By KEVIN OKLOBZIJA
Forget about the Mueller Report. The Rochester Americans need to worry about the (Chris) Mueller report.
The veteran centerman from Buffalo, whose slippery net-front presence has bedazzled American Hockey League foes for 11 seasons, scored two back-breaking goals as the Toronto Marlies stunned the Amerks — aka, the gang that couldn’t shoot straight — 4-1 on Friday night in the opening game of the Calder Cup North Division semifinals.
With an energetic crowd of 7,502 in the stands of Blue Cross Arena at the War Memorial, the Amerks hit four goal posts and misfired on two empty nets — all in the first 22 minutes — and then couldn’t respond to adversity once they fell behind.
And thus, just like that, the Amerks, who finished with 46 wins, 99 points and the fourth-best record in the AHL, are in a precarious position in this best-of-five opening round series.
They trail 1-0 and, if they don’t win on Sunday when Game 2 is played 3:05 p.m., they’d face the improbable task of needing to win twice in Toronto next week and then again back in Rochester on April 28 in order to end the franchise playoff drought.
The last time the Amerks won a playoff series was in April of 2005. Since then, they’ve lost seven series, including 3-0 sweeps by the Marlies in 2011 and 2012. Lose Sunday and Marlies fans will be chanting “2005” when the Amerks take the ice at Coca-Cola Coliseum.
“We have to win three, they have to win — you could call it (Sunday) must win,” Amerks defenseman Zach Redmond said.
The Amerks surely were having difficulty processing their position. They dominated the first period in shots, shot attempts, zone play, puck possession and any other stat you want to cite. Yet it was 0-0.
And it was scoreless even though they were shooting against a goalie who, if you perused the AHL goaltending leaders, wouldn’t be found with a search warrant. Kasimir Kaskisuo finished the regular season with a 3.07 goals-against average and .896 save percentage.
“It sucks but that’s the game sometimes,” winger C.J. Smith said. “It seemed we didn’t get any puck luck in the beginning.
That’s despite having Kaskisuo beat several times in the first period alone. Like Victor Olofsson, who hit two posts.
“If I execute those couple shots, it’s a different game,” Olofsson said.
Rasmus Asplund had the puck at the right of the crease with an open net but somehow managed to shoot it wide of the far post.
“I missed — I have to score those in the playoffs,” Asplund said.
Nick Baptiste, the former Amerk now playing for the Marlies, then showed how to execute with an empty net early in the second period. Goalie Scott Wedgewood made the initial save on a Mueller shot but defenseman Andrew MacWilliam fanned in an attempt to sweep the rebound to the corner.
Baptiste pounced and slammed it into the open net at 2:53 of the second period.
“It’s exciting to score against them,” Baptiste said of the Amerks, “but it’s more exciting to get that first game because we know they’re a good team.”
When Mueller scored at 14:31, deflecting in a Rasmus Sandin point shot just as a Marlies power play ended, the Marlies had a 2-0 lead and the Amerks were depressed.
“I think the second goal really put a downer on it,” Amerks coach Chris Taylor said.
That goal also exposed what you could say has been a season-long problem for the Amerks. They haven’t handled adversity well in front of big crowds on home ice.
Some teams respond immediately when they fall behind. The Amerks didn’t on Friday, and often haven’t done so. They become tentative, or overzealous, which leads to turnovers or easy zone-clears for the opposition.
The game essentially ended at 10:50 of the third period when Mueller slipped free in the goal crease and swatted in a puck as it slithered toward the goal line.
By the time Tage Thompson ended the Kaskisuo shutout bid, just 1:08 remained and it merely cut a four-goal deficit to 4-1.
“Deep down they know,” Taylor said, “we let one slip away.”
The 7,502 was the largest crowd for an Amerks playoff game in Rochester since May 8, 2004, when 8,486 watched a second-round series against Hamilton.
Hit of the night
Amerks defenseman Andrew MacWilliam laid out Marlies top gun Jeremy Bracco with a heavy body check in the neutral zone 6:36 into the game.
Bracco stayed on the ice momentarily, then went to the Marlies dressing room and/or training room and didn’t return until the second period.
“Any time I get a chance to lower the boom on somebody, I’m going to take it,” MacWilliam said.
Family ties to a Calder Cup
One of Friday’s referees, Beaudry Halkidis, is the son of former Amerks defenseman Bob Halkidis, a member of the 1987 Calder Cup championship team.