Rochester’s Tyson Kozak (left) fights Utica’s Tyce Thompson on April 1. ©2023, Micheline Veluvolu, Rochester Americans

Offense, grit helping Sabres prospect Tyson Kozak stand out in Rochester

ROCHESTER – In the moment, Buffalo Sabres prospect Tyson Kozak had no idea he was fighting Tage Thompson’s brother.

“I just stood up and then we just went,” Kozak, a rookie forward with the Americans, said of his scrap with Utica Comets forward Tyce Thompson.

Kozak, 20, pummeled Thompson after getting knocked to the ice April 1, landing several uppercuts. Not surprisingly, the bout went viral because he trounced the brother of the Sabres’ No. 1 center and leading scorer.

“I’m not really known as a fighter, but if I have to I will, I guess,” Kozak said prior to Friday’s 8-5 win over the Syracuse Crunch in Game 3 of the best-of-five AHL North Division semifinal.

The fight illustrated some the grit and tenacity Kozak, who scored earlier in the game, possesses. It proved to be costly, however, as he injured himself and missed the final six regular-season contests.

It marked the second time in less than a month that Kozak, an often overshadowed prospect, hurt himself fighting.

“We just have a lot of belief in him,” Amerks coach Seth Appert said in Blue Cross Arena. “I think he’s played great hockey in the second half of the year. I think both times he had injuries, his game was really heading in a really strong direction. …

“All his momentum as a player and prospect was trending really upward and then he unfortunately got hurt in both those games, and that slowed him.”

Still, in last Friday’s Calder Cup Playoffs opener in Syracuse, Kozak made an immediate impact, creating winger Linus Weissbach’s goal by absorbing a heavy hit from by 6-foot-3 Crunch defenseman Trevor Carrick.

The 5-foot-11, 173-pound Kozak knew Carrick would drive him into the boards, but he held onto the puck long enough to dish it.

“The assist in Game 1, at this time of year you have to be willing to take hits, cross-checks, slashes to create offense, and he is not worried about that at all,” Appert said. “He knew. He was looking over his shoulder, he knew that … (a) big defenseman, was coming to kill him. He knows Syracuse is physical, he knows the hit’s coming, but he saw a play and he’s willing to do that all day long.”

That wasn’t the first time Kozak paid a price to create offense. During the Prospects Challenge rookie camp tournament in September, he passed up an easy shot to drive to the net and score a short-handed a goal.

“I’m just really not afraid to take a hit to make a play,” said Kozak, a seventh-round pick in 2021, 193rd overall. “I know I’m going to get blown up sometimes, but I just do it for the guys in the room because I know taking hits to make plays will work out in the long run.”

After spending much of the season in a checking role, Kozak, a natural center, began the series pivoting prospects Isak Rosen and Lukas Rousek on a scoring line. Weissbach replaced Rosen in Game 2.

“The beauty of Kozy is he can anchor a checking line as a center but he can also play up,” Appert said.

On Friday, Appert moved Kozak, a youngster he called “an extremely effective forechecker,” to left wing with Rosen and center Sean Malone.

“Good players like playing with him because he wins a lot of puck battles, he creates a lot of turnovers with his physicality,” he said. “So we believe that he can get in on the forecheck a little bit more as a winger and create some disruption and create some loose pucks for the skilled guys he’s with.”

Kozak, who turned 20 on Dec. 29, compiled five goals and 10 points in 55 regular-season games. In his final season of junior last year, he scored 32 goals and 69 points in 62 games for the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks.

If Kozak was born three days later, he wouldn’t have been eligible to play in the AHL this season.

“He has offense in him,” Appert said. “I’ve said it all year, I’ve said to him, I knew that this year we wouldn’t always see the offense. … If he was a 2003, he’d be playing major junior and he’d have a hundred points and everybody would be talking about what a great two-way physical player and offensive point producer he is.

“You come to this league, it’s hard to create offense at that age. But his offensive game, again, was trending up and I think we’re going to continue to see a lot of that as his career goes forward.”

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