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Audition continues for Sabres prospects as Amerks start playoffs

ROCHESTER – Before Nick Baptiste turned pro, the playoffs were an annual event. He may have picked up a superstition or two.

"I can't remember them it's been so long," Baptiste said Thursday.

The drought is over for Baptiste and the Rochester Americans.

While the Buffalo Sabres watch the playoffs for the seventh straight year, their American Hockey League team is back in the postseason. The Amerks will face Syracuse in a best-of-five series that begins Friday at the home of the Crunch.

"It's definitely exciting," defenseman Brendan Guhle said after practice in Blue Cross Arena. "I'm hoping to be here for a couple more months."

The Sabres hope that, too. One of the organization's goals this year was to build a winner in Rochester, and a playoff appearance is proof it worked. Rochester has ended a three-year absence, which coincides with the length of the pro careers for prospects such as Baptiste, Justin Bailey and Hudson Fasching.

The Sabres finally get to see what their young guys can do during the postseason.

"Each and every one of the guys who came here after the season ended in Buffalo knows that they need to have a very strong playoff to continue to make their case to be in Buffalo on a full-time basis," said Amerks General Manager and Sabres Assistant GM Randy Sexton. "The regular season in Buffalo was a bit of an audition. This is audition No. 2 for them.

"They need to have a strong playoff to solidify in our minds that they're players we can count on next year in Buffalo."

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Baptiste is among those who will be a restricted free agent this summer. The winger feels this is his time. He had 12 goals and 23 points in 20 games during his last playoff appearance with Erie of the Ontario Hockey League in 2015. He's ready to show he can do it again.

"It's what I've wanted to do all season," Baptiste said. "It's exciting for all of us, especially since we haven't had our full group."

Injuries in Buffalo led to a steady dismantling of the Amerks. Sabres regulars such as Baptiste, Guhle, Bailey, Casey Nelson and Linus Ullmark are back for a team that started 23-8-7 and finished 37-22-17 after callups took a toll.

"You saw in the beginning of the year just how hot this team was when we had most of our team," Bailey said. "Our team success is going to help all of us in our careers whether it's next year, in two years. You win and show that you can win in the playoffs, that sticks with you."

The absence of a winning attitude was evident from the drop of the puck in Buffalo. The problem multiplied on locker-cleanout day when veterans admitted they were OK with losing.

The hope is that wins in Rochester will contribute to a better attitude in Buffalo.

"We've talked about the playoffs right from the start of the summer, and they've embraced it," Amerks coach Chris Taylor said. "They've worked hard, and look where we're at today. It's a great feeling for everybody."

Playoffs start Friday for Amerks vs. Syracuse Crunch

Syracuse enters the series as the favorite. It finished second in the AHL's North Division with 100 points from a 46-22-8 record. Rochester was third with 91 points.

While key Amerks are making their playoff debuts, the Crunch are back in the postseason after advancing to the Calder Cup final last year. They're used to the playoff spotlight.

The Amerks have been craving it.

"There's a lot of different opportunities that can come from a good playoff run, and everyone knows that," Guhle said. "Everyone is going to be trying to show the Sabres what they can do."

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