ROCHESTER – A collective roar erupted inside Blue Cross Arena. Fans banged on the glass. Others have rolled out red, white, and blue towels. Much of the Losers crowd of 10,622 looked at the scoreboard, awaiting another re-goal from the highlight reel.
Jerry Kulich, the Buffalo Sabers’ newest player to fill the game’s hero role, pumped his fist as he skated toward the boards and waited for his fellow Rochester Americans to join in the celebration.
Twenty-four banners are hung aloft above Toronto Marlies goaltender Joseph Wall, each acknowledging an achievement from the Ameriks’ past. At least one more should be added now that the Americans can call themselves champions of the North Division of the American Hockey League.
Kulich and fellow first-round quarterback Isaac Rosen scored impressively on Wednesday to help the Americs complete a three-game sweep of the Marlies with an 8-4 victory that propelled Rochester to the Eastern Conference Finals.
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“Just so proud,” Amerex coach Seth Appert said afterward. “I love training here. I love this team. I love what they’ve been fighting for and what they’ve become over the course of the year because success for this group wasn’t expected. They had to work to become the group we are and the guys had to develop their games. The little kids had to develop their games. All those things, just incredibly proud.”
The Washington Capitals’ The Hershey Bears await the Americs in their first Conference Finals appearance since 2004. The series opens at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Hershey. Game 2 takes place on May 25th in Hershey before the Americs go home for Game 3 on May 27th. Game four will be played in Rochester on May 29.
Each victory in this six-game winning streak would not have been possible without the reliable wicketkeeper of Malcolm Subban, who made 34 saves for Rochester to edge out Wall.
The scene from the opening kickoff to the handshake line, and the opportunity awaiting Rochester in the next round, is what Sabers general manager Kevin Adams and his staff, most notably assistant general manager Jason Karmanos, envisioned when they conceived and implemented the plan to reform the AHL affiliate.
The prospects played a prominent role in a pressure-packed third game. Lukas Rosk, a sixth-round pick in 2019, scored one of Rochester’s three goals in the first period. Kulich and Rosen added the lead in the second set, with the latter using his exceptional scoring shot on the power play to take a 5-2 lead.
AmeriX is not without talent about their prospects, though the list includes fewer expensive two-way contracts than the previous system.
Kohen Olischefski, an undrafted college free agent, beat Wall with a low shot in the first period. Defenseman Ethan Brew, 30, under contract with the AHL, made it 1-0 with a wrestler out off the post and in. West Seneca’s Sean Malone was a defensive powerhouse. Mason Jobst, another find for Karmanos and coach Seth Appert, pitched several games throughout the night and assisted on Rosen’s second goal of the game with 10:15 remaining in the third period.
The Marlies scored 17 seconds into the game, but the Amerks did not relent. Their depth record was the difference in streak wins over Toronto and Syracuse.
“Their season is at stake,” Saban said. “We knew they were going to come hard… Through this whole series and the last series, they get a goal and we come back right away. We keep pushing. It’s been great. We just have to keep building.”
Top seed Marlies didn’t come close to coming back once the Americans pulled away. Pontus Holmberg completed his hat-trick with 59 seconds left in the second half to cut America’s lead to 5-3. Toronto continued to press to close the deficit in the third, and although they came within 6-4 when Toby Nimela scored on a quick putt, Subban stood tall and Brett Murray added a powerhouse goal to give fans another reason to celebrate.
AmeriX was sixth in the division on February 20, just outside the playoff picture. Now, they are among the four remaining teams in the AHL.
“Sure, the mentality isn’t out yet,” Appert said. “But at the same time, that’s going to be a banner flying out there that this group earns together. And it stays forever.”
Here are other notes from the game:
Marlies learned the hard way that it was not wise to allow Kulich to enter the area so quickly. The first round of 2022 skated toward two defenders and unleashed a putt from the hole that beat Wall for a 4-1 lead. Kolic, 19, extended his scoring streak to six matches. He scored 30 goals between the regular season and playoffs.
“Usually his game goes up the higher the temperature,” Appert said of Kulich.
Rosen, a 14th overall draft pick in 2021, grabbed a temporary single from the right circle to make it 5-1 in the second period, and added his second of the game, his fourth in the playoffs, by tapping into a pinch hit at the crease to give the Amerys a lead by three. Goals in the third period.
“Kulich, who also provided assists, said, “The regular season was the regular season. Now it’s time for the playoffs and that’s why we play hockey. It was crazy again here. We’re so happy to have such great fans.”
Rusk has shown time and time again that he is ready for an NHL opportunity. His shot is not impressive. He doesn’t have the elite speed of a lead like Rosen either. But Rusk has exceptional vision on the ice and instincts that can’t be taught. He wins battles along the wall, which is essential for any effective winger, and makes plays in tight spaces. Rosk reaches the net consistently, as he showed again on the powerhouse.
Rusk finished with one goal and three assists to continue his strong play in the postseason.
This Sabers system built Rochester the right way. Prospects like Murray and Linus Weissbach were pivotal, plus strong drafts brought in more young talent. But they also signed the right players, like Olischefski, who played five years of college hockey. Jobst was a Hobey Baker finalist at Ohio State and became a first-line center for Americas. Brendan Warren has provided two assists and has become a valuable player in the past two seasons.
Subban was the best goaltender in each of the past two series and made saves when needed. He stopped 16 times in the third period on Wednesday as his teammates tried to block Marlies’ push. Subban has a 0.910 save percentage in eight playoff games, and his stellar goaltending play has helped buy the Amricks time to find their game.
His one-timer blocked kick from Logan Shaw with nine seconds left in the first half kept Rochester up 3-1. Subban used his stick to stop Shaw again in the second and stifled Toronto when he hit Karl Dahlstrom’s shot from the right circle.
“I try to stay as stable as possible,” Subban explained. “Obviously he comes with the experience I’ve had over the years and tried to use that to my advantage. Calm down for the sake of the team.”
Winger Linus Weisbach (upper body) missed the second game in a row, Appert said, but is showing improvement. Weisbach suffered an injury during the Amerex’s win in Game 1 in Toronto. They were also without forward Brandon Biro for the entire post-season due to a season-ending injury.
Rochester’s healthy scratchers were Alexandre Kissakov, Matej Picard, Olivier Nadeau, Josh Passault, Carson Jesevic, Austin Strand and Peter Teschke.
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