By Mike Buskus
Progress glacial, but discernible
The cynical fan or writer would have “written off” the Albany River Rats a while ago. But the loyal follower has not given up on the Rats, as one-fifth of the regular season (17 games on the 80-game schedule) has gone by with the affiliate of the New Jersey Devils having won just once.
One wag quipped that players must wonder whether it was still Halloween. Otherwise, why were so many fans dressed up like empty seats? Announced home attendance, reported at an average of 4,050, counts season ticket sales even if the holders of those tickets do not show up. Lately, more and more season ticket holders have skipped games, possibly to get an early start on their holiday shopping.
How, then, is progress evident? Not in results, because the team has not played a great 60-minutes all in one evening for a while.
Improvements are seen here and there, but not enough linked together to get a win. On Tuesday, on the last leg of a road trip, the Rats visited Quebec City, one of the top teams in the league. Even with the help of Scott Clemmensen, down from New Jersey on a conditioning stint, the Rats only came close. The Boston College netminder, who anchored an NCAA championship this past spring, stopped 34 of 36 shots, but his teammates were only to get one goal (Christian Berglund, a power play goal from Steve Guolla and Joel Bouchard) past Luc Belanger of the Citadelles.
Fans who hoped for a win at home on Saturday (against fellow cellar-dweller, the Springfield Falcons), were disappointed. Indeed, after 20 minutes, when their Rats were out-shot (20-7), badly out-chanced and out-hit, those fans were scratching their heads and remarking that goaltender Ari Ahonen had kept them in the game.
But even a pair of second-period goals (Stan Gron pouncing on a rebound; Steve Guolla generously dishing off to Christian Berglund) and a 2-1 lead going into the third period were not enough to salvage a win. A late third-period goal, through traffic from a sharp angle on the boards, led to a 2-2 tie against division rival Springfield.
Surely, after taking a 4-2 lead late in the third period at the Tsongas Arena, the River Rats would finally get that elusive first road win (and second “W” overall) on the season. No. Sorry. Somehow, the script included league-leading point-getter, Byron Ritchie (12G; 12A; 24 points in 19 games). Ritchie scored twice in the final 75 seconds to earn a tie for Lowell and to steal a win from the Rats.
Once again, too much was expected of the goaltender, Scott Clemmensen, who had to face 38 shots on the evening, the last with an extra attacker.
So, where, you ask, is the progress? It is in little things, which have not yet found their way on the scoreboard. Better line changes. A few players finishing their checks (Sylvain Cloutier’s return Tuesday against Quebec and Saturday against Springfield helped, but he was scratched on Sunday as his conditioning is evidently not 100% yet). The goaltenders have cut down on rebounds. For a season that has started as slowly as last year’s, fans and coaches have to content themselves with signs of progress and the fact that only once (a 7-1 blow-out in Worcester) has the team really not been in contention for a win.
The return of Mike Commodore was a good sign. With Sascha Goc and Josef Boumedienne dealt to Tampa Bay in exchange for Andrei Zyuzin (who promptly was placed on the Devils’ roster), Mike Commodore brings a sorely-needed physical presence on the blue line.
Injuries have held the Rats back. Forward Bruce Gardiner missed three straight games with a wrist injury. Winger Richard Rochefort is out with a knee injury. Sylvain Cloutier is just coming back from a knee injury and is not yet at 100% strength.
The biggest short-coming of late is that the team is not physical enough against opponents. On Saturday against the Springfield Falcons, the defense collapsed and backed up, instead of challenging the opponents at center ice and at the blue line. Fans, frustrated by the 20-7 margin in shots after 20 minutes, lamented the absence of hard-hitting players like Eric Bertrand, Sasha Lakovic and Geordie Kinnear, former players (Kinnear is now assistant coach) who set a standard for hits.
One barometer of the absence of hits is the penalty-minute tally. While no coach wants his team constantly in the penalty box, the River Rats average a miniscule 14.9 PIM per game, well south of the average of over 20, and not even half of the Worcester benchmark of 31.4. Surely there is a difference between discipline on the ice and wimpy play with no hits. Of late, the Rats are much closer to the wimpy soft play than to the hard-hitting style that fans and coaches had become accustomed to seeing on the ice. The best hitter at the moment is captain Sylvain Cloutier, and he is just coming back (and a speedy recovery at that) from a knee injury. The rest of the team, forwards and defensemen included, have not come anywhere close to a respectable number of hits on opponents. Fans and coaches will take a few boarding or charging calls in exchange for the intimidation of opponents, as well as loose pucks coughed up at center ice that may and should result from hitting the opposition.
Here and there
Goaltender, Frederic Henry, officially joined the “former Rats” department as he is awaiting assignment to another team. Having started but one game this season, and having done relief duty once when J.F. Damphousse had food-poisoning, Henry was not getting playing time. Because the Devils have not yet started Scott Clemmensen in net, they keep sending him to Albany for playing time. Clemmensen has yet to register a win, but he sure has seen his share of pucks. He has faced 141 shots and made 126 saves, for a save percentage of .894. His goals-against average of 3.71 and won-loss record (0-3-1) does not begin to tell the story, since he has been solid. However, the River Rats are dead-last in the league (27 out of 27 teams) in shots allowed, yielding 35.53 per game. And that is not from “run and gun” offense, either, since the Rats also are at the bottom of the league in shots-for, with only 23.94 per game.
Albany Week in Review has chosen Steve Guolla as the player of the week for the River Rats. Guolla has centered the forward line which has generated the most excitement and scoring chances for the team. Pivoting for Christian Berglund and Brian Gionta, Guolla is at home in front of the net, behind it or in the corners. With better than average face-off skills, excellent passing and solid two-way play on the ice, Guolla has fit in nicely after 10 games with the team following his signing by the Devils as a free agent.
One example of his team play was the generous gift pass he sent to Christian Berglund on Saturday night. With speed through the neutral zone, Guolla was cruising up the left side, drawing the goalie to him. Though he had a decent chance at a goal, he dished off to Berglund, who had a better chance and capitalized on it.
Guolla anchors the Rats’ first unit on the power play (also with Berglund and Gionta) and the good puck movement on the power play owes something to his presence.
By coincidence, the Lexington, Kentucky Herald-Leader, in a story by Mark Maloney, featured Steve Guolla this week in a retrospective article on the only player whose jersey number (#17) was ever retired by the Kentucky Thoroughblades. Maloney reports that Guolla married a school-teacher, Lori, and that the couple are building a house in a Detroit suburb.
Guolla expressed the hope to Maloney that he still has a chance to play in the NHL. Not one to be tagged with a reputation only for offense (he won the Les Cunningham Award as the regular-season AHL MVP in 1998-99 with a 100-point season in only 69 games), Guolla told the Herald-Leader that he will play defense, or the trap, or whatever style the coaches in Albany want him to play. Blessed with wingers Christian Berglund and Brian Gionta, Guolla has two talented forwards on his left and right side.
Though on-ice time was not available, Guolla and his line have often been double-shifted, being put on the ice every second or third shift, and at critical times at the end of the period or end of the game.
For his leadership, contributions as a “team player” and strong face-off results, AWIR selects Steve Guolla as Albany’s player of the week. His two assists on the score-sheet do not even begin to measure his contribution to the team that is slowly improving.