Prior to the start of the Rochester Americans’ quest for their first Calder Cup since the 1995-96 season, we caught up with Keith Wozniak of Let’s Go Amerks. Keith was gracious enough to give us some insight into Rochester’s season and impending playoff run.
DBTB: This is the first playoff appearance for the Rochester Americans since 2014. What went right this season for Rochester to be breaking that streak?
KW: The right players and the right coaches.
Chris Taylor, Toby Peterson and Gord Dineen all have hockey careers playing at all levels, as well as experience behind the bench. The experience earned them the respect of the players, which resulted in players buying into the game plan. The game plan wasn’t always perfect but it was enough to get back into the playoffs. They ran tight practices with high expectations. When mistakes are made they didn’t sit someone at the end of the bench, they put them back on the ice to respond and make corrections.
Sounds cliché to say the right players, but that was a key to the success of the team. No egos, everyone knew what their role on the team was and what was expected of them. Leaders like Kevin Porter, Taylor Fedun, Nathan Paetsch and Andrew MacWilliam are veteran players that know what it takes to win and also what it takes to keep a locker room on the right path. Coaches can only say so much and then the players step up as well to be a part of the message. Brian Gionta practicing with the team in the first half of the season had a big influence as well. The younger players were able to see what it takes on a daily basis to perform at a high level like he did.
Whether or not this group turns out to be the right players to win a playoff series is to be determined. The goal halfway through the season changed from simply making the playoffs to being determined to go on a playoff run. A first round exit is unacceptable to the locker room.
DBTB: Taking the highly-noted prospects off the table, which player has (or players have) had the biggest impact on the ice for the Americans this season?
KW: Colin Blackwell and Andrew MacWilliam.
After a recent game Chris Taylor made a comment that a lot of players could benefit from watching the way Colin Blackwell plays every game. Since returning from an upper body injury Blackwell played in 24 games and had 12G+15A. He’s excellent at face offs, penalty kills and if the AHL counted hits he’d probably be near the top.
Defenseman Andrew MacWilliam was a team leader at plus-19. Yes, we all know there’s a lot more in the world of stats but the AHL doesn’t provide much. He’s a strong defensive defenseman that isn’t going to lead a rush up the ice but he’s going to protect the goalie, block shots and clear the puck.
DBTB: This team has notably struggled with giving up early goals and blowing late leads. Heading into a matchup with one of the three AHL teams to amass 100+ points this season, how worried should Americans fans be?
KW: Every hockey fan worries about their own team. At this point all we can do is put our trust in the coaches and players that they can flip a switch with everything on the line. The Amerks have had their best success this season when all four lines play for 60 minutes.
I cringed typing that because it’s incredibly cliche but it’s the only way they dominate and win games.
The scoring has been spread out all season and Linus Ullmark relies on defense in front of him to make his job easier. The moment players become passengers is when mistakes happen and a team like Syracuse takes advantage of it.
DBTB: Rochester is 4-4-2-0 (W-L-OTL-SOL) this season against the Crunch, including a 4-2 victory in the regular season’s final game. How will the familiarity of the Crunch play into Rochester’s hand?
KW: Syracuse didn’t have their full team in the last game of the season but neither did Rochester. When Syracuse won a 1-0 game last week against Rochester, it was a tight game and the only reason Syracuse scored was because of a turnover inside the blue line. They are going to be close games that will likely be won by special teams. Syracuse was second in the league in penalty minutes, Rochester was in the bottom five.
DBTB: Any predictions on the series?
KW: There’s going to be penalties, hits, punches and goals scored. Syracuse was one of the best teams in the league in the second half of the season. It’ll be up to Rochester to flip a switch and play the role of spoiler in ending Syracuse’s season.