It was their ninth loss in a row, yet somehow it felt like the Rochester Americans were still in the driver's seat. After a 4-2 loss on March 28 – one in which most players felt they had out-worked the Toronto Marlies – they confidently talked of a turnaround to come.
Their prescient comments turned out to be dead on the mark. The Amerks won six of the next seven, including Wednesday night's playoff-clinching win over the Utica Comets.
Going from the outside looking in to the post-season took several special performances – one of which was more important than goaltender Andrey Makarov, who has a .925 save percentage in nine games and stopped 31 of 32 shots against Utica.
Makarov was thrown into the No. 1 goalie spot after both Nathan Lieuwen and Matt Hackett went to the NHL. The Russian netminder, just 21-years-old, moved up from the ECHL and solidified his spot as top goalie in Rochester by showing off his post-to-post quickness and outstanding competitiveness. In the organization's eyes, he went from an afterthought to making the Sabres' future in goal pretty complicated (in a good way).
The leadership of Kevin Porter, Colton Gillies and Phil Varone was evident down the stretch. After a poor performance against Milwaukee on March 26, Porter said, “it's on the veterans to get this turned around.” It seemed like a cliché at the time, but Porter grabbed the bull by its offensive horns, scoring four goals in the final six games, including one in the clincher.
Gillies added two against the Comets. His two-way play and hard work on the forecheck helped set the tone. Varone, the team's leading scorer, produced three goals, five assists and a plus-five during the streak.
Mark Pysyk's role in the turnaround is unquantifiable. His brilliance in the defensive zone jump-started the team's offense and made life easier on Makarov. A major part of the nine-game slide was due to Pysyk's absense while he recovered from an upper body injury. When he came back, so did the Amerks.
Now that first-round picks Rasmus Ristolainen and Mikhil Grigorenko are in the lineup along with prospect forwards Nick Deslauriers and Johan Larsson, the Sabres' farm club could be very dangerous.
Ristolainen has scored 18 points in his 32 games and will be expected to anchor the power play in the post-season. Grigorenko will also see power play time after showing great improvement from his cameo in Rochester last year. Deslauriers was top scorer for Manchester before being traded to the Sabres' organization and Larsson has provided 40 points in 49 games.
Other players to keep an eye on include Dan Catenacci, who got hot in the final run and finished with 10 goals and 10 assists. Also defensive shutdown forward Tim Schaller and top forward prospect Joel Armia, who has slowly been improving.
The team's leading scorer Luke Adam – with 28 in 57 games – will look to win his first playoff series since Buffalo moved their team to Rochester. Adam is still trying to prove he deserves a shot next year in Buffalo and will be motivated to have a good post-season.
The Amerks have two games left, including Fan Appreciation Night on Friday against Syracuse.
They will give out awards for MVP, Unsung Hero and Rookie. Varone, Gillies and Lieuwen seem like pretty solid choices.
Rochester is likely to play either Grand Rapids or Texas - two extremely talented teams that will make for difficult first-round match-ups.