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Rochester Americans cultivate a winning culture

ROCHESTER — They salvaged a point Monday afternoon in Blue Cross Arena, but no one in the Rochester Americans' dressing room was happy about it.

Seth Griffith scored on the power play in the second period and Linus Ullmark made 40 saves, but the Utica Comets got the best of the Amerks in a shootout, taking the two points in the 2-1 victory.

Still, Rochester got a point for getting past regulation. And the points add up. The Amerks have failed only once to get a point in consecutive games this season – during a three-game losing streak in October.

They sit in third place in the Eastern Conference, winning 67.5 percent of the available points (54) through their first 40 games, which includes 23 wins and just nine losses in regulation.

Winning has become expected for the Amerks — a new mindset for a team that has not made the playoffs since the 2013-14 season and has not won a postseason series since 2005.

So this latest stretch, which includes three losses (regulation, overtime, shootout) with just one victory, well, that's not where the team believes it should be.

"It's definitely important to get the points but how we get them is a different story for me," coach Chris Taylor said after the loss to Utica. "Tonight was just not good. We're taking steps back and for our lineup now, for what we have, we should be a lot better.

"We have expectations every time that we come into a game and we haven't met those expectations. That's a problem and we've got to figure it out. The last two weeks we haven't been good enough. We're supposed to be going upwards not downwards. We're going downwards right now and we've got to be a lot better."

The Amerks are facing heightened expectations, thanks to new management in the Buffalo Sabres organization. Both Sabres general manager Jason Botterill and Amerks general manager Randy Sexton have preached a persistent theme that has focused on changing the culture.

And while the last two weeks appears to be a midseason lull for the Amerks, Rochester seems to have embraced the shift in attitude that the Sabres have not yet. There is a disdain for losing and an ability to squeak out a point when not playing its best hockey.

"We've got a nice mixture of some skill and some grit and a great goaltender and our D are really solid," veteran captain Kevin Porter said. "We have a great combination for a winning record here. I think we just need to keep working hard. Teams are going to go in little bit of slumps. If we're getting one point not playing our best all the time, that's big."

After a three-year playoff drought and large stretches of uninspired hockey, the Amerks have the potential to make a postseason run.

Last year, they finished 12th in the 14-team Eastern Conference with 67 points (32 wins, 41 losses, three shootout losses). This season, they're challenging to be one of the top teams in the AHL.

"What you're seeing is they're winning in so many different manners," Botterill said. "Sometimes it's scoring goals. Sometimes it's comebacks. Sometimes it's just controlling the game from start to finish and they're finding ways to win games which is great to see. There's a lot of competition going on there in games and in practice and it's a good atmosphere. It's a good development situation for our organization."

And they're not just finding ways to win. They're learning how to win. The Amerks got off to a .500 start, including an early three-game losing streak in the first month. There were times when Sexton asked Taylor what was going wrong.

Nothing really was going wrong, though. Not for Taylor. He was putting players in situations to give them experience. Part of the development process is being free to make mistakes with the opportunity to learn from them.

"I'd ask Chris, 'What happened? We had the lead and we blew it.' And he said we're learning how to win," Sexton said. "That's part of the development process. We have to go in and give our players those experiences. We put players in situations to succeed, but also we need to put them in situations to learn. All that hard work has allowed us to succeed, but we did have to learn to win."

Learning how to win is exactly what the Sabres management wants for the players in Rochester. Botterill said that development and winning go hand in hand.

"Our organization just in general needs to learn how to win," Botterill said. "We've had a lot of tight games here in Buffalo and they haven't always gone our way, so it's essential. We want those guys to have the confidence from situations from playing in the American Hockey League of learning how to win — having the confidence that they know what to do in those key situations. Eventually when they come up to Buffalo, they'll have confidence in those scenarios."

The results on the ice have been impressive, even a bit surprising. But for Sexton, the biggest surprise hasn't been the record, the possibility of a Calder Cup run, or an ever-growing list of individual accomplishments throughout the roster. The surprise has been how deeply the players have embraced the new culture.

"I'm a little bit surprised about how quickly our leadership group took control of the room and how willing and quickly the new players jelled," Sexton said. "We believe that if we put that culture in place, we will have success. The thought was it might take longer to get the culture entrenched than it has."

The mix of veterans and younger players can be a bit tricky to manage in the minor leagues. By AHL rules, only five veterans (players who have played in more than 260 professional games) can be in the lineup. The Amerks carry seven on their roster, including the team's leadership group — Porter and alternate captains Nathan Paetsch and Taylor Fedun.

Many of those veterans came to the Amerks this season from successful organizations. Paetsch was part of the Calder Cup-winning Grand Rapids Griffins last year while Porter and host of other players were part of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, who finished with the AHL's best regular-season record.

Botterill was the general manager of the Penguins' AHL affiliate as part of his role as associate GM with the Penguins. In his opening news conference as Sabres GM in May, he talked about building the talent pool with the Amerks and using a similar blueprint to how the Penguins' developmental system was built.

"From a personnel standpoint, it's easier because you can bring so many players in at the American Hockey League level that are excellent players at the American Hockey League level, so it is different from say the National Hockey League," Botterill said. "But it's always difficult to change a culture and I give the players and the coaching staff credit for working together for changing things so quickly down there."

Changing the culture has contained several components for the Amerks. It starts with learning how approach time at the rink from a professional point of view.

"The veteran guys set an example about how to be a professional — how to prepare properly for practice, how to prepare properly for games, how to handle difficult situations," Sexton said. "They've made a terrific impression."

That impression includes a consistent and simple message — win as a team and good things will come for you as an individual. Players immediately bought into the mentality. That cliché about a hockey team becoming like a family? Well, the Amerks have put it into practice and the results have been individual honors, personal success, and a team that's winning a lot.

Rookie forward C.J. Smith earned his first trip to the AHL All-Star Classic, leading the Amerks with 21 assists and 33 points while ranking fourth among all AHL rookies in scoring.

Goaltender Linus Ullmark earned his second consecutive All-Star appearance. He started this week third in the AHL in saves (750) and tied for first in wins (17) and shutouts (two) while ranking in the top 10 with a .926 save percentage and a 2.33 goals-against average.

Along with Smith and Ullmark getting All-Star nods, the Amerks have three of the top 20 point-producing defensemen in the AHL — Zach Redmond (25 points), Stuart Percy (21 points) and Brendan Guhle (21 points). Additionally, Guhle is tied for second in scoring among all AHL rookie blue-liners while his seven goals are third among first-year defensemen in the league.

The list of personal benchmarks is deep for the Amerks. That's one reason for the team's success. And perhaps one of the things that has gone astray during the team's current funk.

"I think earlier nobody was worried about individual success and we kind of drifted from that a little bit," Smith said. "Getting back to working as a team and four lines rolling, I think will help a lot."

Success is a two-way street and culture change, also, goes both ways. It's not just about the players buying in. It's also about management showing they're invested in each player on the roster. When players feel valued, whether they're a veteran player brought in for experience or an up-and-coming prospect, they're more willing to invest themselves in team success and trust that individual prosperity will follow.

"It's about every player," Sexton said. "Whether you're a little older player on an NHL contract or a guy on an American League contract, our goal is to help you improve every day so you can get another NHL contract or get an NHL contract next year. That approach really resonated well with the players. We require every one of them to put in effort on and off the ice to get better and when people are willing to invest in you to further your career, typically it's well received and it's been well received by our players."

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