ROCHESTER – Before the Americans staved off elimination by defeating the Hershey Bears on Wednesday, coach Seth Appert asked his assistants and some veterans how many times they had competed in a conference finals or championship.
Michael Peca, who played 13 seasons and captained the Buffalo Sabres to the Stanley Cup final in 1999, told him three. Mike Weber, who played 10 years, said he never advanced that far. Defenseman Matt Bartkowski, a 13-year veteran and the Amerks’ most experienced player, said two.
As the answers illustrate, deep playoff runs rarely materialize. That’s why they’re so meaningful.
The critical lessons the Amerks have learned while advancing to their first conference finals since 2004 will likely last a lifetime. In the AHL, winning two or three rounds in the Calder Cup Playoffs can buoy development and prepare prospects and even the most experienced players for future challenges.
“It’s hard to even probably describe what we’re getting from this,” Appert said on a Zoom call following Wednesday’s season-saving 4-1 road win in Game 5. “Not only the prospects but the veterans, too.”
The Amerks, who trail the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals 3-2, host Game 6 tonight at Blue Cross Arena. So far, they’re 4-0 in elimination games this postseason.
Whatever happens, this Amerks team, like the 2003-04 squad, will be honored with a North Divisions champions banner and possibly be remembered as one of the most special in Rochester’s 41 seasons affiliated with Buffalo.
“There’s the first banner going up in (19) years,” said former Amerks defenseman Nathan Paetsch, a rookie on the 2003-04 team who now serves as a developmental coach. “So they’ve already experienced really unique things and you can see the group just kind of bonding over them and the special things already rolling.”
“We pulled each other along because they were so hungry to play and get better,” said former center Domenic Pittis, the Amerks’ leading scorer in 2003-04.
Those youngsters, of course, became core members of the Sabres and had huge roles as they advanced to back-to-back Eastern Conference finals in 2006 and 2007.
“I really do think that that really helped that group,” Pittis said of the success they had in Rochester.
He added: “It takes a long time to learn how to win and all those experiences definitely help shape you as a player and as a coach.”
In 2004, the Amerks roared back from a 3-1 series deficit against the Syracuse Crunch to win in seven games before sweeping the Hamilton Bulldogs, the division’s top seed. The Amerks fell to the Milwaukee Admirals, the eventual Calder Cup champions, in the Western Conference finals.
“As a player, to me, the longer you carry on in your career, the longer you understand, realize that it’s about what you do as a team that’s the most important thing,” Pittis said. “It’s usually the earlier guys recognize and realize that, the better off they typically are.”