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Amerks ready to roll four lines against Syracuse

Brian Duff chats with Rochester head coach Chris Taylor

by Brian Duff @duffersabres / Sabres.com

Depth, balance, and options.

Chris Taylor has a lot of that at his disposal as he enters his first playoff game as head coach of the Rochester Americans on Friday night.

And because of that he's already delivered a strong message to his expanded spring roster.

"It is going to be a short leash. We've relied on our depth and relied on every guy this year and we'll probably have to rely on every guy in the playoffs too," he said. "Everybody has to take care of their own game to make our team better and if you don't…we have guys that will step right into the lineup. So don't make it easy for me."

A stern warning to all, and especially the group of 17 up front, where the Amerks are almost at full health. Taylor ramped up their playoff preparations on Monday and Tuesday with a pair of grueling, intense practices and liked what he saw as far as their buy-in, their readiness and their maturity.

And he also showed what could be the Game One configurations versus the Syracuse Crunch, a team they went 4-5-1 against during the regular season.

Some late season experimentation placed trade deadline acquisition Danny O'Regan in the middle between Kevin Porter and Justin Bailey.

O'Regan (6+9 in 18 games with Rochester) seemed to thrive, with his best game since the trade happening last Friday when he contributed one goal and two assists in a comeback win versus Belleville.

"We are going to use him at center," Taylor confirmed Tuesday. "He played center in San Jose and with Porter it actually compliments Kevin with his shot going down the wing and we found that it gave O'Regan a little more room for creativity and he's a good passer and can make plays. 

"I like his details and he's pretty good at face-offs so that's where we're going to use him. I think that's his natural position too, so he feels more comfortable there."

While that trio combined for 97 points on the season, the most prolific line - at least statistically speaking - would be C.J. Smith, Kyle Criscuolo and Seth Griffith, which totaled 119.

Smith lost 19 games due to injury but still ranked fifth among AHL rookies with .77 points per game.

Criscuolo hopes to bounce back from a late-season injury while in Buffalo. He's appeared in just one game over the past six weeks.

Griffith led the team in points per game at .89.

It wouldn't be a stretch to suggest that fans of both the Sabres and Amerks might be most keenly interested in the line of Alexander Nylander, Colin Blackwell and Nicholas Baptiste.

And Taylor sounded like he agreed.

"I think all three of them are pretty intriguing," he said. "Blackwell has had an outstanding second half point-wise and he's just a hard worker. He just gives it every shift he has. He's been very good, at both ends of the ice. He does everything."

Blackwell quadrupled his point totals in his second year as a pro, producing 17 goals and 45 points in 61 games. The 25-year-old forward was most dominant in the final month with 22 points over the final 15 games.

Tweet from @AmerksHockey: The opening-round of the 2018 Calder Cup Playoffs is set!The #Amerks will face the @SyracuseCrunch in the North Division Semi-Finals beginning on Friday, April 20 at 7:00 p.m.info: https://t.co/LNhik2z898�����'s : https://t.co/PXvHqzR0Fl#RallyOurCity pic.twitter.com/Q3lUr9eRHI

The hope is that some of that rubs off on Nylander.

"Alex is playing very well. His compete level to me is a hundred times better than it was at the start of the year," Taylor said. "Even though he was coming back from an injury and all of that, his compete level to me is finally getting on the inside, making plays, taking a big hit to make a play, and understanding that points don't matter."

Nylander (8-19-27 in 51 games) enters professional playoffs for the first time.
 
"You have to play on the walls, play defense, you have to play neutral zone - all those things add up to his offense," Taylor said. "So, I think those three guys combined together are going to make a good line. 

"You've got a little grit from Baptiste, and a good two-way center with Blackwell and you've got a guy that's figuring out his offensive game by getting on the inside with Nylander that can score those goals if they get it out of the corner for him."

The last time Buffalo's first round pick (eighth overall in 2016), was in a playoff series was his draft year with Mississauga (OHL) when he produced six goals and 12 points in a six-game series.

Taylor is excited to see what he can do.

"He is 20, but he's got to understand, and we tell him all the time, he needs to be driving through guys hands, using his speed, challenge their D. Not only are you gonna beat them, but you're probably going to draw a penalty," he said. 

"For him to get to the next level, that's what he's got to do. In the playoffs, we can't have him pull up. We need him driving all the time, and we will keep stressing that to him all the time."

West Seneca native and first-year pro Sean Malone showed tremendous growth this year. He's expected to center Garret Ross and Hudson Fasching and continue to see big-time pressure moments according to Coach Taylor.

"I use Sean all the time at the end of games. If it's a big faceoff or in the defensive zone, I'll bring one of those guys off and usually use Sean," Taylor explained. "He's been really reliable for us and to me, that's his job and it's going to be his future outlook, hopefully for the Buffalo Sabres. 

"I want to put him in every position that he has to succeed at. And no better way of doing that - especially now - than in the playoffs for him. I have a lot of trust and faith in Sean when it comes to those situations."

His wingers may be at their best as well. 

Fasching tallied five goals and 11 points in the final 14 games, while Ross was a noticeable presence as the regular season wound down.

Taylor agreed.

"Yes, for sure. We signed [Ross] in the summer to be a playoff-type of guy, to get underneath people's skin forechecking, and we rely on guys like that to chip in some goals. Same with Fasching," he said.

"And I really believe it's not a fourth line. We're going to play all four lines. We're a four-line team and we have been all year. Everybody gets minutes 5-on-5. I don't go down to three lines, I don't go down to two lines. I play all four lines all the way through and I make sure that everybody gets a lot of ice time."

While those lines have been drawn, they are subject to change.

Sahir Gill, the Americans' leading goal scorer (18 goals and 39 points in 74 games), is sidelined day-to-day. While Eric Cornel, Adam Krause, Dalton Smith, and Justin Danforth all made meaningful contributions to this group throughout the season and are ready to do so again.

And given the nature of a best-of-five series, change can come quick.

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