Jiri Kulich (left) celebrates his goal Sunday with Ethan Prow. ©2023, Rochester Americans

Sabres prospect Jiri Kulich stars again as Amerks roar back to tie series

ROCHESTER – Before the Americans began the Calder Cup Playoffs, coach Seth Appert told rookie Jiri Kulich to prepare for his first taste of postseason hockey as a pro.

So Appert had Kulich, 19, watch a Stanley Cup Playoffs game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning. Then Appert challenged the Buffalo Sabres prospect to study the action as he sat out the Amerks’ first two games recovering from a lower-body injury.

“You learn,” Appert said after Kulich’s power-play goal opened the scoring in Sunday afternoon’s 4-0 win over the Syracuse Crunch, which tied the AHL North Division series 2-2. “There’s so many experiences you have to soak up. And playoff hockey in North America is different, right?”

Watching the games illustrated to Kulich it’s a different, more intense and physical brand of hockey.

“They try to block every shot, eat the puck and play like one guy,” the Czech center said.

Still, Kulich, the Amerks’ leading goal scorer in the regular season, has quickly adapted. His presence has helped the Amerks roar back and tie a series that essentially looked over when the Crunch jumped out to a 2-0 lead at home.

Now, they’ve forced a decisive Game 5 on Saturday in Syracuse.

Kulich scored 3:38 into Sunday’s contest in noisy Blue Cross Arena, utilizing his lethal shot and one-timing the puck in the right circle past Crunch goalie Max Lagace.

“I know when I can shoot and this situation is for me (the) best so I just ripped the puck,” said Kulich, the 28th overall pick last year.

When the puck slid to him after winger Lukas Rousek lost it, Kulich said he “just tried to shoot hard and close my eyes.”

The 5-foot-11, 172-pound Kulich created another critical goal later, earning the secondary assist on defenseman Lawrence Pilut’s score that put the Amerks up 2-0 3:06 into the third period.

In Friday’s 8-5 win, Kulich scored a late go-ahead goal on the power play. The Amerks have scored 12 goals with Kulich this postseason and just two without him.

Kulich’s postseason exploits follow a terrific regular season in which he scored 24 goals and 46 points in 62 games. Like most rookies in the AHL, he needed time to acclimate.

Shortly after he returned from a starring performance at the World Junior Championship, he morphed into the Amerks’ top scoring threat.

“He has a knack for big moments, we saw at World Juniors,” Appert said. “He’s not afraid of the stage at all. I was really impressed Friday, because that’s his first playoff game in pro hockey and it’s a physical series. … I really liked the way Kuli attacked the series.”

Appert compared Kulich’s development to JJ Peterka’s last season and Jack Quinn’s in 2020-21. While it took a bit of time, the young wingers eventually became dynamic presences and graduated to the Sabres this season.

“The first 15, 20, 25 games in this league are overwhelming for 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds,” Appert said. “And then they start drawing confidence from their habits. And then they start to see that better defensive play and better habits actually lead to more offense, which is sometimes counterintuitive to young players.

“But the better defensively (Kulich) is, the more he has the puck. The more he has the puck, the more special things he can do.”

Amerks goalie Malcolm Subban, who made 31 saves, said Kulich has “been growing all year, every day.”

“His shot has always been great but I think the other parts of his game are really coming together,” he said. “His confidence to be able to skate with the puck through the neutral zone and hold on to it and make plays, it’s been growing every day. It’s amazing to see.”

Notes: Subban’s shutout was first by an Amerks goalie in the playoffs since Ryan Miller in 2004. … Forwards Mason Jobst and Tyson Kozak (empty net) scored the other goals. … Sunday’s game drew 7,286 fans.

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