Kulich soaking up playoff experience

Photo: Micheline V

📝 by Patrick Williams

National Hockey League general managers crave games like Sunday’s Rochester Americans-Syracuse Crunch playoff battle.

So do players.

“It’s so fun,” said Amerks forward Jiri Kulich, whose goal and assist in Game 4 on Sunday helped key a 4-0 Rochester win, setting up a series-deciding showdown this Saturday in Syracuse.

When Kevyn Adams took over as the general manager in Buffalo in June 2020, he made AHL development a top organizational goal. Adams brought in Seth Appert from USA Hockey’s much-acclaimed National Team Development Program to take over as the head coach in Rochester, where he arrived with a reputation as one of the best teachers in the game.

Kulich, a first-round draft pick by the Sabres in 2022 who turned 19 last month, has spent the season in Rochester. So has forward Isak Rosen, Buffalo’s first-rounder in 2021. Last season’s Amerks club featured AHL Rookie of the Year Jack Quinn and AHL rookie scoring leader JJ Peterka; both are now full-timers with the Sabres.

With Rochester facing elimination against Syracuse, Kulich’s power-play goal with 4:39 remaining in Game 3 put the Amerks ahead for good in what would be a wild 8-5 victory. In Game 4, he scored again on the power play on just Rochester’s second shot of the contest.

“Kulich and Rosen, I thought both were outstanding,” Appert said following Game 4.

The Sabres have steadily pushed Kulich into more challenging situations. To start, they elected to bring the Czech-born forward to North America to compete in the AHL at age 18 rather than stay at home to play. They sent him to the IIHF World Junior Championship to compete for Czechia against the top talent in his peer group; he earned a silver medal and made the tournament all-star team.

Throughout the AHL season Appert has slowly doled out ever-increasing responsibilities to Kulich, and that trust has paid off. His 24 goals in the regular season were the second-most by an 18-year-old in league history. He totaled 46 points in 62 games, tied for 11th among league rookies.

Rosen, who turned 20 in March, has had similar success. The 14th overall pick in 2021 posted 14 goals and 23 assists in 66 games during his first AHL season.

But the Calder Cup Playoffs are another level of play altogether. One of those lessons came during the second intermission as Rochester was still clutching a 1-0 lead in Game 4.

“That’s something we talked about going into the third,” Appert said. “No prevent defense. No sitting back. Safe is death. Playing on our front foot. We play our best when we’re in attack mode.

So the Amerks attacked. Lawrence Pilut put the Amerks ahead by two goals 3:06 into the period, and Syracuse struggled to create much of a response.

“Now do you play smart?” Appert asked rhetorically. “Yeah. Do you manage the puck when you have a lead in the third period? Yes, those things are critical, but we don’t want to be a team that sits back. We want to attack, and that was great to see that we did there.”

Appert used both Kulich and Rosen freely in the third period as the Amerks tried to close out the victory. They have earned that trust, and the experience is exactly what the Sabres want as they continue to develop talent in Rochester.

“I think very similar to Peterka last year, similar to Quinn, the first 15, 20, 25 games in this league are overwhelming for 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds,” Appert said. “Then they get their bearings a little bit. They start drawing confidence from their habits, and then they start to see that better defensive play and better habits actually leads to more offense.

“The better defensively [Kulich] is, the more he has the puck. The more he has the puck, the more special things he can do. He has a knack for big moments. We saw the World Juniors. He’s not afraid of the stage at all.

“I really like the way Rosen responded from last weekend. I really liked the way Kulich attacked.”

Kulich missed the Amerks’ last regular-season game as well as Games 1 and 2 in Syracuse with an injury, but the team made sure he used that time off the ice well. He watched his first Calder Cup Playoff hockey live from the stands. They directed him to watch the Tampa Bay-Toronto Stanley Cup series to take in the standard required at that level of the sport. Kulich learned that he would need to employ a more physical style as well as utilize his quickness. Block shots.

Appert’s message to Kulich: “Don’t just be a spectator. Don’t be a fan. Learn. There are so many experiences you have to soak up.”

Sitting in Syracuse, Kulich followed those orders.

“I saw [the Crunch] play a physical game,” Kulich said, “and they want to eat the puck. I think it helped me.”

Now Kulich and the Amerks have turned this series around. Down 0-2 after being shut out in Game 2, Rochester has put themselves in position to advance to the North Division finals for the second consecutive year.

They plan to be ready on Saturday.

“The playoffs are the best moment of the season,” Kulich said. “That’s why we play.”