Syracuse, N.Y. (WGR 550) – The Rochester Americans are back in the North Division Final of the Calder Cup Playoffs, because they aren't afraid of adversity, and they're not afraid to have to battle out of it. They will next face the No. 1 seed Toronto Marlies.
Lawrence Pilut’s overtime goal vaulted the Amerks to a five-game series win over the Syracuse Crunch on Saturday, but the whole series put different obstacles in their way.
Rochester played the first two games in Syracuse and only scored two goals. By the time they got back to Rochester for Game 3, the Amerks were down 2-0 in the series and facing elimination.
The team had six days to figure things out, and head coach Seth Appert went to work with his group to get them back to their game. Their best players were, once again, their best players, and Rochester won both games despite facing elimination the whole way.
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Right at the start of Game 5 on Saturday, Rochester picked up where it had left off, and with many Amerks fans making the trip to Syracuse to cheer them on. They kept playing hard and fast, building a 3-0, and then a 4-1 lead 35 minutes into the game.
Defensively, the Amerks were filling passing and shooting lanes, they blocked a lot of shots and Malcolm Subban was once again, superb in net.
Syracuse goalie Max Lagace had only allowed two goals when he got to Rochester for Game 3, but in the next two-and-a-half games, he allowed 13 goals behind him. Lagace ended up being pulled after Amerks captain Michael Mersch made it 4-1.
Lagace finished the series with a save percentage of .858, which was just one of the reasons the Crunch couldn’t get the series into the garage.
As well as the Amerks played for seven-and-a-half periods, they had a complete collapse for the final 25 minutes of regulation time. They spent pretty much the entire time in their own end in the final frame, being outshot 20-2. It was similar to the first period of Game 2 when they were outshot 14-0.
Mersch’s goal made the shots, 15-15 overall. From that point on, the Crunch’s new goalie, Hugo Alnefelt, never faced a regulation scoring chance, because the shots were 25-4, Syracuse.
Syracuse climbed back into the game before the second period was over, thanks to a 23-second 5-on-3 advantage.
Gabriel Dumont had been suspended for the two games in Rochester, but the Syracuse captain scored on a screened shot at 9:36 of the third period to make it 4-3, Amerks.
Subban made save-after-save-after-save, but when Syracuse pulled the goalie, Trevor Carrick got his shot through a maze of players with just 29.9 seconds left in regulation.
Appert never goes in right when a period ends to talk to his team, but he had a few words before overtime.
"I went in immediately, which I don’t normally do, and said, 'Take a breath, calm down. We’re going to win this game,'" said Appert following Saturday's win. "Then I came back when I normally do, and just reminded them that whatever has happened is done.
"We are not sitting back. We are not going to play passive. But sometimes when you haven’t lived a lot of those moments, you get a little tentative and you want to play safe. So we got to the overtime period, we got a little reset, and I thought we were better in the overtime."
Rochester only had one power play in regulation, but the officials had no choice to call a penalty for delay-of-game on Jack Thompson in overtime when he lofted a puck over the glass.
The group was patient and got some great work behind the net by their two heart and soul veterans, Sean Malone and Mersch.
Mersch kept the puck moving to rookie Isak Rosen, who relayed back to Pilut at the point. Mersch continued on to the net to provide the screen, and Pilut picked the corner on a shot that Alnefelt didn’t appear to see.
I have to tell you, that team looked dead in the water except for Subban. But as they did all series long, they got off the mat and re-discovered their game in overtime.
In the final three games, Pilut was excellent for the Amerks. He ended the series with three goals and two assists for five points in five games. I also thought he was great defensively towards the end of the series.
When Pilut first came into the Sabres organization, he played well, but when teams realized they could send two guys at him hard and he started getting hit, he’d be more worried about that. As Pilut has matured, that is gone. He will take a hit to make a play, and it’s usually the right play.
Pilut rarely turned the puck over in the last three games and in this series, and he showed what he can do offensively.
Yes, Pilut had three penalties on Saturday and six penalties in the series. Despite the penalties on Saturday, I thought he had a very strong game in his own end, to go along with two goals.
Rochester won two series last season before being eliminated by the Laval Rocket. I think one of the biggest reasons was their captain Mersch couldn’t play because of a cheap shot he sustained against the Utica Devils.
Mersch showed what he means to this team in this series, as he has four goals and three assists for seven points, which has him sixth in league scoring.
His goal that made the score 4-1 came just one minute after Declan Carlile had made the game 3-1. The captain scored the fourth goal, and got an assist and provided the screen for the game-winning goal.
It’s just how he plays.
I couldn’t have been more impressed with Jeremy Davies in this game. No matter what happened, he just battled.
Crunch defenseman Philippe Myers is a player that many feel should be in the National Hockey League. He ripped home the overtime winner in Game 1, and it looked like he was going to do it again in Game 5. However, Davies came out of nowhere to block his shot.
The shot did hurt Davies, but he slowly got to the bench and just kept going.
Jiri Kulich has played three career playoff games and has three goals and four points.
He scored a gorgeous goal when Lukas Rousek stopped and spun in the right circle. Kulich was coming down the slot like he was shot out of a cannon, and put a slick move on Lagace to make the score 3-0.
Rousek came to life in Game 3, and had four big assists in the final three games.
As I sit and write this, I still am shaking my head at how resilient this team is.
Not only did 2021 seventh-round pick Tyson Kozak put on a clinic defensively for this team, he also added two goals and an assist after having just 10 points in 55 regular season games. He’s always in the right place, rarely turns the puck over and is a shot blocking machine.
Kozak is the definition of playing with no fear. His desperation on the ice inspires his teammates watching him.
Alex Barre-Boulet was one point from leading the AHL in scoring this season with 84 points in 69 games. Rochester knew he was good, but they survived his nine points in five games to be third in playoff scoring.
Rochester will next open its third-round series on Thursday in Toronto. The Marlies also host Game 2 on Saturday afternoon, before Game 3 shifts to Rochester on Wednesday, May 17. If a fourth game is necessary, it’s in Rochester on Friday, May 19.
The winner of this series will meet the team that comes out of the Atlantic Division, which will either be the Hershey Bears or the Hartford Wolf Pack.