TORONTO – Fresh off a 99-point regular season, the Rochester Americans looked poised to start a long playoff run deep into the spring.
The Buffalo Sabres’ top affiliate possessed a strong mix of prospects and veterans, terrific scoring balance and perhaps the AHL’s best depth.
It was hard to find a weakness on the Amerks, a team constructed to win the Calder Cup.
For an organization that hasn’t won anything on any level in a long time – the Sabres own the NHL’s longest playoff drought – the Amerks represented hope.
Now, their season is already over.
The Toronto Marlies beat them 3-1 on Wednesday before a crowd of 6,119 inside Coca-Cola Coliseum, completing a shocking three-game sweep in the best-of-five North Division semifinal.
“We got a great team in there … and I thought we were going to make a long run,” Amerks captain Kevin Porter said.
Incredibly, the Amerks haven’t won a playoff series since 2005, when the likes of Ryan Miller, Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek played for them.
The Amerks haven’t even won a playoff game since 2014. Last season, the Syracuse Crunch swept them.
“Two years in a row, I think we had the group to go quite a ways,” Amerks defenseman Zach Redmond said. “Two years in a row getting swept is just about as bad as it can go. I think we maybe played a little better, but either way, we lost three straight.”
The Amerks’ struggles can be dissected a lot ways, but losing the first two games in Rochester – they fell 4-1 on Friday and 3-2 in overtime Sunday – put them in a major hole.
“We got a hell of a group in there, had a great regular season,” said Porter, whose Amerks went 5-1 against Toronto during the regular season. “You can’t lose two games at home.”
The Amerks’ anemic offense also did them in. One of the AHL’s most potent attacks mustered only four goals in three contests.
Sure, the Amerks created a lot of chances, especially in their two home games. But they showcased an alarming lack of finish.
“You can always look back at the what-ifs, if a couple of our posts or good chances in the first game would’ve went in, it would’ve been a different series probably,” Redmond said. “But it wasn’t.”
The Marlies’ best players outplayed the Amerks’ top talent. Jeremy Bracco and West Seneca’s Chris Mueller, the Marlies’ leading scorers during the regular season, combined for four goals and nine points as Toronto grabbed the first two games in Rochester.
Meanwhile, Amerks winger Victor Olofsson, a 30-goal scorer during the regular season, didn’t record a point in the series. Neither did Redmond, who was named the AHL’s top defenseman last week following a prolific 21-goal season, a team record from the blue line.
“We had some good chances that we just didn’t finish,” Amerks coach Chris Taylor said. “That’s the bottom line. We didn’t get the dirty goals that we needed. I truly believe that. You see their goals, what kind of goals they got. We still didn’t get in front of the net and get in there.
“We had a couple chances but not sustained pressure like that. That’s a good learning experience for our guys, especially our young guys.”
On Wednesday, Marlies forward Adam Brooks netted a hat trick, scoring 1:26 into the game before putting Toronto up 2-1 11:37 into the third period. Amerks winger Tage Thompson’s second-period power-play goal tied the contest.
Brooks’ empty-net goal sealed the game.
While they’ve fallen short two straight seasons, some Amerks are confident they’ve built a culture they can sustain.
“One of the things we’re great at is everybody really gets along,” Redmond said. “They’re good at bringing in a lot of character guys. We couldn’t have a closer group. I really feel like we had everything we need – the grit, the skill. When it doesn’t add up or translate to anything, it’s definitely frustrating.”
Thompson, who joined the Amerks earlier this month after spending the season in Buffalo, said “everyone in that room is a great guy.”
“They are team-first, all the way through, from the coaching staff down,” Thompson said. “It’s fun to play in. You have no stress, no worries. Everyone is pulling for you. That’s what makes it so hard right now is going out like that. I think everyone in that room deserves a lot better.”
Taylor acknowledged the Amerks are “heading in the right direction.”
“But it’s still not good enough,” Taylor said. “For some of the young guys it’s great experience and you can tell how tough it is in the playoffs. It’s a different game. They figured that out and they found out really hard.
“Our culture is changing but we still, as an organization, gotta get better. We’ve gotta get better and keep teaching these guys, keep developing these guys to be a better organization.”
Notes: The Marlies, the defending Calder Cup champions, will face the winner of the other semifinal series between Syracuse and the Cleveland Monsters. … A lower-body injury sidelined Amerks winger Alexander Nylander the entire series. … Redmond, who battled an ankle injury during the second half of the season, didn’t score a goal in his final 18 outings. “I’m not going to blame my ankle for anything,” he replied when asked if it was bothering him. … Forward Eric Cornel, the only Amerk to play all 76 regular-season games, was scratched for the second time in the series. Yannick Veilleux replaced him.