ROCHESTER — Zemgus Girgensons has built a reputation by going all-out all the time. His motor never stops.
The Buffalo Sabres’ prospect proved he has brakes, too.
Girgensons completed his rookie season Wednesday with a highlight-reel goal during Rochester’s 3-2 overtime loss to Toronto, a setback that resulted in a playoff sweep. The Amerks scored five times in the three-game series, and Girgensons had three of them.
“Best player on the team,” Amerks forward Cody McCormick said. “Best player on the ice.”
Girgensons, who turned 19 in January, began this season as the second-youngest player in the American Hockey League. The youth showed at times as he put up six goals and 17 points in 61 games while missing time with a concussion.
He really had a coming-out party during the playoffs. The native of Latvia, picked 14th overall by the Sabres in last year’s draft, lived up to his reputation of being a hard hitter and aggressive penalty killer while adding timely offense.
“I just gave my best, that’s all,” Girgensons said in Blue Cross Arena. “If you give everything you’ve got, you’re going to get lucky bounces. You’re going to work hard, you’re going to get some bounces. I got some luck in the playoffs.
“I worked my [butt] off all season and maybe my luck wasn’t there, but in the playoffs it came.”
Girgensons pulled the Amerks into their first tie, 1-1, with a dynamic goal late in the second period. The left winger sped to an open area in the slot and took a pass from Johan Larsson. Girgensons spotted Greg Ross coming to disrupt the play, so he abruptly stopped, let the forward slide by and unleashed a pinpoint shot into the top corner.
“He’s really come a long way this year,” Amerks coach Chadd Cassidy said. “More than anything from what I’ve seen is just his confidence with the puck has been through the roof. He always plays hard, always plays through people. He’s tough to play against, but you can see that confidence when he has the puck.
“He knows that he can make that extra move and he can make a play with it as opposed to early in the season I think the game was going so fast in his mind all the time because of the level and the pace of play. His development, to me, has just been off the charts with what he’s been able to do this year.”
Girgensons clicked really well with Larsson, who joined the organization last month as part of the trade that sent Jason Pominville to Minnesota.
“He’s not a typical Europe guy,” Larsson, who’s Swedish, said of Girgensons. “Kind of me, too, works hard, goes in corners, battles hard and has a good nose for the net. That’s good.”
Larsson led the Amerks with three assists.
“Those two guys were probably our best forwards from start to finish in this series,” Cassidy said.
Although the Amerks’ postseason lasted just three games, Cassidy feels the experience was good for the Sabres’ prospects.
Girgensons killed penalties, while Larsson, Mikhail Grigorenko, Brian Flynn and Mark Pysyk skated together on a power-play unit.
“It’s huge for them,” said Cassidy, who noted that Toronto defensemen Mike Komisarek, Paul Ranger and Mike Mottau have combined for 1,102 NHL games. “That just shows you how difficult the game is going to be even at this level, then when you get up to that level it’s going to be even more difficult.
“For guys like Girgensons, Larsson, Grigorenko, Flynn, these are the kind of nights they’re going to face all the time in the National Hockey League, playoff intensity and big strong, defensemen who aren’t going to give you easy offense. It’s a great opportunity for them to get used to that.”
The youngsters also learned what it takes to compete for a trophy. They have the scars to prove it. Girgensons departed with one across his nose. Grigorenko had a bloody upper lip.
“It’s really physical hockey,” Grigorenko said, “and I think this is what I need right now.”