For 15 straight seasons, the Rochester Americans have qualified for the American League Hockey playoffs. In 1989, the last time the Amerks missed out on the post-season, Bush Senior was in the White House and Nirvana was just a club band kicking around Seattle.
That could all end this season. With two months to go, Rochester finds itself chasing the Toronto Marlies for the fourth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference's North Division. As of Monday morning, a mere three points separated the two teams, but at times this season the gap has seemed like an impossibly wide chasm, and the Amerks realize they have a tough haul ahead of them.
"We have 30 games left, and [making the playoffs] is definitely always in your mind," Amerks winger Clarke MacArthur said Friday after host Rochester beat Hamilton, 4-3, in a shootout. He added that the point difference between Rochester and Toronto isn't insurmountable. "The thing is to chip away and do the things we have to do to become a playoff team," he said.
On Friday, MacArthur certainly did his part, scoring two goals in regulation and one during the shootout against the Bulldogs as the Amerks notched their fifth straight win.
The victory, however, wasn't easy, and at times a sluggish and mistake-prone Rochester squad in no way resembled the playoff team it hopes to be.
"We kept them in the game," Amerks coach Randy Cunneyworth said, "and it was mostly our own doing."
The Amerks were down, 3-2, well into the third quarter before MacArthur scored the tying goal that sent the contest into overtime and eventually a shootout. Which Rochester won, 2-1.
But even though it was far from a perfect effort, Rochester did what the franchise has done so many times in the past 50 years: it dug deep and pulled out a crucial win. Said Cunneyworth: "We didn't lay down and quit."
Of course, Rochester then turned around a day later and suffered its worst defeat of the season, getting crushed 6-0 at Syracuse after committing a whopping 24 penalties. The loss to the Crunch rudely snapped the Amerks' winning streak and set them back in their pursuit of Toronto. (Ironically, after the win over Hamilton Cunneyworth had said the Amerks "have to eliminate lazy, foolish penalties.") With the loss, Rochester fell to 26-22-1-1.
While the Amerks were splitting a pair of weekend contests, their roommates at Blue Cross Arena, the National Lacrosse League's Rochester Knighthawks, were doing the same thing, only in reverse: on Friday the K-hawks lost a 11-10 overtime heartbreaker at Toronto, then returned home Saturday to topple the Arizona Sting in a come-from-behind, 16-14 win.
In both games, the Knighthawks gave up big early leads and struggled at times against two hungry teams. The loss to Toronto was especially bitter, given that the Rock: 1) are perhaps Rochester's biggest rival, and 2) started the season at a miserable 0-4 while the K-hawks shot out to a 4-1 record.
The situation wasn't looking much better on Saturday: Rochester trailed the Sting for most of the last three quarters and found itself down 13-11 with about 12 minutes left in the game.
It took three straight goals from John Grant, Shawn Williams, and Mike Accursi to pull the 'Hawks ahead, and even then Rochester gave up a tying goal with about four minutes left. Only consecutive goals by Grant and Ken Millin in the final minutes sealed the win.
"It's huge for us," Rochester coach Ed Comeau said of the heart-stopping victory. "It's a big difference from last night. We just told them to be positive and let them know there was no reason to panic, and they stuck with it."
While the nailbiter win was gratifying, even the Knighthawks acknowledged that, as with the Amerks the night before, they probably made things harder than they had to be. Said Grant: "We came out flat tonight."
But Grant added that earlier in the day the K-hawks held a team meeting in which they communally let go of the tough OT loss to Toronto and sharpened their focus on Arizona. And while the going was a little rocky Saturday, that mindest worked against the Sting.
"We showed a lot of heart in our home barn, which is what we've been doing all year," said Grant, whose team now stands in first place in the NLL's East Division at 5-2. "We've been trying to preach all year to be positive, be positive."
Meanwhile, Rochester's newest pros, the RazorSharks of the American Basketball Association, are outperforming both the Amerks and the Knighthawks --- as well as most of their ABA competitors.
The RazorSharks have reeled off 11 straight wins and have securely placed themselves in first in the Connie Hawkins Division at 19-3, the second-best record in the league. Rochester's been boosted by the hot shooting hand of Keith Friel and the return of James Reaves from a foot injury.
The RazorSharks and the rest of the league took time off to hold the ABA All-Star game last week, and it remains to be seen whether the break will interrupt the momentum Rochester built leading up to the All-Star event. The 'Sharks face perhaps their stiffest test of the season February 23, when they host the 23-2 Indiana Alleycats at Blue Cross Arena.
Next home games: Amerks vs. Binghamton, Friday, February 17, 7:35 p.m.; Knighthawks vs. San Jose, Saturday, February 18, 7:35 p.m.; RazorSharks vs. Maryland,Monday, February 20 (Presidents Day), 4:05 p.m. All games at Blue Cross Arena.