For the third straight year, the Rochester Americans entered the playoffs as the underdog. After the first two periods of Friday night's opener against the Chicago Wolves, they looked more like the higher seed. Then the third period happened.
The Wolves controlled the final 20 minutes, putting the two goals on the board to send Game 1 to overtime. Chicago completed the 4-3 win with a Dmitrij Jaskin rebound goal.
Rochester's meltdown started before the ugly third period. It began when forward Luke Adam netted a bad-angle goal to put the Amerks up 3-1 just 1:47 into the second. Adam carried the puck into the offensive zone, fired it toward the pads of top AHL goalie Jake Allen, who allowed it to sneak between his pads.
The two-goal lead was every bit as dangerous as the silly old cliché says. A more reasonable explanation for leads disappearing in the post-season is a) good teams and b) teams playing conservative and allowing opponents to control play.
The Amerks' defense went from driving the puck up the ice to playing back on their heels. Turnovers led to numerous shots on goal, many of which involved quality saves from goaltender Andrey Makarov, who finished the night with 35 saves on 39 shots. The Wolves finished the second period with an 11-8 advantage in shots, then owned the third 15-8.
“We weren't playing the right way so it was a matter of time,” coach Chadd Cassidy said. “If you're going to play constantly coming back into your own zone and only making them play half of the sheet you're going to put yourself in a bad spot. I thought we did that late in the second and in the third period.”
Chicago's second goal was a fluke – a bleep bounce, as D-man Rasmus Ristolainen said after the game. It was a simple dump in that jumped right out in front of the goal and was slammed home by winger Sebastian Wannstrom. But the more you have the puck, the more chances there are for a bleep bounce to turn into a goal. And did Chiacgo ever have the puck in the third.
“We stepped back a little bit and let them make the plays,” Deslauriers said. “That's the difference in the playoffs. It's the small plays that you don't see as much that can hurt you.”
The Wolves came in as one of the more impressive possession teams according to an NHLnumbers.com study. It did not show early in the game as the Amerks were mounting their lead. They out-shot the Wolves 13-12 in the first and received a tip-in goal from forward Joel Armia and long-distance shot from newcomer Nick Deslauriers. Both were puck possession-y goals.
It was more than just strategy and lack of aggressiveness that cost the Amerks. An injury to forward Dan Catenacci forced them to switch up the lines that had been playing with strong chemistry. The health of Rasmus Ristolainen was also questionable throughout after the former first-round pick went flying into the wall face first early in the game. He came back to play, but did not look like himself at times.
Ristolainen said he was fine following the game, Catenacci is day-to-day.
The Amerks will have a chance to split at home in the best-of-five before going on the road for the final games of the series – however many that might be. Though common sense would say they will need a win Saturday night to have a chance against the favorites.
- Mikhail Grigorenko received praise from Chadd Cassidy for his upped intensity from last year's playoffs. He won battles behind the net and created several quality chances.
- Luke Adam was key in controlling the game early, skating hard, checking and getting shots toward the net. A strong playoff run would give him an opportunity to leave a good impression with new GM Tim Murray
- Joel Armia had a goal and an assist. The assist was a bit of luck on a missed shot, he was not noticeable for the rest of the game, like many Amerks.
- There were times Mark Pysyk made fools of the Wolves with his stick skills, but he and Ristolainen were at the forefront of some of the more conservative play that allowed Chicago to control play
- Nick Deslauriers showed off his quality shot on a goal, but was not an impact player overall. They will need more from him physically and in creating shots closer to the net at 5-on-5
- Johan Larsson did a lot of little things right as always. However, he was not on the puck as often as he can be. He was underneath the opponents' skins early on, but not as much as the game wore on.