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Sabres thoughts: Jiri Kulich, Isak Rosen making big strides for Amerks in AHL playoffs

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Jiri Kulich watched the Rochester Americans’ first two playoff games while recovering from an injury. The Sabres’ 2022 first-round pick led the Amerks with 24 goals and 158 shots during the regular season. He only recently turned 19, but Kulich became a play driver in his first AHL season, and that was even more evident when he was out of the lineup. Rochester lost the first two games of its playoff series against Syracuse with Kulich sidelined.

But Amerks coach Seth Appert didn’t want Kulich to just be a spectator. The coaching staff had Kulich watch the playoff series between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning because they wanted him to understand the intensity that comes with playoff hockey. They challenged him to feel that intensity while watching the Amerks’ games against the Crunch.

“He did a really good job learning without playing,” Appert said. “I give him credit. For these young guys, a lot of times that’s hard to do.”

Kulich was ready for the spotlight when he returned to action. He scored a goal and had seven shots in his playoff debut last weekend and then had a goal and an assist in the next game, helping Rochester win both games on home ice to send the series to a decisive game five.

“It shows what he’s made of inside,” Appert said. “He didn’t want to let his teammates down. It tore him up to not be available for games one and two. We talked to him about what he learned and talked to him about in a playoff game you can’t go in coming off an injury and tiptoe into the game.

“The stage is not too big for him. The playoffs, the huge crowds, the pressure, you saw at the World Juniors, those moments don’t intimidate him from a mental standpoint.”

This is a crucial development tool for a few Sabres prospects. Isak Rosen, a 2021 first-round pick, struggled through two games in this series but found his stride, getting a goal and an assist in game three and getting four shots on goal in game four. Appert praised Rosen’s ability to self-assess what was going wrong in his game.

The Amerks have also been counting on 20-year-old Tyson Kozak to play a lot of minutes on the penalty kill. The Sabres made an intentional effort to get younger, and that trickled down to Rochester. When Kevyn Adams hired Appert he told him the organization would have an influx of prospects, but that doesn’t mean Rochester shouldn’t be winning.

“Winning is part of development,” Appert said. “But we don’t want to win at the expense of our prospects. We want to win with our prospects being massive pieces of it. A lot of people say that can’t be done in the American League. We haven’t won it all. But we won two rounds last year, got to the third round, beat the best team in the league in Utica in the playoffs last year. Then we finished tied for second this year with probably a younger group. That’s something we’re proud of.”

Appert was also quick to point out it’s not just the prospects. Veterans like Micahel Mersch, Sean Malone and Ethan Prow have been vital leaders on and off the ice for the younger players. Finding that balance between winning and development isn’t easy, but the Amerks have had it the last two seasons. The more you win, the more opportunities there are for players like Kulich and Rosen to go through the high-pressure moments in the postseason. They’ll get another one of those with game five against Syracuse Saturday night.

Here are some other Sabres-related thoughts to finish the week:

— Noah Ostlund has made his way to Rochester. Buffalo took the Swedish center No. 16 in the draft last season and he spent the year playing in Sweden’s second-tier pro league. He had 26 points in 37 games but also dealt with a foot injury. When the Sabres drafted Ostlund, he said his plan was to spend two seasons in Sweden before coming to North America. But the Sabres wanted him to come to Rochester and get a feel for how the organization runs things there while the Amerks are in the midst of a playoff run.

“We want him to see all of those things that have made this place special for our other young prospects and feel that energy. It’s one thing for Kevyn Adams or Jason Karmanos or Don Granato or myself to say that, but when you’re actually here and you’re living it and watching it, you’re feeling it. You get a different sense of what this place really is.”

Ostlund was already in the Amerks’ shooting room on Thursday with fellow Swede Linus Weissbach. The Amerks have leaned into the philosophy of winning with their prospects in recent years. Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka jumped into the AHL as teenagers, and Kulich and Rosen followed suit this season. Ostlund is 19 and the Sabres don’t need to rush his development. Plus, returning to Sweden isn’t a bad alternative if he lands a deal with an SHL club, Sweden’s top league.

— The Sabres also signed 2022 third-round pick Viktor Neuchev to an entry-level contract this week. Neuchev played last season in the KHL, so getting him signed and starting the process of him getting to North America is significant. He’s the fourth member of the 2022 class to sign an entry-level deal and the second Russian player from those drafts to do so. Neuchev had 12 points in 57 KHL games this season. That was after a 40-goal season in the MHL the year before.

— The Sabres should be encouraged watching the postseason. The Eastern Conference feels wide open. The Bruins looked like a juggernaut, but the Panthers upended them in seven games. The Lightning have owned the Eastern Conference for the last three years, but the Leafs finally beat them. Even the Rangers, who loaded up at the NHL trade deadline and have one of the best goalies in the world, couldn’t escape the first round. The Penguins and Capitals, two playoff mainstays, slipped down the standings and didn’t make the postseason. As the Sabres enter their window to contend, the rest of the conference has plenty of questions. The Bruins are in a cap crunch and have some aging stars. The Lightning are no longer at the peak of their powers. The conference is still strong, and other teams that missed the playoffs are going to be battling the Sabres for a spot. But the chaotic nature of the Eastern Conference playoffs should be a positive sign for a young, rising team like Buffalo. Get into the postseason and strange things can happen. The Devils, Leafs, Panthers and Hurricanes are the final four teams remaining in the conference, and the Sabres had a 4-9 record against those four teams and lost the season series to each. Those four teams were all top seven in the NHL in five-on-five expected goals percentage, according to Money Puck.

— The Associated Press noted that 14 of the 16 teams that qualified for the NHL playoffs had at least one Stanley Cup Champion on their roster. Of the eight teams remaining in the second round, only the Edmonton Oilers don’t have a previous winner on the team. That’s one key area in which the Sabres are lacking. Tyson JostAlex TuchKyle OkposoJordan GreenwayRiley StillmanIlya LyubushkinVinnie Hinostroza and Craig Anderson were the only Sabres players on Buffalo’s roster last season who have played in postseason games. None of those players have won a Stanley Cup. That should be an area of focus for Kevyn Adams this offseason. The Sabres are going to be young again next season, so finding a player or two who has been the distance would be worthwhile.

— The goaltending storylines in the first round of the NHL playoffs were another example of how unpredictable the position can be. Linus Ullmark will likely win the Vezina Trophy for his performance in the regular season, but he struggled in six games before Jim Montgomery replaced him with Jeremy Swayman for Boston’s Game 7 loss to the Panthers. Connor Hellebuyck, Andre Vasilevskiy, Ilya Sorokin and Igor Shesterkin are among the best goalies in hockey and none was able to carry his team out of the first round. In fact, of the top 16 goalies in goals saved above expected during the regular season, only Jake Oettinger and Ilya Samsonov advanced past round one. The Devils turned around their series against the Rangers by switching to 22-year-old rookie Akira Schmid. The Oilers also used a rookie, Stuart Skinner, to get by the Kings. Oettinger, meanwhile, is only 24 years old. Age isn’t always a prerequisite for success as a goalie, and that’s another reason to be encouraged by the possibility of Devon Levi playing a big role in his age 22 season.

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

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