Rats end season on up-note

By Mike Buskus

ALBANY, NY. (April 7, 2002). In ending what was certainly, by Albany standards, a tough season, the River Rats went out in style, with a 3-1 victory over the Western Conference champions, the Syracuse Crunch, before a crowd of 6,126 at the Pepsi Arena.

The game had no special significance in the standings, the Crunch having secured top spot in their conference last night in Syracuse, where the Crunch emerged victorious in overtime after tying it in the final second of regulation. Other than skating for pride and for a chance to bring a little happiness home to Albany fans, the River Rats had no particular reason to perform tonight. Some are without contract for next season and uncertainty in the off-season awaits.

Before the game, the team made two special awards. Captain Sylvain Cloutier received an award for his extensive charitable work during the year. Steve Guolla received the fans’ vote as the Coors Light player of the year. Leading the team in goals (25), assists (34), points (59), game-winning goals (3), short-handed tallies (2) and overall hustle, Guolla’s pre-game honor was warmly applauded by the fans.

In the final game of the regular season, the River Rats pitted goaltender Ari Ahonen against Greg Gardner for the Crunch. Syracuse coach, Gary Agnew, passed up on the chance to have goaltender J.F. Labbe try for AHL history. Had Labbe played and if he had shut out the Rats (as he did twice earlier this season), he would have established American Hockey League history with 10 shutouts in a season. Instead, Gardner (7-5-5, 2.51 GAA, .924 save percentage) got the start against Ahonen (5-22-6; 3.08 GAA; .912 save percentage).

Both goalies played capably, but, as usual, the Albany netminder was tested more often. Ahonen made 36 saves on 37 shots to earn second star. Gardner made 18 saves on 20 shots. (Albany defenseman, Joel Bouchard, banked in an empty-net marker with the Syracuse goalie off for the extra attacker.)

The teams skated even and scoreless through 40 minutes. Fans were wondering whether a pair of dueling shutouts would happen. Scott Cameron of Albany nixed that idea at 3:18 of the third. With a simple play of going to the net, an on-the-tape pass from Joel Bouchard helped Cameron collect his third of the year, from the edge of the right wing circle.

The Crunch evened it on what started as an odd-man rush. With the Rats bobbling it at their blue line, Syracuse moved it up ice with a man advantage. Traffic literally piled up in front of the net, as a collision between a Rats’ defender and a Crunch forward distracted goaltender Ari Ahonen. Jeremy Reich took advantage on the left side, for his 9th of the year.

In a game in which referee Bob Langdon pretty much let the teams play, an uncalled elbow to the head by Crunch defenseman, Tyler Sloan, led to a Syracuse power play. Captain Sylvain Cloutier, whose helmet was popped off with help from Sloan’s elbow, took exception and tackled Sloan. They dropped the gloves and briefly jousted, with Cloutier flagged for an extra two minutes for supposedly having started it.

Thanks to good Albany penalty-kill work, the Rats got the last laugh. Fans applauded Cloutier when he went to the box, apparently voicing their season-long frustration with the fact that the Rats have not played a particularly physical brand of play all year. With Syracuse on the man advantage, some jump, speed and a good move on the goalie allowed Christian Berglund to score short-handed on what became the game-winning goal. Stealing it at the blue line, Bergy went the distance up right wing, drawing Gardner out of the net with a nice fake before sliding it through the five-hole.

For the next 6:43, the Rats played a conservative “dump in, chip out” game, to avoid a repeat of the last-second Crunch tying goal of the night before. An empty net goal by Joel Bouchard wrapped up the victory, to the enormous relief of the players. Some no doubt wondered what level of applause they might get without finishing the season with a win. In what was only the 14th win on 80 games, and the 11th at home in 40 contests at the Pepsi Arena, at least the team concluded the season with a solid effort. The fans gave the team a standing ovation.

The three stars all belonged to Albany River Rats tonight: third, to Scott Cameron for the opening goal; second, to Ari Ahonen, with a fine effort and 36 saves on 37 shots; and, first, to Christian Berglund with a very timely short-handed goal for the game-winner.

The team gave away color photographs of the team to fans as they exited the arena.