By Ryan J. Harr
With three games left in the 2018-19 regular season, the Rochester Americans currently hold the second spot in the American Hockey League’s North Division. By virtue of a 6-4 road-victory over the Binghamton Devils this past Saturday, the Amerks officially punched their ticket to the 2019 Calder Cup Playoffs. It will be Rochester’s second straight appearance to the postseason after ending a three-year absence last year and sixth in the last 10 seasons.
Of the Amerks current roster, 21 players have appeared in at least one game in the postseason, including the likes of two-time Calder Cup champion Nathan Paetsch. With five more players back from the Buffalo Sabres that are eligible to participate in the Calder Cup Playoffs, this year’s Amerks squad collectively has combined for nearly 400 man-games in the postseason.
WATCH NATHAN PAETSCH POST-PRACTICE
“Last year, I think some of the younger guys realized exactly how tough playoff games are and much the intensity ramps up,” said team captain Kevin Porter, whose resume includes back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins. “Everyone says it, but playoff games are a different game as guys come out much harder, everyone finishes their checks, every shift counts, and you can’t take a shift off. For guys getting that sample, really was huge for them.”
“As playoffs are looming, as a team I think we can agree we are more confident going into them this season versus last year,” said C.J. Smith, who made his professional postseason debut last spring. “This year we know what to expect going into it (the playoffs). The excitement level is still very high because as a player you want play in the postseason.”
While it remains to be seen who Rochester will face in the first-round, it will undoubtedly be one of their North Division rivals from Toronto, Cleveland, or Belleville, who are looking to claim the final spot. The Amerks are guaranteed at least a second-place finish or better in the North Division and sit just one point back of Syracuse for the division lead heading into the final weekend of the regular season. But no matter the opponent, the Amerks know the stakes are just as high.
“With each game that you play and the farther you go, it’s much harder to win,” said forward Remi Elie, who reached the Calder Cup Finals last season with the Texas Stars. “To move on in the playoffs takes a lot of hard work and you have to come ready to play every night. One bad period or game can end your season.”
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 and current Amerks head coach Chris Taylor.
WATCH AMERKS HEAD COACH CHRIS TAYLOR POST-PRACTICE
“My first playoff experience was during the 2004 run,” said Paetsch, who has skated in a team-high 104 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.”
After making it to Conference Finals that Spring and a second-round appearance the following year, no other Amerks team has gone further than the first-round since 2005.
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.
“It can be tough not to get too wrapped up in the rivalry of playing the same team so many times during the playoffs,” Wayne Simpson explained. “It’s still a hockey game and you have to stick to what got you to that stage. Everyone gets amped up for it, but you have to be smart when picking your battles.”
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, including last spring’s playoffs.
Assistant coach Toby Petersen has won the league’s most prized possession twice, once as player and once as a coach, while both 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.”
With the return of Victor Olofsson, Alexander Nylander and Lawrence Pilut, all whom have spent the last few weeks with the Buffalo Sabres, Rochester will have some depth that they have relied on all season.
“Gaining players who have spent time with the Sabres is huge,” Smith explained. “They have all helped us get into the position we are currently in, but we all have to play our roles and not try to do too much.”
“Depth in the playoffs is very important,” Porter offered. “It has been that way all year for us. We have lost some guys all year whether it because of recall or injury, guys have stepped up and played very well. We have not really had too much of a dip in our play, but it’s huge to get those guys back.”
Rochester’s current lineup is now the strongest its been all year, which will force the coaching staff to make some difficult decisions regarding who will play. Nonetheless, though, Taylor admits it’s a good problem to have.
“I will be faced with some very tough decisions to make,” said Taylor when talking about the potential playoff lineup. “I already have lost sleep over it. Everyone in the room has given everything they have over the season and is more than deserving to be in. I respect everyone in the dressing room but there is nothing worse than telling a player he is not going to play.”
A long, successful 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.
“Once the playoffs begin, you quickly realize how special that opportunity is,” said Taylor Leier. “A lot of players don’t’ always get the chance to play in the postseason. It’s an exciting time and one of the best of the year.”
“The playoffs are a special time because you see the importance of a team,” veteran blueliner Zach Redmond said. “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.”
“Every second, every game, every shift counts, and it will not be easy,” Elie added. “It is a grind, but it will be worth it.”