The postseason starts tonight for the Rochester Americans, but really it's only a formal beginning. They have been playing playoff-style hockey for a while.
The Amerks, like the parent Buffalo Sabres, needed a late surge to get into playoff contention. Unlike the Sabres, who saw their championship dreams die in the penultimate game of the season, the folks in Rochester got to celebrate on the final day.
The Amerks' 4-0-2 run in the last six games helped them earn the No. 7 seed in the American Hockey League's Western Conference. They will play the second-seeded Toronto Marlies in the opening round, with Game One of the Calder Cup playoffs set for tonight at Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto (7 p.m., TWC13).
"Our last 10 games here, we were pretty much in playoff mode at that point," Amerks coach Ron Rolston said by phone Wednesday. "We had a lot of must-win games. We really didn't get in until the last day, watching scores on that Sunday. Now that we're in, we've been playing in a kind of playoff mind-set already, so hopefully that will be an advantage for us."
The Amerks went 13-5 with five overtime/shootout losses in their final 23 games. Goaltender David Leggio was in the crease for all of them. The Williamsville product led the AHL with 1,579 saves while going 28-24-2 with a 2.63 goals-against average and .917 save percentage.
"We had real good goaltending to start [the surge]," Rolston said. "As we moved along, we started playing a little tighter, especially defensively. We still had nights where we could score a lot of goals -- we were second in the Western Conference in scoring goals -- but we knew we had to be better away from the puck and be a little bit more stingy defensively. That mind-set, along with the goaltending, really helped us in the stretch."
Getting four players back from the Sabres was a benefit as well. Forwards Marcus Foligno and Corey Tropp returned for the final five games, while defensemen Brayden McNabb and T.J. Brennan came back for the last four.
"Those were crucial games for us, must-win games, so it was good to get them back," said Rolston, who also gets elite-level experience from forwards Luke Adam and Paul Szczechura. "They're all competitors, and they all add so much to our lineup. Plus, the added experience of playing in the NHL and being around Buffalo's players and those veterans there, I think it just kind of rubs off on our team, too, down here."
The Amerks, though, hardly have a monopoly of NHL experience in the series. The Marlies boast former Maple Leafs Nazem Kadri, Mike Zigomanis, Matt Frattin, Jake Gardiner and Jay Rosehill. In goal will be Ben Scrivens, who faced the Sabres twice in the final week of the season. Scrivens led the AHL with a 2.04 goals-against average while going 22-15-1.
Zigomanis, a second-round pick of the Sabres in 1999 whose rights were lost in a fax machine miscue, paced the Marlies this season with 19 goals and 61 points in 68 games.
The teams are well-acquainted after meeting 10 times during the regular season. Toronto, the champion of the North Division, won seven games.
"It's good that we've played them so many times that we already have that rivalry built in," Rolston said. "You'll probably get some of that rivalry feeling even stronger now that it really means something in the playoffs here, but I know guys are ready for it."
Game Two of the best-of-five series will be Saturday afternoon in Toronto. Rochester hosts Game Three on Monday and, if necessary, Game Four on Wednesday. Game Five is scheduled for April 28 in Toronto.
Meanwhile, AHL Most Valuable Player Cory Conacher and the streaking Norfolk Admirals start their playoffs Friday by hosting eighth-seeded Manchester. Conacher, a Canisius College product who led the league with 39 goals, helped the top-seeded Admirals set a North American record by winning their final 28 regular-season games.
Tonight: Rochester at Toronto, 7 p.m.
Saturday: Rochester at Toronto, 3 p.m.
Monday: Toronto at Rochester, 7:05 p.m.
Wednesday: Tor. at Rochester, 7:05 p.m.
x-April 28: Rochester at Toronto, 3 p.m.