SYRACUSE – Malcolm Subban hung his head as soon as he realized what happened.
His Rochester Americans teammates were hunched over, catching their breath as the Syracuse Crunch celebrated the tying goal and the crowd inside Upstate Medical University Arena roared Saturday night.
Subban made a spectacular save moments earlier, only to watch Crunch defenseman Trevor Carrick score on the home team’s 20th shot of the third period with 29.9 seconds left in Game 5 of the Calder Cup playoffs’ North Division semifinal round.
Twice, the Amerks led by three goals, and they were ahead for all but 11:08 of regulation. Carrick’s shot wouldn’t end another memorable playoff run for Rochester, though.
Lawrence Pilut scored on the power play in overtime, his second goal of the game, to send Rochester to the North Division final round with a 5-4 victory over the Crunch.
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“I thought we played aggressive, attacking, very mature for a young team in a big game on the road and then the third was obviously poor,” said Amerks coach Seth Appert. “We played immature.”
The Amerks, who went 36-27-9 during the regular season, advanced to the American Hockey League’s final eight for the second year in a row, and will face top-seeded Toronto on the road Thursday night for Game 1. Rochester became the first AHL team since Grand Rapids in 2015 to win a best-of-five series after trailing 2-0.
Tyson Kozak, Jiri Kulich and Michael Mersch also scored for Rochester. Subban made 44 saves to set a new career-high with three playoff wins.
A 5-foot-11, 171-pound winger, Kulich totaled 24 goals and 46 points in 62 games before a lower-body injury forced him to miss the opening two games of the Amerks’ playoff series against the Syracuse Crunch.
The latest chapter of this bitter rivalry pinned one fan base against the other, as Crunch supporters tried to drown out their counterparts when, prior to warmups, the Rochester crowd repeatedly shouted, “Let’s go Amerks!” Tensions heightened as soon as the puck was dropped and the first of numerous post-whistle scrums involving defenseman Matt Bartkowski began a physical, fast 20 minutes.
The Crunch almost scored the game’s opening goal when Simon Ryfors sliced through the Amerks’ penalty kill, but his backhanded shot was stopped by Subban’s left leg.
Syracuse’s big, slow defensemen were no match for Rochester’s speed. The Amerks’ forwards skated around them to create chances off the rush and forced turnovers by pressuring the puck at every opportunity.
After dropping the first two games of the series last weekend, the Rochester Amerks forced a decisive Game 5 in the AHL’s North Division semifinals with Sunday’s 4-0 win over the Syracuse Crunch.
The strategy earned Rochester time in the offensive zone, and eventually led to the opening goal at 11:08 into the first period. West Seneca’s Sean Malone won a faceoff to the right of Syracuse’s net, and Sabres prospect Isak Rosen made a backhanded pass from behind the net to set up Kozak for the 1-0 lead. Kozak had two goals and three points in the series.
The Crunch almost tied it late in the first period, but their leading scorer, Alex Barre-Boulet, couldn’t shoot the puck into the net when Subban was stuck on the other side of his crease, and the Amerks benefited from an awkward bounce that added to their lead.
The puck deflected over Max Lagace’s glove and in to put Rochester ahead 2-0 when Pilut fired the puck toward the net to try to set up Kozak for a backdoor tap-in at the opposite post 9:46 into the second period. Kulich scored his third goal in three playoff games since returning from injury by collecting a centering pass from Lukas Rousek and beating Lagace on the backhand.
Ostlund, 19, isn’t expected to play any games with the Amerks if they advance to the next round because he’s dealing with a bothersome foot injury.
The celebration on the Amerks’ bench lasted only 15 seconds.
Syracuse defenseman Declan Carlile’s shot from near the blue line leaked through Subban to cut Rochester’s lead to 3-1. Any possible momentum was nullified moments later because Mersch shot the puck from the side of the net over Lagace’s shoulders for the third goal in 60 seconds, putting the Amerks ahead 4-1.
The Crunch didn’t relent. Ryfors delivered a power-play goal late in the second period with Amerks defenseman Joe Cecconi in the penalty box because of a questionable high-sticking call. Then, Syracuse’s captain, Gabriel Dumont, scored 9:36 into the third to cut Rochester’s lead to 4-3.
Quieted by the Amerks earlier in the game, Syracuse’s fans again tried to drown out the cheers of everyone who made the trip from Rochester as the two teams traded scoring chances to survive the North Division semifinal round.
The Crunch pulled their goalie, Hugo Alnefelt, for an extra attacker with 2:20 remaining, and the Amerks stuck in their own zone. Subban made a point-blank save on Felix Robert, but Carrick managed to score the tying goal as Syracuse outshot Rochester 20-2 in the third period.
“Maybe we sat back a little too much,” said Pilut. “That’s not really our game. We got away from it when they took over. But I think we focused on what we did in OT when we came back. We really started pressuring them and started skating again. I mean, we got so many young guys in there and fresh legs, we were just skating all over the place. That’s what our team identity is a lot of the time.”
The Amerks were the aggressor from the start of overtime and pressured the Crunch until defenseman Jack Thompson was penalized for delay of game with 9:17 remaining. Mersch forced a turnover behind Syracuse’s net and cut to the front of the net before passing over to Rosen in the right circle.
Open near the blue line, Pilut received a pass from Rosen and skated to the high slot before unleashing a wrist shot that beat Alnefelt for the game-winning goal. Pilut raised his arms, skated to center ice and joined his teammates to celebrate their latest win.
“I kind of blacked out,” Pilut joked. “I saw it go in and just saw all the guys skating out to me. So it was just a happy feeling.”