Sabres Report: Riding the Rollercoaster

By Ken McKenna

For the players on the Rochester Americans’ roster, not to mention the fans of the team, the 2002-03 season has been akin to a ride on a Darien Lake rollercoaster, complete with dizzying drops, flat stretches, and giddy ascents. While the club’s record just past the halfway mark sits at a fairly unremarkable 14-16-9-3, the journey to reach that record has been anything but boring.

Leaving the gate with a lineup loaded with newly signed Buffalo Sabres’ prospects, the Amerks headed straight into a steep downward slope to start the 02-03 season. Rochester accomplished the unenviable feat of going 0-for-October, managing just two ties to go along with seven losses. A combination of a lack of scoring, due in part to the absence of center Chris Taylor, and the inexperience of several young players trying to acclimate themselves to the AHL were the main reasons for the Americans fall to the bottom of the league.

November saw Rochester continue their winless ways, as they started the month with two ties and a loss. But the ride was now leveling off, with the Amerks playing a more competitive brand of hockey. The improvement paid off on 11/8/02, with Rochester becoming the last professional hockey team to get their first win of the 2002-03 season. From this point, the rest of November was a series of slight rises and dips, as the team became more familiar with one another, and more confident in their abilities. The return of offensive sparkplug Taylor was certainly a big reason for the Amerks’ improvement, but the emergence of rookies Ryan Miller and Paul Gaustad also helped in stabilizing the teams’ performance. As a result of this better performance, Rochester completed November with a more respectable 6-5-3 mark.

With the impetus of two straight victories at the end of the previous month, the Amerks moved up the AHL’s Central Division standings during the month of December. Wins were now coming in bunches, with Rochester compiling an excellent 8-2-3 record for the month. The continued strong play of goaltenders Miller and Tom Askey had the players in front of them playing with more confidence, with further contributions coming from young prospects like Gaustad, Norm Milley, Jason Pominville and Jiri Novotny. Perhaps the greatest revelation was the offensive outburst put forth by 3rd-year pro Jaroslav Kristek, whose contributions in previous seasons were extremely limited due to injuries. Kristek, who had just one point coming into late November, exploded for 18 points during the month of December.

But the climb the Amerks experienced in December may simply have been a precursor to the next, stomach-churning drop in the schedule. The parent Buffalo Sabres, floundering most of the season for various reasons, recalled Ryan Miller, Denis Hamel and Jaroslav Kristek along the way during late December and early January. Miller, who was voted the AHL’s Rookie of the Month for December, looks like a lock to remain a Sabre for the rest of the season, while Hamel and Kristek have not looked out of place in a Buffalo uniform.

As a result of this loss of young talent, the Amerks have struggled since the halfway point of the season. Their record for the month of January is currently 0-5-1, with the team struggling to score goals. While Rochester’s lone AHL all-star, Jason Botterill, has continued to contribute, some of the other youngsters on the club continue to suffer from growing pains. In addition, the play of Mika Noronen, the odd man out in the Buffalo goaltending rotation, has been shaky since his current demotion to the AHL. Without contributions from the young prospects, it will be difficult for the Amerks to ride back up the standings as they did in December, particularly since the team has so many youngsters in the lineup.

So stay fastened in your seats, Rochester fans, and prepare yourselves for more twists, turns, climbs and slopes- you’re only halfway through the ride!

Amerks Numerology: Rochester is currently 2nd in the Central Division, and 9th in the Western Conference…When scoring first, the Amerks are 12-2-2-2…Rochester is still having problems on the power play, as they are 25th out of 28 teams. The penalty killing is a bright spot, however, as the Amerks are 4th in that category…Another sign of power play woes- the Americans are 27th in shorthanded goals-against…The team has toughened up this year, though, as they are currently 4th in penalty minutes…Sean McMorrow leads all rookies in PIMs, and he is currently 2nd overall in the AHL…Paul Gaustad is amongst the top 20 rookie scorers…Mika Noronen is 0-5-2 with Rochester so far this season, with a 3.40 GAA and .879 save percentage…Jason Botterill is the leading goal-scorer in the AHL, while Chris Taylor is 4th in assists.