Pens top Rats as Murley excels

By Mike Buskus

ALBANY, N.Y. (February 16, 2003). They could not have known it at the time, playing as they did before a matinee crowd of 6,009 at the Pepsi Arena, but the Albany River Rats missed out yesterday on a chance to close the gap in the quest for the 10th and final playoff position in the Eastern Conference.

Dropping a 5-3 decision to the visiting Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (who contributed two busloads of booster club partisans to the crowd), Albany remained stuck at 47 points in the standings. Later that night, the Springfield Falcons (their opponent Monday afternoon at the Pepsi) dropped a 2-1 contest to Bridgeport and Binghamton humiliated the St. John’s Maple Leafs, 9-0. The Leafs (at 48 points (but having played two more games) and the Falcons (at 53) remain ahead of the River Rats in the race for post-season play.

Only the friends and family of Capital-District native, Matt Murley, were pleased with how the Pens-Rats contest went yesterday. Barely a half-minute into the game, and well before some of the fans settled into their seats, the former Rensselear Polytechnic Institute college star ambushed Albany goaltender, Ari Ahonen, with a behind-the-net wrap-around goal. Two former Rangers, Richard Lintner and Alexander Daigle, had moved the puck up and behind the cage.

It got worse before it got better.

Again well before some fans had entered the arena or doffed their coats from the severe winter weather, the Pens scored on the second shot of the game, at 1:12. This time, it was not so much goaltender Ari Ahonen’s fault, as a brilliant deke by Kris Beech. Beech undressed defensemen, Alex Brooks, in the slot, firing a shot low, stick-side past the Albany netminder.

The River Rats did not panic, however, and scored on the next shift. Albany’s top line of Craig Darby, Greg Crozier (former WBS Pens’ player) and Steve Kariya, advanced the puck into the attack zone after losing the faceoff. Darby rushed up left wing and fired a shot from near the wall. Kariya tipped it past goaltender Robbie Tallas.

The River Rats’ defense settled in and the teams traded scoring chances, but not goals, for the next ten minutes. Then, rugged Rats’ winger, Brett Clouthier, known more for his grinding in the corners than for goal-scoring prowess, notched a nice goal. Taking a pass in the slot from Eric Johansson, Clouthier pulled the puck from his forehand to his backhand, hesitated, then put a forehand shot over Tallas’ shoulder to knot the score at two apiece.

Unfortunately for the River Rats, they never got a power play from referee Ian Walsh and surrendered one man-up goal to the Pens, who converted 1 of 4, the success coming early in the second period with defenseman, Victor Uchevatov in the box for holding.

Kris Beech got his second of the night and 17th of the season by stationing himself at the right post. He took a pass from Tom Kostopolous, who was behind the net, and the Pens led, 3-2.

Ari Ahonen left the game early, midway through the second, when he failed to hug the post. Toby Petersen lifted a wrister between Ahonen and the post from the goal-line and Scott Clemmensen was summoned in relief, as the Rats trailed, 4-2.

Though he sat in the penalty box for five minutes after fighting Rats’ enforcer, Rob Skrlac (who spent some time in the dressing room after a cut on his face), Pens’ defenseman, Francois Leroux, put the game away for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton early in the third period. His blue-line blast sailed past Clemmensen stick side to cushion the Pens’ lead.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton played a classic dump in and chip out game for the remainder, resting on the Pens’ 3-goal lead. A nice goal by Steve Guolla cut the margin to two, but that was all the Rats could muster. Guolla skated behind the net and put a backhander past Tallas midway through the third, but that closed out the scoring.

Fans and Rats’ coaches were left shaking their heads when no penalty was called on Wilkes-Barre/Scranton as Steve Kariya was pulled down from behind when working a short-handed bid late in the third period with Ken Sutton in the penalty box for roughing.

The three stars: third, to Steve Guolla of Albany, with solid two-way work and one goal; second, to Kris Beech of WBS, with a pair of goals, including crafty stick-work to navigate past a defender on his first (and WBS’ second) goal early; and, first, to Matt Murley, with one goal and three assists.