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AMERKS START OVER AFTER REGULAR SEASON'S END
ROCHESTER HURTING AS PLAYOFFS BEGIN

The Rochester Americans had the best team in the American Hockey League this season, finishing with a franchise-record 112 points. They have one of the AHL's top goalies in Ryan Miller. They have one of the top rookies in Thomas Vanek. They have the Coach of the Year in Randy Cunneyworth.

So much success but, still, so many sirens.

The Americans open the Calder Cup playoffs Wednesday against the Hamilton Bulldogs in Blue Cross Arena at the Rochester War Memorial. The Amerks are considered the favorite going into the postseason based on their 51-19 record with four overtime losses and six shootout losses during the regular season.

But there is cause for alarm. The Amerks dropped eight of their final 11 games and limped home with the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy as the top team in the AHL. The roster is loaded with enough talent for a deep playoff run, but how far they go could largely depend on how many healthy bodies are available.

"We still have a talented group on the ice," Miller said Monday. "We've gone through a lot this season. We've enjoyed some success, but we've battled through some situations. The adversity is going to help us prepare. You're not going to skate through 16 wins and they give you the Cup. It's going to be a battle."

The first series could be tougher than many would have expected three weeks ago, when the Amerks were cruising through the regular season. They have since been basically held together by Band-Aids, which is why they could have problems against a Hamilton team that finished fourth in the North Division with a 38-29-7-6 record.

Jason Pominville, who had 30 goals and tied Vanek for second in team scoring with 68 points, suffered a broken ankle last week. Center Derek Roy, the Amerks' fourth-leading scorer, missed 12 games of 14 games down the stretch after suffering a concussion. He has since returned, but he's just beginning to get his legs back under him.

"We've got a big void to fill there," Cunneyworth said of Pominville. "Somebody has to step to the plate and fill it. It's an area of concern, but it's also an opportunity for somebody to get a starring role maybe. We have several guys who are capable of doing the job for us."

Vanek emerged as one of the AHL's top offensive players and likely would have spent most of the season in the NHL if not for the lockout. He was second in the league with 42 goals, which tied Donald Audette's 15-year-old team record for most tallies by a rookie. Vanek's 25 power-play goals led the AHL.

Veteran Chris Taylor led the team in scoring with 21 goals and 79 points and was its best two-way player. After the top four scorers, however, there is a major dropoff in offensive production.

The equalizer is Miller, who has evolved into the goalie the Sabres had hoped for when they signed him away from Michigan State in 2002. Miller had a 41-17 record this season, led the league in victories and became the first AHL goalie in 40 years to win 40 or more games. The playoffs are another good test.

"This is his time to shine," Taylor said. "He's gotta really play his best here in the playoffs, and we need him. He's been there all year for us, so I can't see why he wouldn't be there now. He's been unbelievable for us."

Tough winger Chris Thorburn is expected to play at some point in the playoffs after missing seven games with a shoulder injury. The Amerks aren't certain when he will return. The same goes for Mike Ryan, who missed the last 11 games with a knee injury.

Winger Milan Bartovic is just coming back after missing four games with a shoulder injury. Winger Jiri Novotny has returned after missing eight games with a concussion. Defenseman Ryan Jorde missed 11 games with a shoulder injury, but he returned Sunday for the season finale against Cleveland.

The Amerks signed former Cornell star Sam Paolini, a Rochester native who was in the East Coast Hockey League before playing the final five games. Last week, they signed forward Barrett Ehgoetz, a free agent fresh off his senior year at Niagara.

"I'm not one to make excuses or anything like that, but you look at the guys that were injured and it's a big chunk of your lineup," Cunneyworth said. "We've also encountered some other injuries and never missed a beat. It's a combination of a lot of things. As we catch our breath here, we start fresh on Wednesday. Everybody is even. We go from there."
e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com