The Amerks begin their run for the Calder Cup on Thursday night against the Abbotsford Heat in I’m guaranteeing will be a great round of hockey. The two teams met four times during the regular season with the Heat winning three of those games but the teams that played each other during the regular season are not the same teams playing now in the playoffs.
Only one of the four games was a “blowout” where the Heat were the clear winners and that was on December 5th when the Amerks had Chris Beckford-Tseu in net. Chris Taylor had also been kicked out of that game half way through the first period. The defense was also without Rory Fitzpatrick at the time.
In other words, the four previous games do not really mean anything heading into the first round.
“They play hard, a lot of fast little forwards that finish their checks,” Jeff Taffe said talking about the Heat this past Friday. “It’s something we have to battle through and expect.”
Speed has not been a redeeming quality of the Amerks this season so slowing down the Heat will be one of many keys to the Amerks winning some games.
Every “playoff preview” is a little bit different and there’s a ton of information and statistics that could be shared, feel free to add comments with anything you think that I left out!
Season High Points
The Amerks 18-4 start is what held them at the top of the Division for most of the season. The fast start definitely gave a cushion to the mid season slump that occurred for a lot of different reasons.
In mid February the Heat went on a 8-1 run during the Olympics that moved them up from 5th in the Division to battling the Amerks for 2nd place where they were able to stay through the end.
Scoring and Leadership
** Graham Mink has won two Calder Cups, 2006 and 2009 with the Hershey Bears. He knows what it takes for a team to win a championship and we can be assured that it’s something he’s shared with the locker room.
** Jeff Taffe (61GP, 28G+28A) and Mike York (45GP, 14G+27A) are two key players the Amerks did not have in the lineup in the four game series with the Heat this season. A combined 42 goals and 55 assists is a lot of offensive fire power.
** The Amerks had 10 players with double digit goals (Taylor, Wilson, York, Dadonov, Brine, Henry), four of which had more than 20 (Johnson, Taffe, Repik, Mink).
** The Heat had seven players with double digits in goals and only one player with more than 20 goals, Jason Jaffray who had 25 goals. Jaffray has missed the last seven regular season games for the Heat with an injury. The only other game he had missed all season was the first of the season.
Rochester was ranked higher on the power play at #8 (19.2%) compared to the Heat at #22 (15.3%)
Not much of a difference on the penalty kill unit with Rochester at #22 (80.8%) and the Heat at #25 (80.1%)
Referee’s are unpredictable in the playoffs but an older and a little slower Amerks team should know what they can and can’t get away with during the playoffs. Getting the Heat to take some calls and get some power play chances will be key for the Amerks.
The Amerks core defense of Rory Fitzpatrick, Clay Wilson, Jason Garrison, Keaton Ellerby, Jordan Henry, Michael Caruso and John de Gray played in one of the four games against the Heat. The Amerks lost that game 3-2 but that was also the 2nd game in which the team changed up the defensive system.
Prior to that week the defense was giving up a lot of shots and scoring chances at every blink of an eye. That week was a turning point for them in improving. As long as the Amerks defense stays in position, plays physical, keeps the front of the net clear, wins battles along the boards for the pucks they will keep the Heat’s scoring chances low.
The biggest question mark on defense is Keaton Ellerby. The coaching staff in Florida did not have much faith in him which resulted in reduced time on the ice. It could be an adjustment going back to playing 20 minutes a game, something I’m sure Groulx is well aware of and will not expect that right away.
Alexander Salak played in two of the four head to head games between the Amerks and Heat and lost both allowing a total of five goals on 46 shots. David Shantz played in one of the four games for the Heat and won that game 3-2. The Amerks should have the advantage against Shantz.
Shantz should not be taken for granted though. Players may say they don’t hold grudges but deep down inside Shantz was not happy with his time in the Panthers organization and would like to come out on top.
Heat Coach Jim Playfair led Calgary’s affiliate in Saint John to a Calder Cup title in 2001. He has a lot of experience which is one area that the Heat really have the advantage.
Amerks Coach Benoit Groulx has taken the Amerks from one of the worst teams in the league to a team that others admire. A lot of questions have been raised throughout the season. The regular season did count, but the playoffs mean a lot more and we’ll see what changes.
Home ice advantage on paper belongs to the Amerks but the Heat are one of only four teams in the league to have a better record on the road than at home. The Heat only won 18 games at home all season, the worst of all teams in the playoffs this season. Rochester was 23-14-2-1 at home this season and 21-19 on the road. As long as the Amerks do not have to play any Friday night home games I don’t think it really gives them an advantage or disadvantage playing at home or on the road.
Quote from Heat coach Jim Playfair to Dave Sheldon on AbbotsfordHeat.com:
You have to have your top players be your top players. You need your special teams to be really consistent and solid. You need to have better five on five play overall than your opponents. Your team has to understand that they cannot win the series or the Calder Cup in one night…you are going to have highs and lows and situations that you are going to have to rebound from. The key is to stay really focussed on the shift that you are playing and not get away from that.
The top players have to be your top players. It seems like it’s common sense and the reason it’s often said is because it’s true yet when teams lose a playoff series it’s often because the top players were not the best.
Graham Mink, Chris Taylor, Rory Fitzpatrick, Jamie Johnson, Jeff Taffe and Mike York at some point have all talked about the team not playing their best and knowing they need to improve on that. Now would be the time.
Here’s an older quote after the Amerks loss on Friday February 12th against the Heat that I think can sum up this Amerks team pretty easily:
“We’ve just got to find ways to win, get that swagger back, be almost cocky about,” Johnson said. “We know we can win, we just have to start proving it.”
They’ll have the chance to prove they’re capable starting on Thursday night.