By KEVIN OKLOBZIJA
They had finished third in the American Hockey League’s North Division, needing a victory on the final day of the regular season just to avoid the mini-round, play-in series.
And yet here the Rochester Americans are, heading to the Calder Cup conference finals for the first time in 19 years.
The Toronto Marlies, meanwhile, romped to the North Division title, opening an insurmountable lead by mid-January and then merely maintaining for the final three months to still finish nine points and six victories better than the Amerks.
The Marlies, though, are heading home for the summer.
Rising to the occasion yet again, the Amerks completed the three-game sweep of Toronto with a dominating 8-4 victory on Wednesday at Blue Cross Arena at the War Memorial.
Isak Rosen scored two goals while Ethan Prow, Kohen Olischefski, Lukas Rousek, Jiri Kulich, Brett Murray and Matt Bartkowski each scored once in yet another can’t-stop-them scoring fest while goalie Malcolm Subban made the necessary key saves.
“The regular season is the regular season and now is the playoffs and that’s why we play hockey,” said rookie winger Jiri Kulich, who scored the fourth goal and assisted on two others. After missing the first two playoff games due to injury, Kulich has played the past six and has a goal in each one. And each game has been a victory.
“You’re not surprised anymore,” said Rosen, the fellow rookie sniper and best friend. “He’s got an amazing shot.”
Rosen joined goal party on Wednesday. His first of the night gave the Amerks a 5-2 lead at 13:27 of the second period. His second of the game, and fourth of the playoffs, made it 6-3 with 10:15 remaining.
“These are the games that are fun to play,” Rosen said. “It was a really good job by us to sweep the first (place) team.”
With the clock ticking down to two minutes in the third period, the sellout crowd of 10,662 began chanting, “Sweep! Sweep! Sweep!”
“That was crazy again,” Kulich said. “We are so happy we have such great fans.”
It’s a fan base that’s starved for winning. The Amerks last Calder Cup came in 1996. Until last spring, they hadn’t won a playoff series since 2005. Their last trip to the conference finals came in 2004; Rosen was a year old; Kulich was a month old.
But this group is intent on making history, even if they have nothing to do with that two decade stretch of franchise futility.
“Our guys love being Amerks, the guys take a lot of pride in the crest,” coach Seth Appert said. “We appreciate the fan base, we know it’s been a long time for them, but I don’t want to put that pressure on our guys because our guys don’t deserve that pressure. It’s not them. They weren’t part of some of the past failures.
“But at the same point in time, if we can do some of the things we’ve done and give this fan base something they haven’t seen in a couple decades, we’re happy to be able to do that for them.”
Which they did on Wednesday night. The sweep of the Marlies means the Amerks are North Division playoff champions.
“Success for this group wasn’t pre-ordained,” Appert said. “Certainly, the mindset is we’re not done yet, but that will be a banner that goes up there that this group has earned together that stays forever.”
They’re advancing because they were without question the better team. They scored 18 goals in the three games, winning 4-3 and 7-4 on the road before coming home to close out the series with the 8-4 victory. The power play was an astounding 7-for-12 in the series.
Which is why the Amerks are playing with an air of confidence that is oh so evident. And yet, they preach one game at time.
“Just trying to win the game; like seriously, since being down 0-2 (in the opening series against Syracuse), that’s been the talk,” Appert said. “That’s what we talked about this week. We didn’t talk about closing the series out ever. You focus on what’s in front of you, it’s amazing what you can get done.”
The approach is working, because even after the Marlies scored just 17 seconds into Game 3, the Amerks didn’t flinch.
“I wasn’t worried about the goal,” Appert said. “It wasn’t like a colossal set of errors.”
Indeed, the Amerks had a 3-1 lead before the 10-minute mark of the first period.
Prow scored at 3:05 off the rush, taking a drop pass from Rousek and then firing a wrist shot from high in the right of the slot that clanked in off the left post.
Olischefski put the Amerks ahead at 6:33, speeding into the zone through the right circle to take a pass from Brendan Warren before somehow slipping a shot past goalie Joseph Woll from a sharp angle.
The play was set up by a 120-foot stretch pass by defenseman Zach Metsa from behind the Amerks net to Brendan Warren at the Marlies blue line. Metsa surveyed his options – and waited for Warren to create space – for about five seconds before moving the puck.
The lead became 3-1 on a power play at 9:57. Kulich’s pass into the slot bounced off the stick of defenseman Mac Hollowell and went right to Jobst in the left of the slot. He quickly passed to Rousek, and the winger had an open net for his second goal of the series (and playoffs).
Kulich continued his amazing streak with a goal 6:50 into the second period. Working into the zone one-on-two on the right wing, he angled toward the slot, then snapped a shot between the legs of defenseman Matteo Pietroniro that appeared to catch Woll of guard and the puck zipped past the glove on the short side.
Six games, and a goal in each. Who does that?
“It’s pretty funny,” Kulich said, “but we are here to play our game.”
Toronto’s Pontus Holmberg scored his second goal of the game at 9:09 of the second period, but the Amerks responded with Rosen’s power-play goal at 13:12. Set up in the right circle, Rosen one-timed a rocket past Woll off a Lawrence Pilut pass and the lead was 5-2 and the rout was on.
So up next are the Hershey Bears.
“I thought they were the best team in the Eastern Conference,” Appert said.
Notes: It had been nine years since anyone scored in six consecutive Calder Cup playoff games. Toronto’s Peter Holland did it in 2014. Joel Kwiatkowski is the last player to score in seven straight, doing so for the Chicago Wolves in 2008. … Metsa, who joined the Amerks following an NCAA title with Quinnipiac, earned his first point as a pro with the assist on Olischefski’s goal. … Winger Linus Weissbach missed his second game in a row because of an upper body injury.
Conference finals schedule
(best of seven)
Game 1 – Tuesday at Hershey, 7 p.m.
Game 2 – Thursday at Hershey, 7 p.m.
Game 3 – Saturday, May 27, in Rochester, 7:05 p.m.
Game 4 – Monday, May 29, in Rochester, 6:05 p.m.
Game 5 – Wednesday, May 31, at Hershey, 7 p.m.
Game 6 – Friday, June 2, in Rochester, 7:05 p.m.
Game 7 – Monday, June 5, at Hershey, 7 p.m.
Mike Sorenson says
Great story, great game continuing Rochester’s hot streak. Thanks for your excellent coverage Kevin.
It was a real fun night at the BCA. Reminiscent of times passed when the place really rocked and the team was exciting. We are starting to see a lot of that this post season. Who ever expected ‘pond hockey’ games in the playoffs…Amerks scored 19 goals in this series; their power play, so weak in the first two games against Syracuse has exploded into a well oiled machine of goals.
I have been a critic of Seth Appert, not totally sure he was ‘all in’ when it came to the importance of winning down here.
No longer. He seems to be the perfect fit for these guys. And he definitely is ‘all in’ to bring a Cup to Rochester. I’m impressed!
This Amerk team is restoring a lot of what has been lost over the last many years regarding hockey interest in Rochester. Winning will do that. Now we get to enjoy a series against a long time rival…which had also gone cold over the years..the two oldest pillars of the AHL.
Win or lose this one, a lot of bridge building has been accomplished and this post season has already been quite a success. Would be fantastic though, to upset the Bears and these guys seem to be up for it. We’ll soon see.