4 check: Rochester Americans begin playoff run led by Sabres prospects

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — For the third straight season, the Buffalo Sabres are hitting the links while the Rochester Americans are hitting the ice in late April.

The Amerks enter the AHL postseason as the No. 2 seed in the North Division, where they’ll square off with the No. 3-seeded Syracuse Crunch in the best-of-five division quarterfinals. Game 1 is slated for 7:05 p.m. Friday at Rochester’s Blue Cross Arena.

Rochester enters the playoffs on a hot streak, going 8-1-1 in their final 10 regular season games, and some of the Sabres’ top prospects have been leading the surge. Here’s what to know as the Amerks chase their first Calder Cup since 1996.

A Levi-athan beast in net

Top Sabres goalie prospect Devon Levi has been living up to his moniker, “The Beast,” during his time in Rochester.

In 26 games played, Levi has posted a 16-6-4 record and a 2.42 goals-against average. Among goalies with at least 25 games played, the 22-year-old’s .927 save percentage ranks second in the AHL.

Levi started the 2023-24 season in Buffalo, riding high after an impressive seven-game cameo to end the previous campaign that nearly helped the Sabres sneak into the playoffs. His immediate jump to the NHL with no minor-league experience didn’t go as anticipated however, as he posted a .876 save percentage in eight games and was loaned to Rochester in late November. He returned to the Sabres for much of December and January following an injury to Eric Comrie, a span in which he looked more consistent. He also had three successful starts in March, allowing five goals combined across those contests.

As he enters his first postseason at the pro level as the Amerks’ undisputed No. 1 goalie, Levi is confident in how he’s grown as a player this year.

“I think it’s just experience,” Levi said after practice Wednesday. “I feel like the more I played, the more I saw, the more I got kind of accustomed to the level of pro hockey. The boys have been playing unbelievable, they’re definitely a big part of that success. It’s been a great season, I’ve been having fun.”

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The kids are alright

It’s hard to imagine the Sabres could’ve wanted much more from forward prospects Jiri Kulich and Isak Rosen during their second season in Rochester.

Rosen tied for the team lead in points with 50, while Kulich topped the roster in goals with 27 — all while playing on the same line for much of the season.

The pair will get their second taste of AHL playoff action beginning with the series against the Crunch. Rochester downed Syracuse in five games during last year’s division semifinals.

“That was really good experience for me and for all the guys last year,” Rosen, a 2021 first-round pick, said. “We have a lot of guys coming back from last year too. We’re more comfortable coming in this year with our second-year guys. We learned a lot last year.”

Kulich and Rosen’s development raises some roster questions for Buffalo heading into next season, as they will likely want to add veterans to their forward group. But it’s tough to deny how skilled the two have looked in the minors.

Other notable Sabres prospects coming off a solid regular season in Rochester include defenseman Nikita Novikov, a 2021 sixth-round pick, who led the Amerks in plus-minus as an AHL rookie. Fellow Russian newcomer and 2022 third-round selection Viktor Neuchev tallied 28 points in 57 games. Defenseman Ryan Johnson, fresh off an extended stretch with the Sabres this season, has also been a key piece on the Amerks blue line.

Anton Wahlberg, a 2023 second-round pick, and Noah Ostlund, a 2022 first-round pick, both made their Amerks debuts in the past few weeks and could continue to slot in during the postseason. Matthew Savoie, Buffalo’s top selection in 2022, could also join Rochester after the Moose Jaw Warriors’ run in the WHL playoffs ends.

Appert coaching his way into a promotion?

Amerks head coach Seth Appert has received plenty of praise for his work developing Sabres prospects in Rochester over the past few years, but the team’s on-ice success has been just as impressive.

Appert has led the Amerks to a 123-94-23 regular season record since taking over as Rochester’s bench boss in 2020. His team’s success has also, not surprisingly, gotten the attention of new Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff.

“I’ll be keeping a real sharp eye on that,” Ruff said of the Amerks’ playoff run on Tuesday. “I mean, usually the strength of any club is their parent farm club and the kids that are being developed down there and come up. Just go back through the history here when I was around. That’s where they all came from, the Vaneks, the Pominvilles. They all came from that system.”

With Ruff almost certainly looking into assistant coaches to add to his staff, Appert’s name has been floated around as a potential option. While his focus is on the Amerks’ playoff run, the 49-year-old was complimentary of the new Sabres coach and mentioned they were slated to speak on Wednesday.

“I’m thrilled for our organization,” Appert said. “I don’t know him, but I know a lot of people that have played for him or have worked for him, and they all rave about what kind of coach, what kind of person he is, what kind of leader he is.”

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So you’re telling me there’s a chance?

What does a potential run to a Calder Cup look like for Rochester? It could very likely involve getting some revenge in the conference finals.

The Amerks will first have to get past Syracuse, whom they had a 5-5-2 record against in the regular season. Should they come out on top, the Amerks will square off with either top-seeded Cleveland or the winner of the series between Belleville and Toronto in the best-of-five division finals. If they can win both those series, the biggest test could potentially come in the conference finals.

The Hershey Bears, who boasted the league’s best record at 53-14-5 in the regular season and are the No. 1 seed in the Atlantic division, appear to be the favorites to repeat as Calder Cup champions. Hershey ended the Amerks’ playoff run last year in the conference finals, winning that series 4-2. Should Rochester go that far again, a rematch with Hershey seems likely.

The full series schedule for the Amerks-Crunch series is as follows:

  • Game 1 – 7:05 p.m., Friday, April 26 – Syracuse at Rochester

  • Game 2 – 3:05 p.m., Sunday, April 28 – Syracuse at Rochester

  • Game 3 – 7 p.m., Thursday, May 2 – Rochester at Syracuse

  • Game 4 – 7 p.m., Saturday, May 4 – Rochester at Syracuse (If necessary)

  • Game 5 – 7:05 p.m., Friday, May 10 – Syracuse at Rochester (If necessary)

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Adam Gorski is a Buffalo native who joined the News 4 team in 2022. You can find more of his work here.

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