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Amerks' balanced lineup, depth producing first-place results

ROCHESTER – On most nights this season, it has been hard to distinguish between the Americans’ top three lines.

Is it the No. 1 combination of prospects Rasmus Asplund, Victor Olofsson and Danny O’Regan, a trio that has remained intact nearly all year? Or is it wherever leading scorer C.J. Smith or former first-round pick Alexander Nylander, two other talented, young players are skating?

The Sabres’ affiliate boasts one of the American Hockey League’s deepest lineups, a mix of prospects and veterans that meshed almost from the get-go.

While the Amerks have a league MVP candidate in defenseman Zach Redmond, they don’t rely on one player.

“You look at our lines now, and it’s like you don’t know and other teams don’t know,” Amerks coach Chris Taylor said.

Eight Amerks have already cracked the 20-point mark. Olofsson, Redmond and Smith have compiled at least 31 points. Five have scored at least 11 goals.

The Amerks’ depth has been a huge factor in their bid for a second consecutive playoff appearance. Halfway through the season, they’ve earned 48 points, putting them first in the North Division, a spot the 23-14-2 club has occupied all but a few days.

“Every different night, there’s someone new coming, doing something really well for our team offensively or defensively, whatever it is,” Taylor said. “It’s not that typical three or four guys on your team. I think everybody has come through on different occasions and come up big for us.

“That’s what we want as a group. We want everybody to feel involved and feel good and be part of it. We need that from everybody. We try to give everybody as much responsibility as anybody.”

Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill and Amerks GM Randy Sexton have carefully constructed the Amerks, adding players they believe possess character and other qualities that will foster a winning environment and help development.

Their depth also has fostered internal competition and helped the Amerks overcome injuries and recalls. The Sabres summoned Lawrence Pilut, an AHL All-Star, in late November after the first-year defenseman scored 22 points in 16 games.

Amerks center Kyle Criscuolo won the Calder Cup with the Grand Rapids Griffins as a rookie in 2017. Still, he signed with the Sabres weeks later, in part, because he liked the program being constructed in Rochester.

“There’s no real secret behind it,” Criscuolo said. “They’ve just sort of done their research on guys that they’ve brought in and guys that they like having around. I think at the end of the day, if you like going to the rink and you like the people that you’re with, you’re going to work really hard. That’s sort of going to result in wins.”

It also has resulted in a tight-knit group.

“What I hear a lot is guys that are coming in … haven’t been on a team that’s been this tight,” Criscuolo said. “They’re not sure … what to expect. They’re sort of surprised in a great way how much we do as a team off the ice and how much we’re with each other off the ice.”

On the ice, the Amerks have consistently bounced back. They’ve lost three straight games just once this season, when they stumbled before Christmas.

Then they roared out of a four-day break by beating the Cleveland Monsters 4-0. On Saturday in Toronto, a day after a rough 5-1 home setback to the Marlies, they defeated their division rival by the same score.

“A sign of a good team is being able to bounce back after a not-so-great performance,” Criscuolo said. “I know we talk about it in the locker room that we don’t want to lose two games in a row. So there’s definitely a sense of urgency.”

A year ago, the Amerks enjoyed a terrific comeback season, going on a tear around December and earning 91 points and their first postseason berth since 2014. But after hitting a rut late in the winter, the Marlies swept them in three first-round playoff games.

The Amerks probably peaked too early.

Despite their strong start this season, Taylor said his team is “not playing our best hockey yet.”

“I’m glad we’re not playing our best hockey, because we don’t want to peak too early,” Taylor said. “We’re still learning, we’re still getting better. That’s the good part about our team. … We’re coming together, we’re coming together at the right times.

“We’ve always responded and that’s a big thing for me. If we don’t respond in some situations, that’s when you start to worry. We’ve responded every time we’ve had kind of a letdown.”

Last season’s quick playoff ouster has given the Amerks a sense of unfinished business.

“We thought we knew what it took to win games and win in the playoffs, but there were quite a few guys that had never been in the playoffs,” Criscuolo said. “I think that’s sort of partially the reason why we stumbled a little bit.

“Right now, I think the mindset is if we don’t get past the first round, it’s a letdown, not the season we want.”

Redmond said the Amerks need to start shifting into playoff mode now.

“They set us up with all the talent, all the grit we need, all the goaltending,” Redmond said. “So it’s just up to us to find that consistency and find that drive, and despite it being (halfway through), kind of start making that playoff push here, where you’re just getting in good habits and not trying to do too much.”

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Following a four-game stint with the Sabres, Smith recorded his second AHL hat trick and four points in his return to the Amerks on Saturday.

“He had some jump,” Taylor said. “It just tells me a lot about him that he didn’t put his head down when he got sent down. He wanted to come back and play hard. He wants to get back up there.”

Smith scored his first NHL goal in a 5-1 win over New Jersey on Jan. 8.

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Chris Taylor and his brother, Tim, a 13-year NHL veteran, were part of the six-member inaugural class inducted into London Knights Don Brankley Hall of Fame on Jan. 8.

“You mature, you grow as a person,” Chris Taylor said of his experience with the Ontario Hockey League club. “You learn a lot of different things at that age. I learned a lot. I learned a lot about not just hockey, but about life. I owe a lot to playing junior there for four years.”

Chris Taylor, who played for the Knights from 1988 to 1992, was a junior star before beginning his 19-year pro career. His 278 points rank second in franchise history, two behind Corey Perry.

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On Sunday, the New York Rangers traded Williamsville native Cole Schneider, their captain with the Hartford Wolf Pack, to the Nashville Predators for forward Connor Brickley.

The Predators assigned Schneider, 28, to the Milwaukee Admirals. The winger is one of five former Amerks – forwards Nick Baptiste, Colin Blackwell and Garret Ross and defenseman Matt Donovan are the others – on the AHL club.

Sanborn native Thomas McCollum, a goalie in his 10th pro season, is also on the Admirals.

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Sabres prospect Jacob Bryson, a junior defenseman with Providence College, has been named one of 81 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award.

Bryson, 21, has compiled three goals and 18 points in 25 games this season.

The Sabres selected Bryson, an All-American in 2017-18, in the fourth round in 2017, 99th overall.

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