It was supposed to be the year the Rochester Americans "were built for the playoffs" but it ended up being just another year of getting swept in the first round. Rochester lost 3-1 to the Toronto Marlies (TOR) last night and lost the series 3-0. The Amerks have made the playoffs five times in the last eight seasons and they've been swept out in four of those appearances, three by the Marlies and once by the Syracuse Crunch (TBL.) Overall Rochester has not made it past the first round since 2004-05 when NHL players were being locked out and a group former Sabres players, whom former team president Ted Black once called "the Rochester Guys" because of it, got to the second round.
The Sabres farm team has had a weird go if it since then. Under owner Tom Golisano Buffalo shared the Amerks with the Florida Panthers in a dual affiliation that lasted from 2005-07 before they shuffled their AHL affiliation off to Portland, Maine for three seasons. When new owner Terry Pegula bought the Sabres in 2011 he reunited the Sabres and Amerks that off season.
Rochester would make the playoffs three straight seasons from 2011-14 but got swept by the Marlies twice and fell to the Chicago Wolves (STL, at the time) in five games. The Amerks would get caught up in the devastation of the tank years orchestrated by the Sabres, and completed by former general manager Tim Murray, then spent three years digging themselves out of that rut. Sabres GM Jason Botterill and his Rochester general manager, Randy Sexton, focused upon the farm system when they took over in 2017 and loaded up the Amerks as best they could. It resulted in back-to-back playoff appearances.
Sexton was on WGR550 Radio with the morning hosts on Tuesday talking with his club down 2-0 in the series and facing elimination. Development and culture were the predominant buzzwords throughout the early part of the interview as Sexton focused upon those being the ideals they wanted to move forward with after taking over. Rochester made it to the playoffs last season with older players and vets trying to lay down a foundation with which to build upon and Sexton called it, "a good start."
"This year," he continued, "we were very encouraged. We injected a number of young players into the roster, we came within a couple of points of winning first place in the division and third or fourth overall in the American Hockey League, which was another step forward. Obviously progress.
"Now we're into a difficult series with the Marlies and that's all part of the development process."
That development process stopped last night with their 3-1 loss to Toronto in the first round of the playoffs and though individual players made good to significant progress at the American League level, some who transferred that to the NHL during their call-ups, the organization is having a difficult time turning around a losing culture that has been in place since the tank years. At least when it comes to the post season in Rochester.
Overall, the Amerks really took it to the Marlies in the series but were unable to get the puck to cross the goal line. Rochester pumped 101 shots on goal (and hit numerous posts) in the three games compared to Toronto's 66 but were outscored 10-4. Goaltending played a big part in the series as the Marlies Kasimir Kaikisuo stopped all but four of those Amerks shots (.960 save percentage) while his counterpart in the Rochester net, Scott Wedgewood, allowed nine goals on 65 shots against (.862.)
Who's to blame for getting swept is a debate that will linger for a while but what it ultimately comes down to is that Rochester as a team couldn't get it done, and it's a tough one to take for hockey fans in Western New York. This was to be the year of a long playoff run for Rochester but it didn't come to fruition. Ultimately it was a failure on the part of the Amerks and the entire Sabres organization, how much of a failure is something that will spun the rest of the off season until hockey's back next fall.
This was a tough season for the Sabres and the mound of negativity heaped upon the hockey department lead by Botterill just got heavier this post season. The Sabres ended up in the bottom portion of the league with a second-half collapse that resulted in the firing of their head coach while their AHL pride and joy just got swept for the second consecutive year.
In addition, some of the players who parted ways with Buffalo recently are enjoying post-season success. Ryan O'Reilly (STL,) Robin Lehner (NYI) and Evander Kane (SJS,) all key components of the post-tank rebuild, will all be playing in the second round of the playoffs for their new teams.
Buffalo now has the longest playoff drought in the NHL and the team that previously held that distinction just beat the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals to advance to the second round. The Carolina Hurricanes went for a change of culture under new ownership which included trading three-time 30-goal scorer Jeff Skinner to the Sabres for what was viewed as pennies on the dollar. Skinner had a 40-goal campaign in 2018-19 but is still unsigned meaning it could get even worse in Buffalo.
On a positive note, the Cincinnati Cyclones, Buffalo's ECHL affiliate, is still going strong in the Kelly Cup playoffs.