Albany Week in Review #27

By Mike Buskus

Albany Week in Review #27

This is the recap of the final week of the season. Stay tuned for an extended review of the entire season in next week’s report, with an analysis of why the Rats had a bad season, commentary on individual players and some suggestions on what the team (and its parent club, the New Jersey Devils) should do for next season.

The week in review

One awful game. Two heart-breaking, last-minute loss-of-lead and loss-in-overtime games. One well-played, season finale. In four games, the team picked up four points (two from O.T. losses) and finished the season with 52, the lowest total in the nine year history of the franchise and well below last year’s 70.

On Wednesday, the Hamilton Bulldogs invaded the Pepsi Arena. With playoff positioning on their mind (the Dogs ended up 6th, narrowly avoiding the preliminary “best of three” elimination round), Hamilton had an agenda in mind. Hamilton also had several lines working, though Kevin Brown figured in most of the scoring. The Bulldogs embarrassed the Rats, beating them by a 6-2 margin. Albany goaltender, Ari Ahonen, was not very sharp, yielding 6 goals on 25 shots. But then again, he did not have very much help.

By the time Kevin Brown earned his hat trick (having collected his 28th, 29th and 30th markers of the year), the goal that earned his fedora (yes, a River Rats’ fan felt moved to toss a chapeau over the plexiglass from section 129 at the Pepsi) resulted from a coast-to-coast romp with not a single River Rat laying a glove, or a stick, or a body on Brown. The Hamilton goaltender, Marc Lamothe, had the only assist on that goal, as Brown literally skated end to end around and through the Albany defense.

Not to take anything away from Brown (he surely earned his “first star” with a five-point night, including a hat trick), but the River Rats should have been embarrassed that an opposing skater could and did move from end to end without ever being touched (much less “checked” or “hit”) by an Albany player. By then, midway through the second period, the Rats trailed, 4-1 and fans began their exodus from the arena.

The only bright spot for the Rats on Wednesday against Hamilton was the Steve Guolla line, truly the one forward line that has showed up to play every night. The combination of Christian Berglund on left wing, Steve Guolla at center and Jiri Bicek on the right side combined for both of Albany’s goals, with each member of the trio tallying two points and Guolla and Berglund getting the markers. Too bad no other forwards on the Rats showed up to play that night.

Thursday, on the road in Portland, the Rats demonstrated, as they had done all too often this season, that as a team they have not played 60-minute games. Leads evaporated, even at crucial times. Albany staked itself a 3-2 lead in the third period, after being shut out for nearly 43 minutes. Stan Gron, Christian Berglund and Mike Rupp contributed the goals.

However, a pair of goals by Chris Corrinet for Portland, one with 43 seconds left in regulation and one just five ticks of the clock into the extra session took away what might have been a road victory. J.F. Damphousse made 38 saves on 42 shots in the losing effort.

The pair of goals at the end of the game by one player, one in the final minute and one in overtime was, sadly, exactly what happened two nights later in Syracuse, but in even more dramatic fashion.

Syracuse took a first period lead before a sold-out War Memorial in Syracuse on Saturday, the last home game of the season for the Crunch. But a power play goal by Joel Bouchard and a last-minute goal in the second period by Jiri Bicek (who also had two apparent goals in the same game nullified) enabled the Rats to take a lead into the third period. They actually held it until the final second. A fraction of a tick on the clock before they would have escaped with a 2-1 road win, David Ling’s 55-foot blast from the blue line went through a screen and into Scott Clemmensen’s five-hole.

Ling, who set up the Crunch’s first goal, also hit paydirt in overtime. With Syracuse taking advantage of a power play thanks to the Rats’ inability to count players in overtime (they had five on the ice, to four for Syracuse), Ling anchored the power play from the blue line, keeping the puck in the zone for nearly a minute. Then, with less than a minute to go in the extra session, he launched one of his eight shots on the night. This one bounced off the shoulder of a River Rats’ defenseman, up into the air, and over the shoulder of goaltender Scott Clemmensen. The Rats gave Syracuse the man advantage with the penalty for too many men on the ice and the Crunch took advantage.

At least they closed out in style. In a game that was not decided until Christian Berglund’s short-handed tally with just under seven minutes remaining, Albany picked up only its 14th win on 80 games and the 11th at home in 40 efforts.

Scott Cameron opened the scoring for Albany with a move to the net that was matched with a pin-point pass by Joel Bouchard. An odd-man rush for Syracuse evened the score, with the Albany and Syracuse tallies coming early in the third period.

Given the Rats’ paltry offense this season (going into the game, 169 on the campaign, 13 below the league’s record-setting lowest output in 65 years, from Adirondack in 1998-1999), combined with weak penalty kill (22nd at home, 26th overall), fans worried that a Syracuse power play goal would end things after Sylvain Cloutier was given a minor in addition to a fighting major. Crunch defenseman, Tyler Sloan, had elbowed Cloutier’s helmet right off his head and Cloutier retaliated.

Cloutier’s toughness pleased the crowd and may have sparked the penalty-kill squad. Christian Berglund scored short-handed, unassisted moments later to give the Rats the lead and, as it turned out, the victory as well. Joel Bouchard banked in an empty-net goal to close out the game and the season’s scoring. The 3-1 win over the Crunch was only Albany’s second in eight tries against the Central Division and Western Conference champion Syracuse Crunch.

The victory brought a standing ovation from Albany fans, something rarely in evidence this year at the Pepsi Arena.

