SYRACUSE – Seth Appert walked into the dressing room after the Rochester Americans imploded and blew a three-goal lead to the Crunch and told his team take a breath, calm down, and that they would win.
Usually, the coach waits to address his players. But on Saturday, with a do-or-die overtime to decide the AHL North Division semifinal ahead, he wanted to reinforce his belief in them. Later in the intermission, he reminded them their wretched third period – the Crunch outshot them 20-2 and tied it with 30 seconds left – was over. Move on.
When overtime started, the Amerks recaptured their first- and second-period form, pressuring and attacking the Crunch. After a delay of game penalty gave them a rare power play, they sensed an opportunity.
“It was a momentum swing on the bench and everybody was like, ‘We’re going to try to get one now,’” defenseman Lawrence Pilut said after his goal 11:35 into overtime clinched a wild 5-4 victory and the best-of-five Calder Cup Playoffs series.
Following his power-play tally, Pilut, who scored from high in the slot, joked he “kind of blacked out” as he celebrated at center ice and his teammates mobbed him.
“I saw it go in and just saw all the guys skating out to me,” he said. “So it was just a happy feeling.”
When the Amerks left Syracuse two weeks ago, the chances of them returning for a decisive Game 5 at Upstate Medical Arena seemed slim. The Buffalo Sabres’ affiliate scored two total goals while losing both games and returned home facing elimination.
But the Amerks roared back and tied the series in Rochester, seizing all the momentum.
On Saturday, they shook off a slow start – goalie Malcolm Subban made a dazzling skate stop early to keep the game 0-0 – before taking over.
Rookie winger Tyson Kozak opened the scoring at 11:08. Pilut scored his first goal 9:46 into the second period and rookie center Jiri Kulich made it 3-0 at 13:59. After Declan Carlile scored for the Crunch 15 seconds later, Amerks captain Michael Mersch restored the three-goal lead at 14:59, putting goalie Max Lagace on the bench.
Then Syracuse began its furious comeback before the bipartisan crowd of 6,320 fans. Simon Ryfors scored a power-play goal at 19:46, igniting some hope.
Gabriel Dumont scored 9:36 into the third period. With goalie Hugo Alnefelt on the bench, Trevor Carrick tied it seconds after Subban made another huge stop.
“Coming back into the room after the third period, we really recognized how much character there is in this team,” Pilut said. “And just you come in, first thing, everybody’s talking about focus on the next play, focus on the next play, focus on our game. I think that’s what really made it that we could jump back to our momentum and get that power play.”
The Amerks open the best-of-five North Division final on the road Thursday against the Toronto Marlies.
Fresh off a shutout in Game 4, Subban made 44 saves in the series-clinching win, keeping the Amerks in the game early and late.
Seconds before Carrick tied the contest, Subban made a dynamic stop with his left pad on Shawn Element’s shot from the left circle.
“Subbie was awesome,” Appert said. “I can’t say enough about what he’s meant to the group this year, what a great teammate he is, what a competitor he is.”
Subban, 29, played every minute of the series, posting a 2.71 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage.
The 10-year veteran played a career-high 39 games in the regular season, winning 20 times. He had never earned more than two playoff wins before this year.
“He’s played a long time,” Appert said. “He set a career high in games played, he set a career high in wins, he set a career high in playoff wins. It’s really impressive at this point of his career to be playing the best hockey of his career.”
Vocal Rochester fans comprised much of the crowd of 6,320. Loud “Let’s go, Amerks” chants started before the game and lasted until the team skated off the ice. On some Subban saves, fans responded by shouting, “Suuuu.”
“Today, coming in, just sitting in the locker room, we could hear our fans over their fans,” Pilut said. “That was just amazing.”
Appert credits the team’s fans and players for the “special” support.
“They’ve earned that love from this fan base because of the heart and the character and the tenacity this group has come to play with now,” he said. “I really love coaching this team. They’ve grown so much.
“Last year’s team (which won two playoff series) was fabulous, too, but last year’s team even started better. This year’s team had to grow into this and I’ve really come to love the grit and the togetherness and the love of being Amerks that these guys play with.”
The Sabres, thanks to their 91-point finish this season – the fourth-highest total among non-playoff teams – aren’t eligible to win the first or second overall pick in Monday’s NHL Draft Lottery.
A team can only move up 10 spots if it wins one of the draws for the first or second pick. This year, centers Connor Bedard and Adam Fantilli are expected to be the top picks.
Amerks rookie winger Isak Rosen recorded the primary assist on Pilut’s winner and Kozak’s goal.
Rosen and Kozak, both of whom turned 20 during the season, improved as the series progressed.
“I’ve played playoffs before, but it’s never really been anything like this,” Kozak said. “It’s quite crazy. It’s a phenomenal experience and I’m enjoying it every day.”
Update: The Sabres on Monday assigned forward prospect Olivier Nadeau, 20, to Rochester. Nadeau’s junior season with the Gatineau Olympiques recently ended.
Lawrence Pilut with the key to the #CalderCup North Division Finals 🗝️
(…in overtime) https://t.co/pxR7oYxABz pic.twitter.com/gzpiNWdfwb
— American Hockey League (@TheAHL) May 7, 2023