Amerks Ready for Calder Cup Playoff Run

The Buffalo Sabres may have missed the playoffs for the seventh consecutive year, but their American Hockey League farm team, the Rochester Americans, ended their three-year playoff drought. It’s a silver lining for the organization in an otherwise disappointing season.

Baby steps.

The Amerks first-round, best-of-five series starts Friday, April 20, against their I-90 rival, the Syracuse Crunch. Games 1, 2 and 5 (if necessary) of the series will take place at the War Memorial Arena in Syracuse. Games 3 and 4 (if necessary) will be held at The Blue Cross Arena in Rochester. All game times are 7:05. The remaining rounds are best of seven.

Goal No. 1: Make the Playoffs

This is the Amerks’ first playoff action since 2014, when they lost in the first round against Chicago. They finished the regular season with a record of 37-22-11 (overtime losses)-6 (shootout losses), good for 91 points and third place in the AHL’s North Division. The Amerks finished tied for fourth in fewest regulation losses with Syracuse and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The Crunch finished with a record of 46-22-3-5 for 100 points, slotting them as the No. 2 seed in the North Division.

“Developing and getting to the playoffs at the same time is great. That’s what we wanted. That’s what we wanted to create around here. That makes everybody better,” said Amerks coach Chris Taylor. “The biggest thing for me is the players have done a great job. We can give them structure, but ultimately they have to go out and do it [on the ice] and they’ve done a great job.”

The five-game series makes every game mean that much more. “You don’t have time to make mistakes. You don’t have time to come back. You’ve got to be ready for Game 1,” said Taylor.

Amerks vs. Crunch, In-State Rivals

The Amerks finished the 2017-18 regular season with a 4-2 win on the road in Syracuse. All told, the two teams faced one another ten times this season, so they’re very familiar with one another. The Crunch took the series, 6-2-1-1.

Historically, the last time Rochester and Syracuse went head to head in the playoffs was back in 2004 when the Amerks won in Game 7 of the first round. That year, the Amerks advanced to the Conference Finals where they lost to Milwaukee. Rochester hasn’t won a playoff series since 2005.

The Crunch lost to the Grand Rapid Griffins in the Calder Cup Finals last year. They are the Tampa Bay Lightning’s AHL affiliate.

The Amerks had a strong first half of the season, going 23-8-4-3 (53 points). Their second half, 14-14-7-3 (38 points), was more of a struggle, as they dealt with injuries and call-ups to Buffalo. It may be a good omen finishing in third place, with more losses than wins. The last time it happened was in 1995-96. That year, John Tortorella coached the team to a Calder Cup championship. Torts now coaches the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets.

Columbus Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella
Tortorella is behind the bench in Columbus. (Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

Ironically, the last time the Amerks finished with 91 points was the 2009-10 season, their head coach was Benoit Groulx, who is the current coach of the Syracuse Crunch.

Preparing for the Playoffs

The Amerks, led by head coach Taylor, finished the season with a record of 7-2-1-0 in their last 10 contests. This week, Taylor’s working the team hard to prepare them for the playoffs, where every shift will have more intensity.

“It’s gonna be intense, so we gotta practice [with] intensity,” said coach Taylor. These guys want to get dialed in. You just can’t turn it on on Friday. We gotta it all week and get our intensity going. Everything ramps up. It’s high energy. The shifts are shorter because you’re going out there hard. It’s tough. These guys know that. That’s why we need to practice that way.”

“He told us the next few days would be tough. And then we’re going to prepare for the game,” said Amerks captain, Kevin Porter. “I think it’s going to be a great series. It’s obviously a cross-town rivalry of sorts. They’re a great skilled team and it’s going to be a good battle.”

Being in the postseason will be a new experience for most of the Amerks roster. “It feels good [to be in the playoffs]. We still get to play hockey–that’s the best part about it,” said Porter with a smile. “It’s a good opportunity for some of the young guys to show that they can play in the NHL. If they play well here, there’s a good chance they’ll get an opportunity next year. Everyone’s going to be fired up and ready to go.”

“A lot of people look at players at the end of the year for next year,” said Taylor. “And those are the type of players that need to have a really good playoff to help our team and stand out and do some special things to get their kick start off for the NHL. We want everyone to do well and move on up.”

Key Season Stats

The Amerks were led in points by defenseman Zach Redmond (15 goals, 32 assists for 47 points). He finished fourth in scoring among AHL defensemen. Forward Sahir Gill, day-to-day an injury, played his first season with the Amerks and led the team with 18 goals. Previously he spent time in the Pittsburgh Penguins farm system, playing for Wilkes-Barre. C.J. Smith, Kevin Porter and Colin Blackwell all had 17 goals.

It was only the second time in franchise history that not one player reached the 20-goal plateau. Had C.J. Smith not been sidelined with a lower body injury for 19 of the final 26 games of the regular season, he likely would have cracked the mark. Smith finished with 44 points (17 goals, 27 assists) in 57 games which was tenth best among AHL rookies. The 23-year-old Iowa native was named MVP of the 2018 AHL All-Star Challenge.

Forward Seth Griffith registered 41 points in 46 games, for a .89 points-per-game average, the highest on the team.

Linus Ullmark
Linus Ullmark is expected to be in Buffalo full time next season. (Photo by Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

Netminder Linus Ullmark finished the season with a record of 21-12-10 and two shutouts. He finished the regular season third in the AHL in saves (1,242) and seventh in minutes played (2,579) while tying for ninth with 21 wins, his second straight season with 20 or more victories. He was recently named the team MVP and Most Popular Player for the second straight year.

Grooming Future Sabres Talent

Getting the organization’s farm team in order was a priority of Sabres rookie general manager Jason Botterill. He’s stated on numerous occasions how important it is to have a pipeline for development and success.

There are currently 18 players on the Amerks roster going into the playoffs that have NHL contracts. For the most part, Sabres general manager Jason Botterill has not dipped into the Amerks lineup too much this season. The following lists each Amerks player and the number of games he appeared in:

Goaltenders – Linus Ullmark (5) and Adam Wilcox (1)

Defensemen – Casey Nelson (37), Brendan Guhle (18), Matt Tennyson (15), Taylor Fedun (7), and Zach Redmond (3)

Sabres defenseman Casey Nelson
Defenseman Casey Nelson has made great strides this year. (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

Forwards – Nick Baptiste (33), Seth Griffith (21), Justin Bailey (12), Kyle Criscuolo (9), Hudson Fasching (5), Alex Nylander (3), and Danny O’Regan (2)

Only Sean Malone, C.J. Smith, Kevin Porter (called up but did not see playing time) and Eric Cornel did not appear in a game for the Sabres this year.

Amerks Playoff Tickets

The opening round series will mark the first meeting in the postseason between the two teams since the Amerks defeated the Crunch four games to three in the first round of the 2004 Calder Cup Playoffs.

Tickets for the first round are very affordable– as low as $14–for Sabres fans who would like to take a look at players that could wind up playing for the Blue & Gold next season.