Also, prior to Sunday’s game, two River Rats were honored. Captain Sylvain Cloutier was commended for his extensive charitable work on behalf of the team throughout the year. Steve Guolla was voted by the fans as the Coors Light player of the year in recognition of this extraordinary efforts on a nightly basis. Hats off to Cloutier and Guolla for these well-deserved honors.

AWIR player of the week

In the final week of the season, there were several standouts for the Albany River Rats. Coach Bob Carpenter nominated defenseman, Joel Bouchard for league player honors, and that was a respectable choice. With four points in as many games (2G; 2A), Bouchard added some offense from the blue line that had been lacking for much of the season.

Others with good efforts for the week included Steve Guolla (one goal and four assists) and Jiri Bicek (also one goal and four assists). However, AWIR has chosen winger Christian Berglund as player of the week. With three goals and one assist, but especially for the short-handed, unassisted, game-winning goal late in the game in the season finale against Syracuse, Berglund earns the honor. His intensity and feistiness were rewarded this week.

Here and there

Although Albany Week in Review intends to review the pluses and minuses of the team and the season next week, this column would be remiss if it did not note the end of the season analysis and commentary from the professional sports writers who cover the Rats. Four of them weighed in the week just past.

Mike Kane, the writer of the column To the Point in the [Schenectady, New York] Daily Gazette, wrote a column entitled “Devils have left Rats high and dry,” in Thursday’s paper. Kane is a seasoned writer, who for many years covered the Adirondack Red Wings in Glens Falls, then covered both the Rats and Wings. Kane is also the author of the classic book, Minor in name only: A history of the Adirondack Red Wings.

Kane, in his commentary on Thursday, bluntly suggested that Devils’ general manager, Lou Lamoriello, should either apologize to the owner of the Albany River Rats, Dr. Walter Robb, or refund some of the reportedly million-dollar plus affiliation fee that the Rats pay the Devils.

Kane stated, “the River Rats are the worst team in the American Hockey League by a substantial margin. Thirteen victories in 77 games is beyond embarrassment.”

The column by the Gazette writer correctly noted that his paper and that writer had given plenty of credit to the New Jersey organization over the years for scouting and drafting and stocking the River Rats with prime prospects. However, Kane went on to point out than many of the prospects, particularly on defense, were traded away over the past several seasons for Devils’ players (or rentals for the playoffs).

Mind you, Kane is no Rats or Devils basher. He wrote many enthusiastic columns over the years about the Rats. Among his many memorable columns was one several years back in which he (correctly) credited River Rat Sasha Lakovic with almost single-handedly intimidating the Adirondack Red Wings into folding their tent against Albany in a playoff series that the Rats swept. So, when Mike Kane weighs in with trenchant commentary pointing the finger at the Devils’, it is something worth thinking about.

Then, on Saturday, the award-winning beat writer from the Gazette, Phil Janack, weighed in with his reporting on the same subject. Featuring ample quotes from River Rats’ owner, Walter Robb, and team president and chief executive officer, Garen Szablewski, Janack illustrated the Rats’ fall from power. Backed up with a graph from illustrator, David Kiphuth, Janack’s story showed the decline in points from a peak of 109 to 115 (in the golden years, from 1994 to 1996) to 70 the past two seasons, to 52 this season.

Janack quoted owner Robb as being unhappy that he has no say whatsoever in terms of selection of players or veterans. Robb indicated that he would prefer a more flexible affiliation agreement in which the Rats would pay more money if the team made the playoffs and less if they did not.

Janack’s story indicated that he had contacted Devils’ GM, Lou Lamoriello, for comment but that those calls had not been returned.

On Sunday, the other two area dailies weighed in with similar coverage. Matt Graves, the regular writer for the Albany Times Union, in a story headlined “Rats end a season of discontent,” quoted Robb as being very disappointed and frustrated with the supply of players this season from New Jersey.

While Robb was also quoted as expressing great satisfaction that a prospect, Brian Gionta, had graduated to the Devils this season, the owner of the River Rats was also reported to have lost money on the franchise for the third consecutive year. Though attendance was actually up slightly, thanks to aggressive marketing efforts, Robb worries about a decline in interest from fans who saw few wins this season.

The Troy Record also weighed in on the subject. An article by Chris Fitz Gerald, entitled, “Rat poison?,” echoed the theme that the once proud River Rats had collapsed well into the basement of the AHL.

Fitz Gerald also emphasized the exodus of Albany players, particularly on the blue line, via trade. Experienced defensemen Sascha Goc and Josef Boumedienne were packaged in a trade that sent Andrei Zyuzin to the Devils. Back liner Andre Lakos went to Dallas for forward Valeri Kamensky.

Fitz Gerald tried to get Chris Lamoriello, general manager and on the Devils’ payroll as a scout, to comment on what the New Jersey club would do to correct the situation. Lamoriello, Jr., declined comment, in evident deference to the fact that management decisions on such matters are all made by Lamoriello, Sr., and GM Lou Lamoriello is now pre-occupied with the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Thus, the three regular beat writers (Janack, Graves and Fitz Gerald) and the columnist with the longest tenure covering hockey in the area (Kane), all reported and commented this week what was obvious, but unspoken, by River Rats’ management and ownership for much of the second half of the season: the quality of the product on the ice has declined precipitously from prior years and the owner, who rescued the franchise from the bankruptcy of the prior owner, is very unhappy about this state of affairs.

Stay tuned next week for Albany Week in Review’s own season recap, grade report and player-by-player commentary.