By Mike Buskus
Albany Week in Review #18
Trickle-down effect from Devils?
With the news, reported by Sports Network and AP on Monday afternoon, February 4, 2002, that the New Jersey Devils had agreed to terms with veteran goaltender, John Vanbiesbrouck, to return to the NHL club, the inevitable speculation “down on the farm” in Albany is this: who gets the boot in net?
To date, the Albany River Rats have followed a “rotation” system, in which Ari Ahonen and Scott Clemmensen have alternated starts. Though Ahonen is slightly ahead in statistical measures (2.97 goals-against; .913 save percentage, versus 3.11 GAA and .910 save percentage for Clemmensen), Clemmensen has, in the opinion of this writer, been sharper lately. The Boston College graduate did get pulled several weeks back in a “rematch” of the “Frozen Four” against Karl Goehring (late of North Dakota, now with the Syracuse Crunch). However, it was Clemmensen who weathered blizzards of shots in Hartford, facing 48 shots (with 46 saves) and 45 shots (with 40 saves) on successive Saturdays at the Hartford Veterans’ Memorial Civic Center. This past week, Clemmensen earned “first star” in Rochester with his 38-save effort backstopping a 1-1 tie against the Amerks.
While some teams have experimented with a three goaltender system, usually that is a temporary expedient while an out-placement is sought for one of the three. With J.F. Damphousse thus destined to be shipped out of East Rutherford, New Jersey, as soon as the “Beezer” is in game shape, the question remains: where does he go? Albany fans have great regard for him, but have gotten attached to Clemmensen and Ahonen. Despite the Rats’ low status in the standings, last in the league and last in the Eastern Conference, fans in Albany do not blame the goaltenders.
With trade rumors still swirling around the NHL, to say nothing of New Jersey, a “spare” goaltender prospect could be trade bait. With the Olympics right around the corner, but the NHL March trade deadline not that far away, it would not be surprising to see one of the three young goaltenders in the Devils’ stable traded, possibly as part of a package deal. Only time will tell.
Commodore serves his time
Check your calendars. Check your box scores. The December 8, 2001 matchup between the Albany River Rats and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins had, until very recently, topped the season charts for PIM (penalties in minutes) at 216. (Bridgeport and Springfield, in a bout on February 1, 2002, just raised the bidding to 326 PIM.)
Part and parcel of the discipline handed out in the Rats vs. Penguins game was a three-game suspension of Albany defenseman, Mike Commodore. That had not been served, since Commodore was then called up to the Devils. The NHL does not honor minor league suspensions, but neither would Commodore get time off for “good behavior” so to speak. So, technically, Commodore still has to serve the time before he could again be eligible for AHL duty.
Last week’s transactions carry a listing on February 1, 2002, of the Devils sending Commodore down to the River Rats. Of course he did not play this past weekend. He was not on the lineup card in Rochester, but was listed in Syracuse and was also announced as a “scratch.” Evidently, this was just a “paper” transaction, of the fiction frequently indulged by NHL clubs to meet roster limits or, in this case, to “serve some time” in the minors.
The week just past
Not exactly anything to write home about. In fact, the Rats did not mail back any victories from their travels to Hamilton, Rochester and Syracuse. Top center Steve Guolla was injured, with a puck to the face at the end of the first period in Rochester. He did not return to action that game and did not play on Saturday in Syracuse.
They continued what they started 10 days ago in Hartford, with a loss on the road on Wednesday in Hamilton. The Bulldogs edged the Rats in overtime, 3-2. According to Garry McKay of the Hamilton Spectator, Kevin Brown pulled a slow-to-fast maneuver in overtime to get around Albany forward Richard Rochefort (by skating very slowly and suddenly accelerating). Brown went in alone on Ari Ahonen and scored the game-winner midway through the extra session.
If “Rocky” Rochefort got blamed for the loss in Hamilton on Wednesday, he certainly made up for it later in the week. Rochefort had the only goal for Albany on Friday as it squeaked out a 1-1 tie at the Blue Cross Arena at the War Memorial. Behind terrific goaltending by Scott Clemmensen, Albany held off 38 of 39 shots, while the Rats mustered only14 shots, with only two in the final period of regulation. Rochefort also had the only Rats’ goal in Syracuse on Saturday night. Penalty trouble doomed the Rats, as they fell to the Crunch, 3-1.
In AWIR’s game report from Syracuse, this writer stated that Crunch goaltender, J.F. Labbe, had bothered Bruce Gardiner with some “stick work” and that Gardiner answered back, being ejected for spearing. No reason to question the call, then or now, since Gardiner clearly was guilty of the infraction. Referee Ron Morgan was justified in calling the five-minute major against Labbe, who appeared to be writhing in agony on the ice.
Of course, it was a decisive moment in the game. An Albany power play goal (4-on-3) by Mikko Jokela a split-second later was wiped out, as the referee signaled that he had called a penalty on Albany before the puck went in. Since Syracuse scored on the major penalty, the score became 3-1 Syracuse, though it would have been 2-2 without the penalty.
Why pick apart that penalty? Well, it turns out that J.F. Labbe went on record with his friendly, home-town newspaper, bragging a bit about drawing Gardiner into the penalty. According to reporting by Lindsay Kramer, of the Syracuse Post-Standard, “Labbe at first said he did nothing to Gardiner, then admitted to maybe trying to trip him.”
Add to that Labbe’s history, with the Cornwall Aces, the Hershey Bears, the Hamilton Bulldogs, the Hartford Wolf*Pack and the Syracuse Crunch, of embellishing the effects of contact with opposing players. AWIR’s conclusion: in the opinion of this writer, who had a decent view of the play from center ice, Labbe made it worse than it was, maybe garnering a “major” penalty against Albany instead of a “minor.” But referees sometimes read newspapers, too, and maybe next time Labbe goes down after “contact” with an opposing player, maybe the orange armband will not be so quick to find fault exclusively with the opposition.
Albany Week in Review player of the week
It was, once again, a week in which the River Rats failed to get a win. An overtime loss in Hamilton generated a point, as did the tie in Rochester. But the loss in Syracuse did nothing for the standings, and only three points out of a possible six resulted.
AWIR has selected goaltender, Scott Clemmensen as Albany’s player of the week. With 35 saves on 38 shots at the Copps Coliseum in Hamilton and a 38-save effort (on a 39-shot barrage) in Rochester, Clemmensen, who earned “first star” in Rochester with his contribution to the Rats’ 1-1 tie against the Amerks, emerges as AWIR’s player of the week.