Head coach Todd Nelson’s scouting report became all too true for his club quickly in Game 1.
Nelson had put an emphasis on rush coverage in practice leading into the game given Rochester’s strong transition game and ability to turn up ice quickly.
“We talked about how they’re good off the rush,” Nelson told the Hershey media after a 5-1 loss in which Rochester defenseman Joseph Cecconi scored 14 seconds into the game. “If we don’t finish on top of their defenseman, they’ll be joining the play all night. That’s part of the scouting report, but I guess reality had to check in with our guys to understand how they play. They’re a good hockey team and played well, and it’s going to be a battle against this team.
“We can’t cry over spilled milk. It’ll be a clean slate and away we go.”
The Bears had a Game 3 setback in their division semifinal series against Charlotte before rallying the following night to end that series. They swept Hartford in the Atlantic Division finals. Now they trail in a series for the first time and have a fight on their hands, especially with Games 3 and 4 scheduled for Rochester, where the Amerks have gone 3-0 in the postseason.
“Now the guys understand in that room what we’re up against,” Nelson said. “[Rochester is a] very good hockey team. They’re here for a reason, and they deserve to be here. It’s a wake-up call, for sure.”
The Rochester Americans first settled down Hershey, and the Giant Center crowd soon followed thereafter.
Cecconi’s goal off the opening faceoff quieted the home fans. But the Amerks also matched Hershey’s physical approach early and fought off Hershey’s aggressive forecheck.
“We were able to drain the life from the crowd and create our own energy and feed off our own energy from the bench,” said physical Amerks forward Brett Murray, whose first-period goal gave Rochester a 2-0 lead. “They’re going to play physical, and hopefully we match it.”
Amerks head coach Seth Appert said that he had no doubt that his club could handle Hershey’s snarl. They had seen some of that same approach from Syracuse and Toronto in their previous series.
“We were able to solve that pressure and get out in space a little bit,” Appert said. “I wasn’t worried about [Hershey’s physical play]. That’s what Syracuse tried to do once we won a game. That’s what Toronto tried to do once we won a game. We might not be the most physical team, but we’re not scared.”
Of course, the catch in handing Hershey a sound defeat is that the Amerks now have given Hershey a wake-up call.
“We’ll need a better effort,” Appert said. “There’s no doubt. We talked about that going into Game 2 in Toronto last series. Toronto was great in Game 2, and Hershey’s going to be great in Game 2, so our game’s going to have to go up, our competitiveness, how we manage the puck.”
Little time was wasted by the Milwaukee Admirals in seeking out the dry heat and sun of the Coachella Valley.
After their Game 5 win in Texas on Sunday, the Admirals flew directly to California, setting up camp there for the long wait leading into Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals tonight. They have had ample time for video work and practice mixed in with some time on the golf course and by the pool to prepare for the Firebirds.
“We wanted them to have a couple days to relax, enjoy some beautiful weather in Palm Springs, look around a little bit, and just get away from hockey and regroup,” Admirals head coach Karl Taylor said Wednesday following an early-afternoon practice.
Taylor also does not anticipate any feeling-out process between his club and the Firebirds in Game 1.
“I think there’s going to be two moving trains crashing into each other early,” Taylor predicted. “Both teams, the coaches are grinding video trying to prep, trying to make their players aware of the different strengths, weaknesses of each team.
“We respect what they’ve done. They beat a great Calgary team along the way, so we know how good they are. They’re very deep. We’re going to worry about ourselves like we have all year. We’re going to be aware of what they do well. Try to exploit their weaknesses, or what we see as the weaknesses, just like they’re going to do to us.”
Yaroslav Askarov continued his strong playoff run in his first season with the Admirals, winning two and helped the Admirals to take two of three games on the road from the Stars.
“He was able to rise to the occasion,” Taylor said. “I was really proud of what he did and how he’s able to keep his composure under those circumstances on the road in an intimidating building.”
The Coachella Valley Firebirds have been through an intense grind already, and they are still only halfway to the 16 wins they need to win the Calder Cup.
They faced an elimination game in their Pacific Division first-round series with Tucson. Two more win-or-go-home situations in the division semifinals against Colorado. For their latest escape, they outlasted regular-season champion Calgary in a deciding Game 5 that went to overtime before the Firebirds emerged with a 6-5 victory.
“It was a grind all the way through,” Firebirds captain Max McCormick said Wednesday. “We’re just excited to get through that round and looking forward to what’s to come.
They managed to win six games in the 22 times that they trailed after two periods during the regular season (6-14-1-1), and their third-ranked offense in the postseason (3.62 goals per game) makes them a threat late in any game, especially with full lineup available to head coach Dan Bylsma.
“We found ways to win all season long,” McCormick said.
With coaching experience in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Olympics and World Championships, Bylsma has seen everything that high-pressure hockey can bring.
“What makes playoff hockey the best is the highs and the lows,” he said, “the extreme emotion that goes into it and knowing you’re playing a game where you’re going to move on or your summer begins. And those are tension-filled moments.
“The guys are — I don’t want to say comfortable, but the guys have known what’s at stake, and they know how important it is.”
― Patrick Williams