Though the Buffalo Sabres missed out on Stanley Cup Playoff action for the 12th consecutive year, they still have a team to root for. Their American Hockey League affiliate, the Rochester Americans, are Calder Cup Playoff bound for the fourth straight year and will be looking to pick up where they left off after being defeated in the 2022 North Division Final by the Laval Rocket.
Luckily for Rochester, the path will be slightly easier this time around. Their victory over the Cleveland Monsters in the last game of the season secured them a first-round bye, and they will advance directly to the North Division Semifinal. They won’t have far to travel, either, as their opponent is the neighboring Syracuse Crunch.
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The Americans received terrific all-around production from their lineup this season and have plenty of players to lean on when the action gets underway. Here are three, in particular, to keep an eye on.
Rochester is already at a major disadvantage before the series even begins. Brandon Biro and Brendan Warren will not be in the lineup, at least for the first two games, head coach Seth Appert confirmed (from ‘Amerks head to the playoffs: Here’s what to know,’ The Democrat & Chronicle, 4/20/2023). Without the two key players, the team needs others to step up, and Lukas Rousek is the man for the job after returning from his season-ending stint in Buffalo that saw him score on his first NHL shot.
Taken in the sixth round of the 2019 Draft by the Sabres, Rousek’s NHL chances may not have seemed very high at first, but he has defied all expectations to this point. This past season was his first in North America, and the Czechia native wasn’t deterred by the transition at all, leading the Amerks in scoring with 56 points in 70 games. He has a chance to make even more of a name for himself if he can lead the charge on a deep postseason run. With Biro out, the stage is set for him to make a big impact.
Fellow Czech Jiri Kulich has not been ruled out for the series, but his status is still questionable. If he is in the lineup, fans could be in for a show. Much like Jack Quinn last year, Kulich has taken the Americans by storm after being selected by the Sabres in the first round of last year’s draft. At just 18, he put up 24 goals and 46 points to give his team a major boost down the stretch. Though the Sabres opted to bring up Rousek instead, it didn’t lessen the impact Kulich made.
He’s clearly destined for the NHL but has progressed so far ahead of schedule that he may find himself there sooner than anticipated. And if he can continue the incredible roll he’s been on, the Amerks will benefit in the short term. Though still very young, Apert will be counting on Kulich to keep being the guy. It’s a lot to ask of such an inexperienced player, but he’s displayed to this point that he has no problem handling it.
No hockey team has ever won a championship without great goaltending, and it’s true at every level. Though it seems Malcolm Subban could be destined to be a career minor leaguer, he still has the chance to come up big. He shouldered a majority of the Amerks’ schedule in goal and looked good in the process, logging 20 wins and a 2.94 goals-against average. Given that, there’s no reason to believe he won’t get the nod in the postseason as well.
Michael Houser has also been strong for Rochester, and there’s a chance that he could factor in as well, but Subban is the hot hand. The Americans were very strong defensively this season, and they will have to keep that going. It’s true that NHL and AHL hockey are radically different in some ways, but the Toronto native has plenty of experience with both, and it makes him the ideal guy moving forward.
Syracuse-Rochester Makes for a Great Matchup
Located just 87 miles from each other via Interstate 90, the Crunch and Americans are well-acquainted thanks to the AHL’s geographically-oriented scheduling. And as one could expect, they’ve developed a tense rivalry. Adding to it is that the two teams were very evenly matched this season, having finished tied for second place in the North Division and splitting their 12-game season series. The Crunch have never won the Calder Cup, while the Americans haven’t since 1996.
Related: Buffalo Sabres 2022-23 Season Report Card: Zemgus Girgensons
The matchup is sure to be highly entertaining regardless of the victor. The five-game series kicks off on Friday at 7:00 PM ET from Syracuse’s Upstate Medical University Arena.