Albany Week in Review

By Mike Buskus

Two games; two wins; four points

Since the first of the year (hey, the loss in Syracuse on New Year’s Eve was last year’s news), the Albany River Rats have played two games at home. They won them both (Manchester, 5-1; Hartford, 6-5).

Though still in the league’s cellar, along with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and while still 14th in the 14-team Eastern Conference, at least the Albany River Rats got off to a good start for the new year. On Friday last, the very respectable Manchester Monarchs came into town, adorned in their royal purple jerseys. The Monarchs scored first, but had no answer to five consecutive Albany goals.

Manchester featured a skilled veteran first line of Steve Kelly (a former River Rat and New Jersey Devil, now with Los Angeles & Manchester), Dane Jackson and Ted Donato. Bob Carpenter’s Rats matched lines, sending out the checking line of Stan Gron, captain Sylvain Cloutier and Richard Rochefort. The strategy worked just fine, limiting the Monarchs’ top line to seven shots, while keeping them off the scoreboard. The Kelly-Jackson-Donato grouping finished a collective “-6″ on the evening.

With Rochefort, Cloutier and Gron nullifying Manchester’s top offensive unit, the top Albany line of Christian Berglund, Steve Guolla and Brian Gionta went to work. Gionta scored one and assisted on two; Guolla had one of each; and Berglund had a pair of assists. Max Birbraer and Bruce Gardiner also scored for Albany in a one-sided 5-1 victory. In the opinion of Albany Week in Review, this was the Rats’ best game all season.

Rookie Brian Gionta showed that he would not be adversely affected by being sent back down to Albany after a three-game stint with the Devils. He accepted the fact that a brief appearance in the NHL (which included his first goal at that level, against Nashville in a losing effort) is often a short one so that coaches and management can evaluate a player’s strengths and weaknesses. Gionta showed absolutely no signs of being disappointed, since he had an outstanding (“+4″) night against Manchester and was named the game’s first star. (Linemates Steve Guolla and Christian Berglund rounded out the trifecta with second and third stars.)

Forward Bruce Gardiner bagged a short-handed goal (unassisted, but using Brian Gionta as a decoy), for Albany’s second man-short goal of the season.

Unfortunately for the River Rats, they scored five goals in the first sixteen minutes on Saturday against Hartford. Say what? Unfortunately, because they started patting themselves on the back after goal #5 (three power play goals on as many power play opportunities, plus a pair of even-strength markers). Only once before this season has Albany, near the bottom of the league in scoring output, managed to torch opposing goaltenders for five goals in a period. On December 19, at the Copps Coliseum, the Rats duplicated that feat, narrowly winning, 8-6.

If the thought of having a five-goal lead going into first intermission had danced in their heads, the Rats did not have that luxury. Hartford scored in the final 15 seconds of the period, then collected a power play opportunity (thanks to a double minor against Albany in a scrum), which the Wolf*Pack promptly finished off at the start of the second to narrow the gap to 5-2.

And who is this Benoit Dusablon, anyway? The newly-promoted East Coast Hockey League player used the Pepsi Arena in Albany, during the second period, to set a Hartford Wolf*Pack franchise record for fastest two goals. He scored two goals in eight seconds to propel a Hartford comeback (bridging the scoring deficit to 5-4 at that point), and almost securing a tie for the visitors. For the record, Dusablon was selected as the AHL player of the week, with 4G; 3A and a +2 rating as the Wolf*Pack went 2-1-0 this week.

The Rats escaped with a victory against Hartford; they really did not earn it. After taking a 5-goal lead, they had defensive lapses. It took a 5-on-3 power play goal by Steve Guolla to secure the two points in the standings.

Coach Bob Carpenter, thrilled with the solid, 60-minute effort the night before against Manchester, was truly disappointed with the inconsistent effort against Hartford.

Here and there

Albany Week in Review has chosen Christian Berglund as the Rats’ player of the week. He finished with two goals and three assists and +3 on the week. Berglund played well at both ends of the ice. He also showed discipline in not retaliating against cheap shots by Hartford players. His ability to “turn the other cheek” led to a double-minor against the Wolf*Pack that led to the game-winning goal (by Steve Guolla, on which Berglund assisted).

The Berglund-Guolla-Gionta line played so well this week, that some in Albany wondered if Lou Lamoriello had considered promoting all three players to the Devils for a chance to play together in the NHL. Guolla is a very solid two-way center, whose style of play is quite similar to John Madden’s. Berglund and Gionta are “finishers” at the AHL level. Together, the line shows plenty of chemistry.

While virtually all of the New York City and New Jersey newspapers have speculated in one way or another that the Devils’ GM is bound to make a trade (sooner rather than later, they believe), in order that New Jersey’s goal-scoring drought can be addressed, AWIR thinks that before closing on any such deal, New Jersey might want to consider calling up the Berglund-Guolla-Gionta unit as a line and playing it as a line.

OK, the objections are flying quicker than punches. How about the roster limits. OK, send down Andreas Salomonsson, since he does not have to clear waivers. Give Pierre Dagenais another “conditioning” assignment to Albany. (Dagenais was scratched on Monday against the Los Angeles Kings and seldom-used defenseman, Tommy Albelin got some duty as forward.)

Won’t promoting Albany’s best line to the NHL ruin the River Rats’ (already slim) playoff chances? Maybe, but the first objective of the minor league club is to help the NHL affiliate. In the opinion of AWIR, giving the Berglund-Guolla-Gionta line a chance (at least three, preferably four games), with a reasonable amount of ice time is the only way to prove or disprove the hypothesis that the River Rats’ top line can compete, right now, in the NHL.

Guolla has already played parts of four seasons with some lesser NHL clubs: San Jose (when it was a much weaker team) and Atlanta and Tampa Bay. He is a decent face-off guy and has excellent on-ice vision and instincts. He is a good skater, works hard in the corners and can pass right “on the tape.”

Berglund has yet to play in the NHL. Gionta has only three big-league games under his belt.

But, together, Berglund and Gionta and Guolla are much more than the sum of their separate values, just as the “A” line of Sykora, Elias and Arnott add value when they play together.

In other news this week, defenseman Benjamin Carpentier played well against his former team, the Hartford Wolf*Pack. Here in Albany on a tryout contract, the defensive defenseman is looking for an opportunity to play. Since the Devils dealt Sascha Goc and Josef Boumedienne to Tampa Bay for Andrei Zyuzin, there is a spot on the roster that Carpentier could fill. In two games so far (Syracuse and Hartford), Carpentier played capably, with few mistakes. Fans looking for a strong physical style of play should like Carpentier.

Footnote on the Goc/Boumedienne trade. After both briefly played in Tampa Bay, both are now united on defense in Springfield. The Falcons have paired them together and, not surprisingly, they have played well together.

We told you so. In a prior column of Albany Week in Review, it was feared that when the River Rats started playing better, as we expected that they eventually would, some people would not notice. Despite having excellent coverage by Phil Janack in the [Schenectady, New York] Daily Gazette, the sports editors there decided that college sports should trump local professional sports. Janack’s story of the excellent 5-1 win over the Manchester Monarchs only made it to page two of the Daily Gazette, while the news – yes it was news – that the River Rats had their first (two-game) winning streak of the season was relegated to a distant page eight in the Sunday Gazette. The Rats, and Phil Janack’s fine writing, deserve more prominent placement than that. A lot of stories about the Rats’ losses made the front page, but now with a few wins in a row, the stories get buried. Doesn’t seem right, certainly not to hockey fans.