Game 1 of the best-of-five Western Conference Quarterfinal series will take place Thursday at Toronto’s Ricoh Coliseum at 7 p.m., followed by Game 2 on Saturday at 3 p.m. The scene shifts to Rochester for Games 3 (Monday) and 4 (Wednesday, if necessary) at the Blue Cross Arena. Both are 7 p.m. starts. If a fifth game is required, it will be played in Toronto on Saturday, April 28 at 3 p.m.CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE TICKETS FOR GAME 3 AND GAME 4
For the Amerks, it probably feels like they’ve already gone through several playoff series after a grueling late-season push that landed them in seventh spot in the Western Conference with a record of 36-26-10-4 (86 points). They were 13-5-4-1 over their final 23 games, but needed a 4-0-2-0 run over their last six games to vault them into the playoffs – despite starting the final weekend of the season in 10th place.
Head coach Ron Rolston knows how important it’ll be for his staff to maintain the their focus and intensity level heading into Thursday’s series opener.
“The last 10 games we’ve been in a playoff mode, just trying to get in. Especially our last stretch where every game was do or die for us in terms of the playoff picture,” Rolston said after today’s practice. “We tried to give them days off during that stretch to make sure they could recharge mentally, physically and emotionally.
“But in terms of the mindset we have and how we play, I think is more the playoff mode that we’re talking about. We had to go into games knowing they were going to be close, knowing that we had to be good defensively, and knowing that we had to play with a lot of details. That’s the kind of hockey I want to have going into the playoffs. I think we’ve been in that mode and have to carry that mindset into Thursday.”
Rochester will be facing a Toronto team that finished atop the AHL’s North Division with a record of 44-24-5-3 (96 points). They were the only team in the league to hold down first place in their respective division since October 17, which is a remarkable stat considering Norfolk ended the regular season on a North American professional hockey record 28-game winning streak.
Rochester’s 224 goals for leads all Western Conference playoff teams, but they will have their hands full with a Marlies defense that allowed a league-low 175 goals. Toronto netminder Ben Scrivens was 22-15-1 this season with a 2.04 GAA and .926 save percentage.
Despite his team’s offensive success, Rolston is well aware this series is not going to be a shootout.
“We know that we can score goals, but we have to make sure that we’re playing the right way, and know that we can go into games and win them 2-1 or 3-2. We have to have that mindset. We’re coming in playing about as well as we can play. It’s our job now just to keep that going.”
The Amerks were just 3-5-1-1 against Toronto in the regular season series, but both of their wins came at Ricoh Coliseum. Forward Derek Whitmore says that just knowing you can win on the road is a key to success, especially in a short five-game series where at least gaining a split in the first two will be crucial.
“It’s gonna make for a dogfight, a very hard-fought series,” explains Whitmore, who led the Amerks in goals this season with 28. “You look at this season. We only beat them three times, but two of our wins were in their building. We can look at that as confidence going in there on Thursday.”
Just as he did during the second half of the season, Williamsville’s David Leggio
is expected to handle Rochester’s goaltending duties throughout the playoffs. Leggio, named the team’s MVP, started the Amerks’ final 23 games, and set new career highs in wins (28) and games played (54). Even with AHL veteran Drew MacIntyre
back after a four-game absence, Leggio says he’s mentally and physically ready to take on the challenge of the postseason.
“I feel comfortable in there, not tired at all. When you play a lot, you get in a groove and tend to feel more comfortable,” said Leggio. “But I feel pretty good. With the exception of one three-in-three, we’ve had a day or two off between back-to-backs. Coach has been good about letting us get a lot of rest. We also had a couple of tough travel nights but that’s the norm for the AHL. Energy wise I’ve felt pretty good and I’ve been taking care of myself. I feel solid going into the playoffs.”
With their parent team in Buffalo not qualifying for the postseason, the Amerks roster has received an influx of talent over the past two weeks. Forwards Marcus Foligno
and Corey Tropp
were returned in time for a game in Hamilton on April 7, while defensemen Brayden McNabb
and TJ Brennan
arrived the next day for a game in Adirondack. In all, 10 players on Rochester’s current roster combined to play 157 games for the Sabres this season. Rolston believes that experience will be invaluable in the playoffs.
“Just the experience of playing in the NHL. They all had relatively good success there, and quite a few of them produced too. So they were able to help the team be successful when they were there, and that’s important. That’s what we want them to do here. I’m sure here they have bigger roles, but you add that experience and just being around the players in Buffalo – their leaders and veterans. It rubs off on the guys and they bring it back here. Since they’ve been back they’ve been terrific, and have certainly been a shot in the arm for us down the stretch.”