ALBANY, NY. (November 3, 2001). In some respects, it was billed as a battle for last place. The Albany River Rats were in last place in the Eastern Conference (1-6-1-2, for 5 points in 10 games), with their opponents (and former “Mid-Atlantic Division” rivals), the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in last place in the Western Conference (2-9-1-1, for 6 points in 13 games).
The loser could claim the title to last place in the 27-team American Hockey League (if Albany lost, they would indisputably have the fewest points; if WBS lost, they would have the lowest win percentage.
Neither team wanted to be called losers, and each provided excitement, a bit of opportunism (on turnovers) and the fans (including about 50 from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton) saw ten goals on the night, five per team. A small Saturday crowd of 3,131 showed up, with the rest presumably home watching the World Series.
Devils’ prospect, Christian Berglund, made the worst turnover of his AHL career, with an unbelievably dumb give-away inside his own defensive zone late in the second period. By then, the Rats had clawed their way back from a 3-1 deficit to tie the score. Berglund had the puck in his zone, on the boards near the edge of the circle. No opposing player was pressuring him. In what presumably was a mental lapse, he passed the puck straight across the ice, practically on the hash marks. Standing in the middle of the slot, with no River Rat in sight, was Tom Kostopolous (who, last night in Quebec got the overtime game-winner for WBS). Kostopolous flattened the puck, teed it up and slammed it home to give the visitors a 4-3 lead. Pure bone-headed play by Berglund. Pure opportunistic goal by Kostopolous.
Some speculated that Albany coach, Bob Carpenter would bench Berglund, as the Rats’ bench boss had benched several players in last night’s game during the second period after ill-advised players in the third period. However, apparently he merely had a “chat” with the promising winger during second intermission. (Berglund had missed the last three games with tendonitis of the wrist.)
Berglund made the most of his second-chance. Coach Carpenter put him out on the first shift of the third period, in an apparent vote of confidence. Near the mid-point of the third period, Berglund redeemed himself, with a power play goal from the right wing circle on a tough-angle shot. This goal, with quality assists to Steve Guolla and Josef Boumedienne, tied the game at 4-4.
Jason Lehoux, a healthy scratch the past several games, made the most of his playing time in the third period. Three minutes after Berglund tied the game, Lehoux took a pass off the boards, sprinted up left wing, ripped a slapper from the left wing circle that popped out to the right side from WBS goaltender Sebastian Caron. Before Caron could get up, Lehoux had retrieved his own rebound and snapped it into the half-open net.
Unfortunately for Albany, Robert Dome capitalized on a power play with less than two minutes to go to tie the game at 5-5. With Scott Cameron flagged for hooking at 16:31 (really, it was a makeup call for an elbow by Sascha Goc on Eric Meloche, that had gone uncalled, but apparently not unnoticed, though in Goc’s defense, it was a retaliation for Meloche’s uncalled hit on a River Rat). Regardless, the Rats were unable to thwart Wilkes-Barre’s power play and Dome pounced on a loose puck and snapped it home at 18:03.
Mike Rupp came close to winning it at 4:00 of O.T., but Caron made a big save to preserve the tie.
The Berglund cardinal sin of passing in front of his own goalie in his own zone, and his redemption for the tying goal was the most dramatic part of the game, but action was end-to-end. WBS showed no signs of fatigue from the seven-hour bus ride from Quebec City overnight.
The game featured three Boston College recent graduates: Brian Gionta (who got the first goal of the night) for Albany, and Rob Scuderi (D) and Brooks Orpik (D) of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. All three of the teammates from the BC college championship had celebrated on this same ice (Pepsi Arena) in April, where the “Frozen Four” was held this year. Tonight, though, they were opponents.
Gionta’s goal, within the first minute of play, on the first shift of the night, was a sprint up right wing, using center Steve Guolla as a decoy on the left side. A fake pass froze the goaltender and Gionta carded his fourth goal of the season.
The visitors then collected the next three goals, all in a span of under three minutes. Michal Sivek scored on the power play, followed by Tom Kostopolous first of the night (parked in front, converting a pass from behind the net from Martin Sonnenberg), after which David Koci’s screened shot went in from the left point. So, at 11:34 of the first, WBS led, 3-1.
Then, momentum shifted back to Albany, with a pair of late first-period goals. Stan Gron worked a give-and-go with Daryl Andrews. Then, with Bruce Gardiner aggravating the goalie on a power play by parking next to and in front of the crease, Ted Drury one-timed a pass from Jiri Bicek to knot things up at three apiece.
Then Christian Berglund gave away the puck. No mistakes on jersey colors, though. Last night, the Hershey Bears came to town and their (brown) road jerseys have a lot of white on the sleeves (the Rats’ home color). But the WBS Penguins jerseys are almost all black, so Berglund could not possibly have been “seeing white”. But, as stated earlier, he made up for that mistake.
The five goals scored by the Rats tonight were the second-highest total for them this season. Only the 6-goal outburst against Portland showed more damage to the twine.
The three stars: third, to Ted Drury of Albany, with one goal; second, to Tom Kostopolous of WBS for a pair of goals; and, first, to Brian Gionta of the River Rats, with one goal and very energetic play.
Others deserving of recognition include Jiri Bicek, with an assist and very good puck pursuit; Jason Lehoux for a great solo effort on the go-ahead goal midway through the third period; Peter Ratchuk of WBS for a pair of assists; and, notwithstanding his bone-headed giveaway, Christian Berglund of Albany with a goal and an assist.
Finally, it may be just coincidence, but the 5-5 tie occurred on a night (apparently the first time in Rats’ history, or surely the first time in recent memory) in which the Albany River Rats supplied both radio broadcasts. John Hennessy, the voice of the Albany River Rats (who filled in very capably last year in New Jersey when Mike Miller [the voice of the NJ Devils] was undergoing throat cancer treatment) broadcast for the Rats, as usual, on 980-AM. At the other end of the broadcast booth was none other than Jonathan Scherzer, the head of press relations for the Rats. Scherzer carried the microphone duties for the Rats for half of last season when Hennessy got the call-up to New Jersey. Tonight, with WBS play-by-play announcer, Tom Grace, covering the Nashville — Dallas NHL game, Scherzer did the honors for the WBS broadcast on 92 and 100 FM broadcast out of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. No word on whether or not he raised his voice to “celebrate” Rats’ goals.