It’s been a long time since the Rochester Americans won a playoff series. It’s been even longer since the Rochester Americans have won a Calder Cup. There was a time when years were defined by winning playoff rounds, making it to the finals, and winning a Calder Cup. Fans remember those years, the media remembers those years, and the players are aware of the history.
Playoff history can be taught but playoff experience is something players have to go through to really understand.
“It’s something you have to experience,” Zach Redmond said. “We had a lot of guys go through that for the first time last season and those same guys are here. You can say we have more experience going into this year and have that bitter taste in our mouth from last year.”
“Last year we learned a lot after getting swept by Syracuse,” CJ Smith said this week talking about the experience. He added, “Getting that first win will be exciting.”
It’s time to create new entries in the record books and win 16 games.
“It’s a brand new season. It doesn’t matter what you did in the regular season, doesn’t matter how you did individually as a team. Anybody can step up, new teams can start peaking at the right time,” CJ Smith said. “Hopefully we get everybody contributing and we’re peaking right now at the right time.”
It’s been a long season that has dragged on times but there was a theme this week at practice – a renewed sense of enthusiasm. The team got together Tuesday night for a team dinner, had a couple of practices with a lot of work, and even laughter. At one point Will Borgen missed a pass during a drill and everyone chirped him with a smile. The next pass from Gord Dineen was slow enough that a first year mite player would have caught it. They have a job to do but one of many things the coaches and leadership has stressed is to have fun.
Everyone understands what a big opportunity this is in the playoffs. The coaching staff has done a great job getting the message across, having everyone buy in, contribute, and at the same time keep things loose. Keeping things loose also means that the team can be honest with each other as it’s needed. Behind closed doors when things haven’t gone well it’s been discussed.
“We’re just so excited. Everyone in this locker room is super excited and can’t wait for tonight.” Victor Olofsson said. “Obviously the pace is going to go up a little bit. It’s going to be more physical and we have to be ready for that right away. I don’t think we have to change much in our game to be ready for that.”
It’s been a special year that will be defined by what happens next.
“These are bigger games. You have to get results. You can’t be happy about hey we played really good we did a lot of good things but didn’t get the results,” Chris Taylor said after practice this week. “We have to get the results. It doesn’t matter what you do in the regular season, it matters what you do in the playoffs.”
They’ve played with confidence this season winning 46 games, earning 99 points, six players scored over 20 goals, Wedgewood was second overall in the league with 20 wins, and Zach Redmond was named the leagues best defenseman. There’s a lot of individual achievements – none of which could have happened without team success.
Zach Redmond hates the attention and is as humble as they come. When he was asked about winning the award he was honored but made sure to credit the team. Without his teammates and the coaches putting him situations to succeed he wouldn’t have earned the accolades.
“You can feel the energy in the room. We’re thinking long term with this thing and no one is ready to go home,” Redmond said talking about the playoff series ahead. “It’s not every year you get a team like this and we understand the opportunity we have. We’re looking to win the thing.”
There’s a team first and us mentality around the team. After practice finished Thursday morning they gathered near center ice and talked about the fact that the regular season doesn’t matter anymore. The losses on home ice, the better record on the road, or the success against the Toronto Marlies winning five out of six games.
“When you do well against a team in the regular season you have some confidence but you can’t go in with a big head,” Redmond said. “We’re not taking them lightly.”
“If you want to go all the way you have to beat the best teams. Toronto is a very good team,” Victor Olofsson said after practice. “We have to be sure we slow them down and be physical on them.”
Playing physical was something that the team struggled with last season, well, at least the players that were on the team. That changed this year. Being physical isn’t just fights, a big open ice hit, or trying to put someone through the boards. Victor Olofsson scored his 30th goal of the season by bumping a defender off a puck and creating space for himself. Rasmus Asplund lead the team with 23 points (7G+16A) over the last 22 games by dominating play in the offensive zone and winning those classic puck battles. Will Borgen has made forwards know when he’s on the ice. Andrew MacWilliam protects the front of the net at all costs. And then there’s players like Yannick Veilleux and Dalton Smith that’ll help their defense get a rest by tiring out opponents along the boards.
It’d be easy to go down the entire roster and discuss how everyone has contributed to this team. There’s discussions that players like Victor Olofsson, Lawrence Pilut, and Will Borgen were able to benefit from time in the NHL.
“It’s nice for them to get NHL games but this is a different animal. You’re going to have to go hard every shift,” Chris Taylor said. “You’re going to have to do things you don’t normally do like blocking shots. Guys that don’t normally block shots, we need everybody to block shots. Nonnegotiable. We need everyone to make a big hit at certain times. Take a hit to make a play. We’re going to learn a lot about a lot of different players and a lot of players are going to learn about themselves. They have to step up and make a big contribution to our team.”
Everyone has been calm, ready, and focused. There’s some disappointment from those that aren’t playing in game one but the team first mentality has everyone focused on the goal – still playing hockey in June. Everyone is pushing each other on the ice, in the dressing room, and remaining confident that there’ll be playing time.
Chris Taylor gave credit to Randy Sexton and Jason Botterill for the tremendous depth on this time. The team has five extra defenseman, three healthy extra forwards, and a world class goalie ready if there’s a need. That doesn’t include a team in Cincinnati full of players available that is also chasing a championship in the playoffs.
“It’s disappointing that some guys aren’t going to play Friday night. I’m disappointed but that’s just the way it is. That’s hockey,” Taylor said. “If everybody does their jobs and everybody plays the right way everyone will play in these playoffs.”
Winning a Calder Cup is going to require defeating the defending Calder Cup Champions in the first round.
“They know how to win. They won it all last year,” Taylor said. “They have some guys returning and the coaching staff. They’re on a high from last year and they know how to win.”
This season started with the expectation of being an elite playoff team and that hasn’t changed.
“I don’t think it’s fair to look too far past right now but I do believe in my heart that this team has what it takes to go the whole way,” Zach Redmond said when asked of his expectations. “Sometimes teams pull together differently. Best of fives can be a little bit different too where sometimes you get those bounces that can change a series and change the momentum of a game. We need to execute but we need the puck on our side a little bit too. It takes a lot to win a championship, just looking to start off well against Toronto.”
Game 1 is tonight at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester. You can watch the game on AHLTV or attend in person. There’ll be tickets available at the box office.
Recently signed Jacob Bryson and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (UPL) are both playoff eligible. Whether they play in any games is to be determined.
Alex Nylander is the only player on the injured list going into game one of the playoffs. His status is day to day or also IIWIIS (it is what it is). He was cut in the final game he played with the Buffalo Sabres and has been ‘uncomfortable’ in skating.
Other articles you should read in case you missed them:
In this week’s episode of @BTBHockey you can get ready for the Calder Cup playoffs for the #Amerks as Keith Wozniak from @LetsGoAmerks joins to preview round one against the Toronto Marlies. https://t.co/cfhhHm0Efd
— Die By The Coaching Search (@diebytheblade) April 18, 2019
If you’ve made it this far you may as well open up YouTube and watch Game 7 of the 1996 Calder Cup finals to enjoy the day.