Zemgus Girgensons leaned against a beam in the Rochester Amerks' locker room. He wondered aloud whether he could have done a little bit more, finished one more chance or laid one more hard check. If somehow that would have made a difference in a fierce series with the Toronto Marlies.
I can clear things up for Girgensons: Not only did he open eyes to his tremendous determination and potential during this playoff series, but the entire Amerks team showed exactly why the crowd's cheering of “Lets go Amerks” was as loud as Blue Cross Arena has been in the two years under Terry Pegula's ownership. Because this club was a reincarnation of the hardest working team in hockey.
Toronto beat Rochester 3-2 in overtime to complete a three-game sweep for the second year in a row. But the series loss did not come because of lack of effort or physical or mental toughness. Girgensons left the arena with a giant scar across his nose. Cody McCormick looked like a prize fighter.
“I told the guys after the game that I'm really proud of the effort we put forward,” head coach Chadd Cassidy said. “We obviously didn't get what we wanted out of the series in terms of taking it beyond three games, but from start to finish I think we played pretty darn well.”
The Amerks trailed by a goal with around four minutes left in the game when alternate captain Nick Tarnasky scored the game-tying goal by bouncing a puck off Marlies defenseman Paul Ranger into the net.
It was apropos of Rochester's season. They often got big contributions from effort players who weren't expected to play scoring roles. And nothing was all that pretty.
“Tarny battled all year,” said goaltender David Leggio, who 27 of 30 shots . “He worked hard all year and made sacrifices for his teammates. It was great to see him get that goal. I wish we could have gotten one more in overtime.”
As for Girgensons, he scored three of Amerks' total six goals in the series including a beauty on Wednesday night. He made a nifty move to avoid a defender, then while losing his balance ripped the puck into the top corner of the net.
The 19-year-old has grown a great deal since October, when he walked onto the ice as the youngest player in the AHL. He's harder now. More mature. And has every bit the confidence and drive required of a future top-line NHL.
“I think I've grown a lot,” Girgensons said. “Especially being around these guys like Ellis and McCormick, I've learned a lot from the older guys.”
Cassidy said he never expected this much out of Girgensons at his age and called his development “off the charts.”
Give Ellis and McCormick some credit for that. Their leadership and hard work set an example from the time they walked in the door. Cassidy looked like he could have talked all night about how much they meant to the team in getting into the playoffs are for younger players.
That said, the Amerks did lose again in the first round. They fell short of the goal to bring the Calder Cup to Rochester. But they walked out of the rink with blood on their jerseys. That's what the fans expected out of them.
“It was a lot of fun playing with these guys,” Leggio said. “Hard-working, dedicated, fun guys to play with.”
Mikhail Grigorenko was probably the only Amerks player whose effort was underwhelming. He nearly scored once, but outside of that had zero impact on the game and rarely skated at a level appropriate of the pace of the game. In the post-game press conference, Cassidy said it was a tough situation coming into a new rink with new teammates. No doubt, but he didn't dig deep like his teammates did.
Johan Larsson impressed a great deal with his effort on both ends of the ice. He's struggled at times to find chemistry offensively, but created chances and never stopped skating throughout the night. He, like Girgensons, may press the Sabres in training camp into giving him a lower-line opportunity next season
Mark Pysyk plays some a quietly brilliant game. Just little plays here and there, but always the right plays. He picks the right time to step up, right time to drop back, the right angle to the puck, the right pass. He belongs in the NHL – that much is obvious. He'll need to put on a few more pounds, but he'll be there.
Drew Schiestel really did a nice job down the stretch for the Amerks. It was great to see him getting in the lineup every night and playing big minutes.
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