If you didn't know better, you'd never figure the Rochester Americans were affiliated with the Buffalo Sabres.
All the things that bring crowds to boo at First Niagara Center are absent 70 miles East. All the things that have been absent in Buffalo – the things that look and sound like Hockey Heaven – exist at Blue Cross Arena.
The Amerks won 3-2 in a shootout over the Oklahoma City Barons on Friday night in Downtown Rochester. The juxtaposition of the Sabres' most recent loss and Rochester's win – and the crowds' reactions – demonstrate exactly what the Western New York Hockey fan is looking for.
The low-paid, Buffalo-native Amerks goalie David Leggio put on an MVP performance at BCA Friday night. Two former fourth-line grinders put pucks in the net and the new kid scored the game winner in the shootout.
On the final shift of overtime, the Amerks were staring down the barrel of a 4-on-3 and somehow killed it off on the back of shot blocks and one incredible Leggio save. And the crowd...well, the crowd was behind them despite a barrage of shots by the Barons.
“There were even a few times in the first period where we were hemmed in our own zone and the crowd was behind us,” Amerks head coach Chadd Cassidy said. “It helped us get through that time and that's what home ice advantage is all about.”
Whether it actually helps or not, a loud and supportive crowd certainly makes for more fun for everybody. Following Leggio's OT save – which was preceded by an A+ save on a chance by Oklahoma City with 18 seconds left in regulation – the fans gave a long standing ovation for their netminder.
Oh, and there's the playoffs.
With the win, the Amerks moved into to fifth place in the Western Conference, making them a near lock for the playoffs, even if they sputter during the final five games.
“It was one of the biggest wins we've had this year,” forward Max Legault said.
Legualt, who was the game's third star, posted two assists and was on the ice for the final penalty kill in overtime.
“It's a boost of confidence and shows their trust in me,” Legault said. “Killing that penalty was huge and Leggio saved us with that big glove save. But being out there in those critical situations is awesome.”
“He's one of those guys who will block shots,” Cassidy said of Legualt. “That's what gets him more minutes. Before the lockout, he was struggling to get ice time. Maybe between 4 and 6 minutes a night, but we got all the call ups and people moving along and now Max is getting time on the power play and he's our top penalty killer or at least one of our top penalty killers.”
Nick Tarnasky, a guy who may or may not have been a Viking in a past life, scored his 16th goal following a shot by Legault. Tarnasky spent years as a fighter and grinder, but has contributed regularly on the offensive end. He's protected teammates like a rottweiler.
The first Amerks goal was scored on a wrist shot by Cody McCormick, who has offered the Amerks a strong veteran presence and fit into his new offensive role. Newly acquired prospect Johan Larsson scored the game-winning goal with a high wrist shot in the shootout.
Unsurprisingly, Leggio was the No. 1 star. The NHL-caliber 28-year-old stopped 40 of 42 and all four shootout shots. He's 37-22-1 with a .924 save percentage and is 9-1 in shootouts stopping more 79.6 percent of shots faced in the skills contest.
“MVP,” Cassidy said. “That's all I can say. He makes a case for it every night. You see it. Where would we be without him?”
How much do they rely on Leggio? Since the injury to Brayden McNabb and calls to Buffalo for Adam Pardy and Mark Pysyk, the Amerks have had to play with just one every-night defenseman in the lineup. That's Alex Biega, who Sabres fans may very well see in Buffalo following the injury to Tyler Myers.
“Obviously you want to win a championship here,” Biega said. “But everyone's here for a reason and that's a sincere belief that they can play in the NHL. For me, I always try to put myself in the best place to get an opportunity.”
Biega has played 193 games as a member of the Sabres' organization, has scored 60 points. This year, he's been the most consistent and steady Dman in Rochester and has often led the team in hits and blocked shots despite being 5-foot-10, 190-pounds. What if he gets the call?
“He'd be very deserving,” Cassidy said. “He's been in the organization for four years now and with all the call-ups you see how we rely on him to run our power play, he's the first guy on the penalty kill, hes leading our minutes at 5-on-5. And his compete level is second to none. It would be a great choice if it were him.”
While the defense has been weakened by injuries and call-ups, they've gotten strong play from one of their recent signings, 5-foot-9 defenseman Nick Bailen, who played for RPI and is a Fredonia native. He's moved the puck well in the offensive zone and shown poise in the D-zone.
“There's a pretty low panic point there,” Cassidy said. “He doesn't get rattled by much.”
He and the rest of the Amerks. They allowed the Barons to tie the game midway through the third, but managed two points. Story of the season, really.
The Amerks have tough, hard-working guys who can score, an MVP goalie, an excited crowd and the playoffs. That's all Sabres fans want. Everyone would love to win the Cup, but all Buffalo really wants is a team they can cheer for and believe in. For now, however, they'll have to come check it out in Rochester.