UTICA, NY – Beer cans were cracked open when the celebration commenced on the ice at Adirondack Bank Center.
And when the Rochester Americans’ players and coaches reached the entrance to the visitors’ dressing room Thursday night, one by one, they were doused by the healthy scratches and injured players who watched the group complete a comeback that stunned the Utica Comets.
The Amerks had just scored three consecutive goals in the final game of a best-of-five, second-round series to eliminate the Comets with a 4-2 win and advance to the North Division final of the Calder Cup Playoffs.
“It’s pure joy, excitement, relief,” said Brett Murray, a 6-foot-5 winger who was parked in front of Utica’s net on the tying goal in the third period. “Everything. We battled hard and it paid off for us.”
The Amerks will face Laval in the division final – Rochester’s first appearance in the third round since 2004 – and the best-of-five series will begin Sunday night in Place Bell at 7 pm Blue Cross Arena will host games three and four next week on Wednesday and Friday. The series winner advances to the conference final to face Charlotte or Springfield.
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For anyone outside the Amerks’ dressing room, another comeback might have seemed improbable when they were trailing 2-1 at the second intermission. Utica was one of the top teams in the American Hockey League during the regular season. Its top young players, including New Jersey’s 2020 first-round pick Alexander Holtz, were starting to make an impact and goalie Nico Daws was exceptional in the second period. The Comets beat Rochester, 4-2, in Game 4 and led by four goals through 40 minutes.
Holtz scored the go-ahead goal Thursdday on an impressive wrist shot from the right circle to beat goalie Aaron Dell at the far post for a 2-1 lead with 8:39 remaining in the first period. Fabian Zetterlund, the Comets’ top player in the series, opened the scoring on a turnaround shot that soared over several players before landing in the net.
But the Amerks have always viewed themselves as a top team in the AHL. Their record in the regular season was impacted negatively by injuries, recalls to Buffalo and a Covid-19 outbreak that forced coach Seth Appert to use several ECHLers on a regular basis for several weeks. But they’ve always expressed belief that they could accomplish more.
Rochester upset Belleville in the play-in first round and won four postseason games in overtime, pulling off a remarkable comeback in Game 1 against the Senators. When the Amerks entered the dressing room at the second intermission in Utica, West Seneca native Sean Malone noticed no signs of panic.
“There was never a doubt,” he said.
Shift by shift, the Amerks ate away at the Comets’ confidence. Nick Boka, a defenseman playing forward with captain Michael Mersch out, created a rebound that forced Utica winger Tyce Thompson to slash JJ Peterka. Rochester scored on the ensuing power play, as Arttu Ruotsalainen delivered his league-leading eighth goal of the postseason to tie it 2-2 with 16:39 remaining in regulation.
Less than four minutes later, Malone bolted down the right wing after receiving a pass from Lukas Rousek and used the defenseman as a screen before uncorking a wrist shot that beat Daws at the far post for a 3-2 lead. The crowd was silenced. Utica’s players stopped trying to intimidate Rochester’s players after each whistle.
“I think guys just wanted it more tonight,” said defenseman Casey Fitzgerald, who scored the opening goal for Rochester in the first period. “Nobody was ready for the season to be over yet. Guys gave everything they had to keep it going for the guy next to them. It was fun.”
The Sabres’ top prospects with the Amerks didn’t score but found other ways to contribute, responding well to the physical game by pushing back.
Jack Quinn absorbed blow after blow in front of the Comets’ net and even dished out a few big hits. Peterka didn’t skate away when confronted by Nikita Okhotiuk and had four of the Amerks’ 28 shots on goal. Peyton Krebs added his league-leading ninth assist of the playoffs while showing fearlessness in all three zones.
Role players like defenseman Peter Tischke blocked shots in key situations. Center Ben Holmstrom won defensive-zone faceoffs late in regulation. Mark Jankowski scored the empty-net goal. The reconfigured defense pairs, led by Fitzgerald and Brandon Davidson, limited the Comets following the first period. And goalie Aaron Dell delivered his finest performance of the postseason, making 19 saves to earn his fifth postseason victory.
“The resilience of this group is pretty special,” Appert said.
Here are other observations from the game:
Dell again played like a goalie trying to prove he belongs in the NHL. The 33-year-old kept the deficit at one goal in the second period with his stop on Chase De Leo during a 2-on-1 only four minutes into the middle frame. Dell’s rebound control made the job easier for Rochester’s defenseman, as Utica had few second-chance opportunities. Its goals weren’t on Dell, either.
“He probably has a little bur in his saddle,” Appert said of Dell. “That’s a proud man, that’s a guy that’s played a lot of time in the NHL and very well. I think he does have a little chip on his shoulder right now, which is appropriate. “
Fitzgerald’s had a strong postseason. In addition to his offensive production, Fitzgerald excelled in a top-pairing role and made big plays in big moments. He’s a restricted free agent this summer and the Sabers might add another defenseman this summer, but the 25-year-old has shown that his game is continuing to develop.
The Amerks have won two playoff series despite Quinn not scoring a goal. The 20-year-old winger has two assists in seven playoff games while creating scoring chances consistently in this series. He has one goal in his last 15 games dating back to the regular season, but he’s finding other ways to make an impact.
“I thought he was good defensively, I thought he was physical, I thought he created offense,” said Appert. “I thought he was outstanding for most of this series.”
• Mersch was not available for a second consecutive game because of an illegal check to the head from Utica’s Robbie Russo near the end of regulation in Game 3. Defenseman Mattias Samuelsson (lower body), goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (lower body) and winger Linus Weissbach (upper body) also stayed out because of injury.
• Sabers center Dylan Cozens recorded a hat trick Thursday in Canada’s 6-3 win over Kazakhstan at the IIHF World Championship. Cozens, 21, has three goals and five points in four games at the tournament.