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Photo: Micheline Veluvolu

Excitement taking over Amerks with playoffs looming

by Ryan J. Harr | AHL On The Beat

The Rochester Americans currently hold the third spot in the American Hockey League’s North Division with less than a month left in the 2017-18 regular season. The top four teams in the division are guaranteed a Calder Cup Playoff spot, which means the Amerks are in position to advance to the postseason for the first time since the spring of 2014, ending a three-year absence.

Of the Amerks’ current roster, 14 players have appeared in at least one game in the postseason, including two-time Calder Cup champion Nathan Paetsch. With seven additional players that are currently on a recall to the Buffalo Sabres eligible to participate in the Calder Cup Playoffs, this year’s Amerks squad collectively has combined for nearly 400 man-games in the postseason.

“Winning the two Calder Cups are probably my most favorite memories,” said Paetsch, who captained the Grand Rapids Griffins to five straight playoff appearances prior to returning to Rochester this past fall. “The playoffs are the absolute best time of the year. As a player, you always want to be playing as long as you can after the end of the regular season.”

While it remains to be seen who Rochester will face in the first round, it will likely be one of their North Division rivals from Toronto, Syracuse or Utica. But no matter the opponent, the Amerks know the stakes are just as high.

“The level of the game intensifies,” said team captain Kevin Porter, whose playoff resume includes back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins. “As cliche as it is, there really is no tomorrow in the playoffs. As a player, if you do not play your best game, it can be the difference in winning or being eliminated.”

Photo: Micheline Veluvolu

Porter was a member of the Amerks when they made their last appearance in the spring of 2014, while Paetsch was part of the last Rochester team to win a playoff series back in 2005. That same team also featured current NHL stars like Jason Pominville and Ryan Miller as well as Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill current Amerks head coach Chris Taylor.

“My first playoff experience was during the 2004 run,” said Paetsch, who has skated in a team-high 103 playoff games over his AHL career. “We had a nice run, especially in the opening round. We were down three games to one before coming back and winning in overtime in Game 7. It was a pretty exciting way to begin my career.”

Since that spring when the Amerks made it to the conference finals, no other Amerks team has gone further than the first round.

Over a best-of-five or best-of-seven series, two teams become more accustomed to playing one another, more so than during the regular season. Teams get a better understanding of their opponents’ tendencies, thus making the rivalry that much greater.

“During a series, it can get intense,” forward Garret Ross said. “Playing the same team multiple games in a row, and having the same goal of winning the series, it definitely forms a rivalry on the ice. At the end of the day, though, it’s still a hockey game, so you still need to relax and play. You cannot allow yourself to get caught up in the moment because it isn’t something that comes along every year.”

The Amerks players are not the only ones with Calder Cup experience: their three coaches also have been a part of the postseason on several different occasions also.

Assistant coach Toby Petersen has won the AHL’s most prized possession twice, once as player and once as an assistant coach. Head coach Chris Taylor and assistant Gord Dineen have been part of many playoff runs.

“I have been part of teams that seemed to just roll along in the playoffs,” said Petersen, who won a Calder Cup as a player with Texas Stars in 2014 before leading the Cleveland Monsters to their first AHL title just two years later as an assistant coach.

“Those teams, when we won it, never felt out of games even when trailing in a game or series. Having confidence in games will carry-over from game to game. The games themselves are much tighter than those in the regular season. Guys aren’t trying different things that they may attempt during the regular season because they don’t want to be that guy who costs his team the game.”

Dineen, who like Petersen is in his first stint with the Amerks organization, has appeared in playoffs as a coach seven times, including each of the last six seasons with the Toronto Marlies.

“Some teams get several players added to their rosters as their National Hockey League affiliate gets eliminated from Stanley Cup contention or they miss the playoffs,” said Dineen, a Stanley Cup winner with the Pittsburgh Penguins during the 1990-91 season. “When teams get those added pieces, usually they are playing at high rate and bring speed to the game and hopefully that helps contributes to the team.”

A playoff run can span into the early parts of June, and while not every player may get a chance to play in a game or series, the depth of a team only makes it much more dangerous over its quest to the Calder Cup.

Photo: Bill Wippert

“Depth that a team can have is huge in the playoffs,” said veteran defenseman Zach Redmond, who has 19 points in 35 career AHL playoff games. “Guys are going to take their share of bumps and bruises, so having those extra bodies only helps. The playoffs are a special time because you see the importance of a team. Guys come really close to one another over the stretch. During the regular season you play to get into the playoffs, but once the postseason gets underway, you prepare more, do more homework on your opponent as the details of the game become much finer.”

“Playing hockey in the spring is a lot of fun,” said fellow defenseman Stuart Percy. “During the playoffs, the weather outside the rink gets nice after the winter months, but the excitement and execution-level ramps up. The outcome of a game comes down to execution and passion. With passion, you see it both good and bad after games, but it all comes down to passion and who wants it the most. That makes the biggest difference in the happiness of moving onto the next series or the disappointment of being eliminated.”