In late February, it sure looked like a shakeup in Buffalo would ruin the Rochester Americans' chances at making the playoffs.
After Ron Rolston was bumped up to interim head coach of the Sabres, Chadd Cassidy lost his first four games as the new coach of the Amerks by a combined score of 14-5.
But after Cassidy got his first win on March 2, the Amerks have won 15 of 22 including Saturday night's 5-1 victory over the Hamilton Bulldogs to clinch a spot in the playoffs.
“It's been a strange year with all the changes coaches and player wise and with the lockout too,” Cassidy said. “It's a nice feeling to know that we clinched tonight and will be able to make a run in the playoffs here.”
On the same day the Amerks lost their coach to Buffalo, they also saw their captain Kevin Porter be called up and shortly after their top goal scorer Brian Flynn.
Down the stretch, Rochester's club struggled to score after losing two of their top offensive players Evan Rankin and Phil Varone to injury.
“There were times when we were wondering if we had what it took to be a playoff team,” Cassidy said. “I think it's been the resiliency of our team. I'm more proud of the team than anything.”
With injuries and call-ups abound, the Amerks turned to their goaltender. David Leggio finished the season leading the AHL with 64 starts with an incredible .924 save percentage. This despite losing top prospects Brayden McNabb and Mark Pysyk – one to injury, the other to call-up.
In the least surprising decision in the history of hockey, Leggio was named Team MVP on Saturday.
“It means a lot coming from the guys I play with every day,” Leggio said. “We have a great group here and I respect everyone on this team. To get the MVP is an honor.”
While the goaltending played the biggest role in the Amerks' run to the playoffs, the team was able to make a transition from a high-scoring skill team to a club predicated on size and toughness. At the beginning of the season, Nick Tarnasky and Max Legualt were fourth-line forwards.
By the end, they were playing in the top six – and succeeding. Tarnasky and Legault combined to finish the season with 26 goals. Veteran leaders Matt Ellis, who are normally NHL fourth-liners, adjusted nicely to scoring roles netting 22 points between them.
Luke Adam was pushed into a No. 1 center after Porter's call. Adam stepped up his effort and two-way game down the stretch. Against Hamilton on Saturday night, he scored a goal and connected on two assists.
“I thought he was good tonight,” Cassidy said. “He certainly was around the puck a lot, he attacked the net pretty well and I thought he was great on the power play tonight.”
The Amerks power play kept them in games throughout the season ranking fourth in the American Hockey League.
On the defensive side, Alex Biega, Nick Crawford and Drew Schiestel took over huge roles after the losses of McNabb and Pysyk.
The Amerks roster will be better in the post-season than it was down the stretch. They've added prospects Johan Larsson and Dan Catenacci – who scored a goal and an assist in his first game as an Amerk on Saturday and they received nice contributions from recent college signee defenseman Nick Bailen. They'll also get Flynn and Pysyk back from the Sabres.
It's unclear who the Amerks will play, but no matter who it is, they'll be underdogs. Then again, they were even more of a long shot after losing their first four under Cassidy.