Playoff race full of lessons for young Amerks

Photo: Micheline V

📝 by Patrick Williams

So, this is what a push to the Calder Cup Playoffs feels like, as the Rochester Americans are learning.

“All these little things matter,” said forward Arttu Ruotsalainen, a veteran of Liiga late-season battles at home in Finland before he came to the Buffalo Sabres organization last season.

For any player yet to realize that reality, Sunday afternoon’s home date with the desperate Bridgeport Islanders surely drove that message home. Bridgeport overcame Rochester leads of 2-0 and 5-3 and carried the game to overtime when Michael Dal Colle punched in a rebound with 6.2 seconds remaining in regulation. From there, the Amerks saw the definition of experience in Bridgeport’s Chris Terry when he finished off the 6-5 overtime win on a two-on-none rush. Bridgeport, in a playoff fight of its own, swept a road swing through Utica, Toronto, and Rochester to barrel into a playoff spot, sixth in the Atlantic Division at 27-25-6-4 (.516).

The Amerks, meanwhile, lost a lead at home to the Marlies to begin the weekend with a 3-2 shootout loss, slipped in a 5-1 road defeat to the Syracuse Crunch, and then surrendered the third-period two-goal advantage against Bridgeport. The weekend’s struggles pushed Rochester down to the North Division’s sixth-place spot at 30-24-5-3 (.548).

That puts them just .034 away from the second-place Laval Rocket in the points percentage column. But in the unforgiving North Division standings, it also puts the Amerks below the playoff line.

More high-pressure games are staring down the Amerks. The final month of the season includes three meetings with Utica (the first coming this Wednesday), three with Laval, and two with Belleville.

So it’s tight. The pressure is fully on.

COVID-19 ended the 2019-20 campaign early. Last season’s abbreviated schedule did not feature a Calder Cup postseason. The Amerks completed their regular-season schedule, packed their bags, and then dispersed for the summer. Like most teams, Rochester has not been able to experience a full-fledged playoff race since 2019.

That disruption for the past two seasons means that April’s schedule shapes up to be Ruotsalainen’s first stretch drive in North America. Head coach Seth Appert, who is going through his own first pro career playoff race, dressed three rookies Sunday against Bridgeport. A pair of 20-year-old rookie forwards, JJ Peterka and Jack Quinn, are crucial Sabres prospects who will face the test that high-pressure AHL competition provides. Goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen is new to this. Another forward, Linus Weissbach, faces this late-season challenge after emerging as a pleasant first-year surprise. Third-year pro forward Brett Murray is experiencing this pro pressure for the first time. Rookie defenseman Nate Knoepke, just signed out of the University of Nebraska-Omaha this month, is four games into his pro career.

A more veteran face like 26-year-old forward Sean Malone really only has had two cracks to run down a playoff spot since turning pro for the 2017-18 season. And even forward Ryan Scarfo, who has found his career footing to establish himself at the AHL level, is going through his first playoff chase at this level as a 28-year-old.

Sunday’s game had started promisingly enough. Goals from Quinn and Mark Jankowski had the Amerks in business just 3:38 into the game. Rochester’s effort was there, but that was not enough.

“These guys are all elite workers,” Appert said. “That’s why they’re in the second-best league in the world.”

But learning how to manage games and close them out is part of the experience that the AHL offers to young National Hockey League prospects. On the Bridgeport goal that forced overtime, Islanders goaltender Jakub Skarek was off for an extra skater, and three of four Amerks found themselves pinned in for 1:31 against the elite likes of Dal Colle, Terry, Austin Czarnik, Otto Koivula, and Robin Salo. Sure enough, the Islanders eventually broke through.

“We couldn’t win a face-off out there in the last seven or eight minutes, so that hurt,” Appert said. “It just kept us in the defensive zone, and then eventually they scored. We got stuck out there. We couldn’t get it clear.

“[Bridgeport is] fighting. We’re fighting. They’re probably the hottest team in the league right now. We should have closed it, and we need to close it.”

And the task certainly is not going to be any easier in April.

“There’s less time and space at this time of the year,” Appert continued. “It’s more physical. So for the younger guys, they’re having to adjust to that. I thought that some of our younger forwards really struggled with that in Syracuse. And I thought those same forwards that struggled with it [against the Crunch] really responded in a positive manner [against Bridgeport].

“So that’s good. They’re learning, they’re applying, and they’re improving from those experiences.”

At 24 years old, Ruotsalainen knows it, too.

“[Losing to Bridgeport is] a big lesson for us,” he stated. “I think we have a good group of guys out there. And I like to think everything is possible when we are playing the right way.”

Now, if Appert’s club does qualify for the Calder Cup Playoffs, they stand to receive a significant boost from the Sabres. Buffalo has made defensemen Casey Fitzgerald and Mattias Samuelsson along with standout rookie forward Peyton Krebs eligible for further play in Rochester. The Amerks could be downright dangerous in the postseason.

But they must join that playoff field first.

“The intensity of these games, you know how close they are,” Murray said. “It came down to six seconds at the end of the game.”