ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- Randy Sexton hasn't had much to cheer about the past few months. That was the case once more Thursday night.
The general manager of the Florida Panthers sat in a semi-private box watching the Rochester Americans lose their opener of the American Hockey League playoffs to the Abbotsford, British Columbia, Heat.
Sexton wears his emotions on his sleeve, so when the Heat jumped to a 2-0 first period lead, Sexton was obviously not happy.
At the end of the night – the Amerks lost 3-2 – Sexton was able to reflect a little more and look at the big picture.
The Panthers haven't made the playoffs in 10 years, their nine season drought (the 2004-05 season was canceled) tying an NHL record for postseason futility. But a good number of players the Panthers are looking at to be on next years team are here with the Amerks, getting valuable playoff experience.
Sexton says he talked to players like Jason Garrison, Shawn Matthias and Michal Repik that what they do in these playoffs will go a long way in determining their future with the club.
“I was very clear that how they play in the playoffs here will go a lot further in convincing us that they're ready to make that permanent step next year than just playing some end of the year games in the NHL,'' said Sexton. “This atmosphere is very intense, it's a lot harder to succeed. That's why we're here. We're going to be at these games, watching all of them so we can make the assessment of whether or not they are ready.''
Matthias and Garrison have definitely upped their presence with the Panthers after they finished the season strong. Matthias is going to be penciled in as one of Florida's four centers when next season starts and Garrison is going to be given a shot to be one of the top six defensemen.
Both know they have a great opportunity with the Panthers organization as the team goes through a rebuild after yet another disappointing season. And as they help the Amerks in the playoffs, they help themselves. Players like winger Michal Repik and defenseman Keaton Ellerby are on the periphery of making the 2010-11 Panthers but a strong push in the postseason would keep them on the radar.
“The playoffs show who is ready to play, who is ready for these big games,'' said Matthias. “Florida wants to be in the playoffs next year and this is good experience for us, show we can step it up in the big games. We're here to make a point.”
Said Garrison: “This is a different level of play, very gritty and guys are doing things on the ice they may not do during a regular season game. We know they are watching. Everyone wants to be part of a winner. We're trying to take this thing to the end.''
Center Jeff Taffe, who played 21 games with the Panthers this season, has experienced the playoffs twice in his career. He says the younger players on the Panthers roster are gaining invaluable experience now that the postseason has started as the intensity and speed of the game has kicked up.
“It's going to be a shock for some of them,'' said Taffe. “There are highs and lows in a seven game series so you have to battle through things. It's great experience. I'm sure a lot of guys with the Panthers would love to be playing right now because it's a different atmosphere. No one wants it to end. We have one opponent to focus on. That makes it fun to play.''
This is the Amerks first trip to the playoffs since 2007, a long break for one of the league's traditional powerhouse clubs. Rochester has won the Calder Cup – the league championship – six times in its history, but with shaky ownership, the franchise had fallen on hard times.
Because of the team's financial troubles, the Sabres broke their 29 year affiliation with the team and moved to Portland, Maine. The Panthers worked out the financial issues and became the lone parent club when millionaire Curt Styres bought – and likely saved the team -- in 2008.
Injuries on the big club forced the Panthers to raid the Amerks for players throughout the year, with seven Rochester players being on Florida's lineup card in Sunday's season ending loss to the Lightning in Sunrise.
For players like Steve MacIntyre, Victor Oreskovich, Matthias and Garrison, the losses in Florida are behind them. The Panthers limped to the end of the season with losses in 11 of the final 15 games, but this postseason is a fresh slate.
The Amerks, down 1-0 in the best-of-seven series, play Game 2 Saturday.
“It's a different season,'' said MacIntyre. “It's all about preparation and some of these young guys are learning that every game counts right now. Four losses and we're done. You lose one and who have to regroup, pick yourself up. It's playoffs. You let it all hang out.''