Last season, they fought to the last day of the season to secure a post-season spot. In the first round, they took on the Toronto Marlies – ultimately being swept in the series. This season? Pretty much the same. The Amerks won 15 of their final 22 games to lock up a seventh seed on the second-to-last day of the season. And guess their opponent? Once again, the Marlies.
Once again, the Marlies are the heavy favorite. Toronto is a two seed, the Amerks a seven. Not to mention the Marlies' dominance over the Amerks over the past two seasons. But the match-up may not be as lopsided as a 7-2 might seem. In fact, there are several advantages that may lead to an upset.
The Amerks have the best goaltender in the American Hockey League. David Leggio made a strong case for the AHL MVP award (that went to Syracuse's Tyler Johnson) by starting 64 games and finishing the year with an outstanding .924 save percentage. Not only is league average around .912, but no goalie in the league started more back-to-back games than the Amerks' netminder. The Amerks have gone through a lot this year losing their coach, captain and one of their top scorers to the NHL in the second half of the year, but Leggio kept the team afloat and at times dragged them to wins.
That's not to say the Marlies don't have a good goalie. Drew MacIntyre has played 21 games for the Marlies and has a .931 save percentage. He has a lot of AHL experience and has been great for Toronto this year. But when Leggio's hot, there's no stopping him. He won a championship in Finland several years ago and could very well put the Amerks on his back and win this series.
The Amerks have the advantage of having one of the best power play players in the American Hockey League in Mark Mancari. The 6-foot-4 veteran scorer netted 18 power play assists this season, good for 14th in the AHL. They also ranked 3rd in the AHL as a team on the power play. They were able to stay at the top of the league despite losing Cody Hodgson and TJ Brennan to the NHL because of coaching strategy and Mancari's presence. On the Marlies side, they are only an average Penalty Killing team ranking 15th in the AHL.
On the penalty kill, Max Legault and the other penalty killers have been stars of wins at times – including their best penalty killer David Leggio. The Amerks are second in the AHL behind only Wilkes-Barre Scranton by 0.2% with an 87% penalty kill rate. The Marlies are 19th on the power play, giving the Amerks a pretty clear advantage.
It would seem the Amerks would want to protect the puck and play conservatively at 5-on-5 where they are overmatched by the Marlies' speed and try to get into a battle of special teams.
If there's a tougher team in the AHL, they haven't come to Rochester this year. The Amerks are experienced up front and have several former NHL'ers who have been tough guys at the absolute highest level of the sport. Nick Tarnasky and Cody McCormick specifically are forces not only during scrums and fights, but in puck battles too. The Marlies don't have many players who can match their intensity or ability to intimidate. The Amerks will need that if their going to slow down Toronto's speedsters like Jerry D'Amigo and Greg Scott.
The Marlies beat the Amerks last season in the playoffs, sure. But they had Nazem Kadri, an NHL star now and Jake Gardiner, an up-and-coming defenseman. This year, the Maple Leafs are in the playoffs and the young stars won't be dropping by in the first round. The Amerks, on the other hand, will be receiving Brian Flynn and Mark Pysyk – two players that made a tremendous impression during their time in the NHL. Flynn was one of the Amerks' top goal scorers while in the AHL and Pysyk has top four NHL talent.
These two could be joined by Mikhail Grigorenko, the Sabres' top draft pick this year. Whether he's in or not, the NHL-experienced players give the Amerks a LOT more fire power than they've had when facing the Marlies at other times during the year. The team's defense has been shaky at times, but Pysyk will bring a calmness that is hard to match, even by many NHL players.
Chadd Cassidy has done an outstanding job. After losing his first four games as interim coach, he got the team's leadership core behind him, helped the young players improve and drove the bus to winning 15 of the last 22 games. Now it's his time to shine. Cassidy is a very bring young coach who is making a case for himself for the gig next year if Ron Rolston doesn't return or for an AHL job elsewhere or even an NHL assistant job. He'll face Dallas Eakins, one of the most highly-thought-of AHL coaches in the business. If Cassidy can out-coach Eakins, he'll put his name in the mix for up-and-comers.
It won't be easy, though. Cassidy is going to have to manage a shuffled roster heading into the playoffs. He'll have to find the proper roles and lines quickly or the Amerks could easily be returning to Rochester on Wednesday down two games.
He'll have to be smart, creative and be a good leader to beat a guy who's already established himself as one. Can he do it? We'll see...