Rats even up Amerks in opener

By Mike Buskus

ROCHESTER, NY. (October 11, 2002).

The Albany River Rats at least started the season by not losing. Earning a “moral victory” in a two-apiece duel against the Rochester Americans, this was a tune-up for special teams with the “call all interference” rules interpretations. Referee Craig Spada was consistent, consistently strict all night. Each team had eleven power plays and each converted once on 5-on-3 opportunities.

Goaltending was sharp tonight, as Amerks’ Ryan Miller made his pro debut. The Hobey Baker winner, still sporting his green mask from Michigan State, earned “first star” with a solid overall effort (32 saves), including several “shooting gallery” episodes in which the River Rats held territorial possession for close to two minutes consecutively.

Max Birbraer converted a good feed from the corner from Jason Lehoux to give the Rats an early lead, midway through the first period. But less than two minutes later, while trying to cushion their lead on a power play, the Rats got sloppy. Denis Hamel bagged a short-handed marker, five-hole, after beating Ken Sutton at center ice.

The veteran defenseman, Sutton, more than made up for that miscue on later plays, with some excellent blueline work.

The fans were frustrated by repeated whistles during the first 40 minutes. Rochester fans even booed some of the penalties called on Albany players. As a result there was very little 5-on-5 played until the third period.

The teams traded power play goals in the second. Craig Darby, moving to the left doorstop, shoveled in a pass from Mikko Jokela to restore the Rats’ lead early in the second. The Amerks evened it with their own power play goal, by Peter Ratchuk, sneaking in from the blue line at the high slot.

Scott Clemmensen, earning “second star” for the evening, was particularly sharp on several breakaways by Amerks. He stoned Norm Milley midway through the third period. Clemmensen’s “iron ally” saved him at 9:04 of the third, as Ratchuk’s bullet clanged off the post.

With the heavy stoppages in play for whistles, Albany depended heavily on its top line of Joe Hulbig, Craig Darby and Dave Roche. Those three moved the puck very well and cycled it down in the corners for some extended possessions.

The hardest working River Rat tonight, in the opinion of this writer, was Christian Berglund. Though kept off the scoresheet, he skated exceptionally well with the puck, several times dancing around defenders. Strong back-checking and good puck pursuit should have earned him “third star” but that accolade went to an also deserving Denis Hamel. Hamel not only scored Rochester’s short-handed marker, but created many scoring chances for Rochester.

Coach Dennis “Red” Gendron, in his debut as head coach (he was acting coach for the Rats several years ago during the Olympic break), ran an efficient bench and was not afraid to send the enforcers out when needed. In three bouts, the Amerks took two of them. Rob Skrlac decisioned Sean McMorrow in the first period, for the Rats’ lone victory on the pugilistic front. Ryan Jorde edged Jason Lehoux in the middle frame. Andrew Peters embarrassed Lehoux in the third, putting him down and out with two punches.

The Rats’ puck pursuit and physical play was quite respectable. “Finishing” on scoring chances was lacking, but part of that is a tribute to Ryan Miller’s sharp performance in net.

If this is a sign of how the American Hockey League expects to call games, then all teams will have to adjust. There was no “flow” to this game, with choppy start-and-stop play.

The Rochester Americans unveiled their new video scoreboard. Video quality was OK at best. Incredibly, for the reported $1 million cost, there is no place on the scoreboard for penalties or shots on goal. Unbelievable. The “end zone” miniature scoreboard only showed penalties and total score, but no shots on goal. For the 47th season of the Rochester Amerks, the much-awaited scoreboard was a serious disappointment, at least to this observer.

The River Rats have their home opener on Saturday night, hosting the St. John’s Maple Leafs. It is Albany’s tenth season in the AHL.