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Young players fueled Amerks' memorable season

Peterka, Quinn among impact prospects in 2021-22

by Griffin Della Penna @GriffinDP_ / Sabres.com

Seth Appert explained why this Rochester Americans group, with its mix of young prospects and impact veterans, was different from any other he had been around during his postgame press conference after a season-ending loss to Laval last Wednesday. 

"We had so many players have career years, regardless of if they were a veteran or young player, because they showed up with a good attitude every day and put in the extra time," he said. 

Appert also described how the Amerks' reliance on young players made for an uncommon dynamic in the AHL. Rookies Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka were the team's top scoring options. Forward Peyton Krebs, goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson were other impact players who are under the age of 23 and key pieces of the Sabres' future.

"Those were our go-to guys, and in the AHL, you mostly see older veterans have that role," Appert said. "Our guys succeeded with that pressure a lot, and they struggled with that pressure at times. But both of those things will fuel further growth in their own development for years to come." 

Tweet from @AmerksHockey: "They have a unique blend of fun and hard work, and you don���t find a lot of teams like that. It was fun to coach these guys."Coach Appert's full interview: https://t.co/y1NHtIQrKt pic.twitter.com/VSLVK5TSfm

Quinn and Peterka were named to the AHL All-Rookie team, while Quinn also took home the Red Garrett Memorial Award as the league's rookie of the year. The duo became the first pair of Amerks to earn All-Rookie honors in the same season since goaltender Mika Noronen and defenseman Dmitri Kalinin in 1999-2000. 

Peterka, the 34th overall selection in the 2020 NHL Draft, led Rochester with 68 points (28+40) in 70 games played, including 48 points (24+24) after the calendar flipped to 2022. He was also the first Amerk rookie to reach 60 points since Thomas Vanek had 68 back in 2004-05. 

Quinn, the Sabres' first round pick in 2020, came hot out of the gates with a rookie-leading 10 points (5+5) in October. Despite being limited to just 45 games due to mononucleosis and a lower-body injury, Quinn finished second on the team in points (61) and goals (26) and third in assists (35). 

The Amerks faced adversity all season long as the team dealt with injuries, COVID outbreaks, and multiple players being called up to Buffalo at pivotal point. Through all the ups and downs, Rochester finished the regular season 37-29-7-3 and slid into the postseason as the No. 5 seed in the North Division on the last day of the year.

Rochester won its first playoff series in 17 years after back-to-back 4-3 overtime wins over the No. 4 Belleville Senators in the opening round. In a back-and-forth series against the top-seeded Utica Comets, Rochester's grit and determination willed them to a 4-2 win-or-go-home Game 5 victory on the road. 

In the North Division finals against the No. 3 Laval Rocket, the Amerks found themselves in an 0-2 hole after 6-1 and 3-1 losses to start the series. Game 3 at Blue Cross Arena saw a sellout crowd with the season on the line for Rochester as Laval outlasted the Amerks 6-5 in triple overtime. 

It was just the third time in franchise history that Rochester played in triple overtime, the last being on June 9, 1999, against the Providence Bruins in the Calder Cup Finals. 

While the playoff run ultimately fell short, Quinn and Peterka were proud of their accomplishments during their rookie campaign and excited for what's ahead. 

"I think the playoff run we went on was pretty special for our group," Quinn said. "To win two series and especially the overtime wins, were pretty great moments." 

Watch: Youtube Video

"I think that was great for all of us," Peterka said. "It sucks that it's already over, but I think after a few days, and we let it soak in we will realize how special it was."

Peterka ended his first postseason appearance with two goals against Laval, tying for the team lead in playoff points with Arttu Ruotsalainen. His seven goals and five assists led all rookies through three rounds.

Quinn didn't have the same level of success in the playoffs as he did in the regular season, with two assists over the 10 games. 

"I wasn't exactly where I wanted to be in the postseason, and I am going to use that as motivation throughout the summer to try and keep getting better," Quinn said. 

Even though Quinn's play throughout the postseason didn't result in points, his teammates and coaches commended his effort to help the team win in other ways. 

"I think the playoffs were huge for JJ and Jack in the long term," Samuelsson said. "Even though Jack didn't have the same stats, if you were watching the games, it was evident how good he was playing with the number of posts and crossbars he hit. It fires me up to see them perform like that."

Samuelsson was reassigned from Buffalo at the end of the Sabres' season in the hopes that he would form a top defense pair with Casey Fitzgerald in the playoffs. 

Fitzgerald did play a top-pair role during the Amerks' run, but an ankle injury prevented Samuelsson from suiting up. He still managed to learn from the experience.

"Playoff hockey is a different atmosphere where every small detail matters," he said. "Even though I didn't get to come back and play, it was still a great learning experience for me."

Samuelsson started out his season in Rochester after recovering from an injury that forced him to miss training camp. In 22 games for the Amerks, Samuelsson had two goals and 13 assists. He had 10 assists in 41 games for Buffalo.

Krebs was another player who spent time in Rochester before heading to Buffalo for the majority of the season. The 17th overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft by the Vegas Golden Knights was sent to Buffalo as part of the deal for Jack Eichel. 

"You look back and it's been a long year for me," Krebs said. "Being traded and going across the country my first pro year was a lot. It'll be nice to look back and know that I did everything I could."

In his first stint with Rochester, Krebs averaged a point a game with four goals and 16 assists before spending time with Buffalo. In 56 games with the Sabres, Krebs finished with 22 points (7+15), displaying his elite playmaking ability every night. 

When Krebs found out that we would be sent down for the playoff push in Rochester, he was excited to play and continue to get better. 

"Going up and down can take a toll on you mentally and physically," he said. "But it was great to come back down here after finishing the season with Buffalo to have a playoff atmosphere."

Krebs had a league-high 11 assists through three rounds and finished second among rookies in points, behind Peterka.

Like Samuelsson, Luukkonen was also unable to play in the playoffs due to an injury he sustained in the final game of the regular season against Utica. 

Luukkonen admitted that he was close to returning from the hamstring injury and that there was a high chance he would've started between the pipes for Rochester had they won Game 3. 

"It was tough to be on the sideline for these games that you aim for all regular season," he said. "But, it gave me motivation for next season because we know how everyone wants to play in those meaningful games."

Watch: Youtube Video

The second rounder in the 2017 NHL Draft had ups and downs with Rochester in his third professional season. Luukkonen finished with a 15-14-8 record, a .900 save percentage, and 3.28 goals against average. 

During his time with Buffalo, Luukkonen had a .917 save percentage and 2.74 goals against average in nine games.

"I feel like I had a good stretch in Buffalo this year, and now I need to do my best throughout the summer to give myself the best chance to be an NHL goalie next season," he said. 

With so much young talent in the system for the Buffalo Sabres, players can feel something special brewing in the organization. 

"You want to have fun and enjoy playing hockey every day," Samuelsson said when asked what made this season so enjoyable. "That's what we're trying to build in the organization, regardless of being here in Rochester or when I was in Buffalo. I think this organization has done a great job changing that dynamic around for the better." 

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