third period, Krebs started the comeback on the power play by sneaking a left-side shot past Hershey goaltender Ryan Bednard. Captain Michael Mersch’s effort then threaded a pass through coverage for streaking defenseman Ethan Prow to convert. Krebs finished off Hershey by taking the puck to the net and then following up his own rebound for a 4-3 win.

After the weekend-closing victory, Appert stood outside of the Rochester dressing room and looked back at his club’s eventful week, beginning with the aftermath of Tuesday’s blowout loss.

“It wasn’t yelling and screaming,” Appert said. “It was just an opportunity to talk through things and throw some stats at them, throw some analytics at them, and let them know that this wasn’t reacting to one bad game. This [was] a pattern that now finally we got exposed for.”

But these moments and these works are what the development process is all about. It is not always a straight line, and it certainly is not always pretty. Tough losses, late-night video sessions, demanding practices, and that honest dialogue are what help prepare players for National Hockey League careers.

“We have a resilient group,” Appert said. “We’ve already showed that at times this year. That’s something that we’ve been fighting to be about.”