Albany Week in Review

By Mike Buskus

Effort good; results fair

The Albany River Rats played well in all three games this past week, but had only three points (one win; one overtime loss) to show for it.

On Wednesday, a valiant comeback effort (from down 3-0 at the second intermission) fizzled when goaltender Ari Ahonen misjudged a Quebec dump-in on a Citadelles? penalty-kill. He wound up clearing the puck to incoming Eric Landry and a Quebec short-handed goal resulted with less than five minutes to go, with a 4-2 Citadelles? victory margin going with it.

Marcel Hossa, Marian Hossa?s little brother, snared a pair of goals to give Quebec the lead. With a marker from Francis Belanger sandwiched in between Hossa?s goals, the Rats faced a 3-0 deficit after 40 minutes. Given recent history this season when in such a predicament after two periods (1-16-1 trailing after two), fans did not expect too much from the Rats.

The Albany River Rats made a good try. Mike Rupp popped in a rebound of a Max Birbraer shot. Two minutes later, Richard Rochefort polished off a rebound of a Joel Dezainde blast. Suddenly, with more than half the third period to go, the Rats only trailed by one and had momentum to boot.

But, a rare goaltending gaffe by Ari Ahonen sealed the Rats? fate. With Martti Jarventie in the box for tripping, Albany had a power play with five minutes remaining in regulation. The Citadelles dumped the puck in. Ahonen got it near the net, but misjudged the speed of incoming Eric Landry. Ahonen?s attempted clearing pass wound up right on Landry?s stick and a short-handed goal for Quebec resulted. Ahonen?s head sagged, but savvy fans realized that he had kept the Rats in the game while the Albany offense found its spark in the third period. Still, no points in the standings.

The best defensive effort by the River Rats all season was on Friday night as the Philadelphia Phantoms ? the top team in the Southern Division, the top team in the Western Conference and the top team in the AHL at the time ? invaded Pepsi Arena.

Though some fans had questioned Bob Carpenter?s coaching at times throughout the season, few in attendance could doubt the strategy the Rats? bench boss brought into the game. Jacques Lemaire would have been proud. The New Jersey Devils? ?trap? was played to perfection on Friday. Despite the fact ? maybe because of it ? that the Phantoms have always been a very, very good ?transition? team at center ice, the Rats followed a very tight checking game, with no offensive gambles, dump ins and dump outs off the side boards and short, snappy passes. The result was that Albany limited Philadelphia to only four shots in the first period.

While the Phantoms got on the board first, with a power play goal by Kirby Law, the Rats got a very timely answer from Max Birbraer, whose goal with barely over a minute remaining in the first period knotted the score at one.

Captain Sylvain Cloutier, who missed Wednesday?s game to travel to Montreal (along with his brother, Vancouver goaltender, Dan Cloutier) to visit an ailing mother, returned to action against the Phantoms. Cloutier?s tip of a Mikko Jokela point shot (mistakenly credited to Ted Drury, as the scorekeeper mixed up ?5? [Jokela] with ?15? [Drury]), gave the Rats a 2-1 lead with 16 seconds remaining in the middle frame.

The Phantoms tied it in the third, but one of the most surprising goals of the season won it for the Rats. Steve Guolla was in front of the Phantoms? net with one defender hanging over his shoulder and another between him (in the crease) and goaltender Neil Little. Guolla had his back to the Phantoms? net, but when Stan Gron?s shot/pass came near Guolla?s stick, he managed to lift a backhander between his legs and past the Philadelphia goaltender. Even on the video replay it seemed incredible. Guolla added an empty-netter in the final minute to give the Rats a 4-2 victory margin.

The 3-2 loss to Rochester (less than 18 hours after the victory over the Phantoms) gives credence to the view that hockey coaches should have one ?video replay? card to play per game. If Bob Carpenter had one of those in his pocket on Saturday afternoon, he would have played it when Mikko Jokela?s shot rang off the post, over the goal line and then was swept out by a defense stick. The referee, Harry Dumas, who was not particularly close to the play, waived the goal off but never consulted with the goal judge or the linesmen.

The Rats had a 2-1 lead late in the third period against Rochester, so arguably the uncounted Albany goal early in the second period should not have affected the outcome of the game. However, defenseman Andre Lakos committed a bad roughing infraction late in the game, giving Rochester the chance (which it converted) to tie the game and then to win in overtime.

Lakos, who was once before in Bob Carpenter?s doghouse for a double-minor penalty that cost a victory in a road game in Hershey, will likely be watching Wednesday?s game against Cleveland instead of playing. Why would any player, particularly on what Bob Carpenter takes pride in being a disciplined squad, haul off and punch an opponent in the face with under three minutes remaining and his team enjoying a bare one-goal cushion at the time? Lakos will have to be taught a lesson, so rookie Victor Uchevatov, a frequent scratch on the blue line, will probably start in his place on Wednesday.

So, the Rats earned three points for the week, falling short in a nice comeback effort against Quebec, dominating Philadelphia and giving away a victory to Rochester. Should have been, could have been four or five points, but three is what the Rats settled for this week over three games.

AWIR player of the week

Albany Week in Review has chosen Max Birbraer as player of the week. With three points for the week (2G; 1A), the second-year winger skating on the line with Mike Rupp (center) and Richard Rochefort (wing), made the most of his chances.

On Wednesday against Quebec, most of the Rats? top scorers were out of the lineup, either injured or called up to New Jersey. Birbraer, who was a frequent healthy scratch last season in his rookie campaign, clearly stepped up his play. His decent shot led to the rebound that became Mike Rupp?s power play goal against Quebec. Since the Rats were trailing 3-0 at the time, it sparked the rally and energized the Albany offense.

Against the Phantoms on Friday, again a timely spark from Birbraer. His marker came with barely a minute remaining in the first period and knotted the score at one.

Against the Amerks on Saturday afternoon, Birbraer had the Rats? first goal, tying the game at one.

Both of Max Birbraer?s goals this week were sharp, ?roofer? shots over the goaltender?s shoulder. For his effort and results this week, Birbraer is Albany Week in Review?s player of the week.

Here and there

The former owner of the Albany River Rats, Albert Lawrence, died this week. He had purchased the former Capital District Islanders, moved them to Albany and re-named them the Albany River Rats. He later ran into financial and other problems which overshadowed some of the fine charitable work he had done.

Lawrence?s hockey legacy for the Capital District endured, as he made a point of selling the team to a new owner (Dr. Walter Robb) who was committed to keeping the team in the area.

Pierre Dagenais is no longer an Albany River Rat. Nor is he a New Jersey Devil. Put on waivers this week by the Devils, the $500,000 NHL contract winger was claimed by the Florida Panthers. With the Devils under roster pressure (since call-ups Christian Berglund and Bruce Gardiner have played well), Dagenais was not getting ice time.

Though a sniper in the minor leagues, Dagenais never quite fit the Devils? desire for a more complete two-way player. He collected many hat tricks in three years in Albany, and a fair share of game-winning goals as well. But it is hard to question management?s decision to give exciting prospects like Christian Berglund and Brian Gionta more ice time when their energy and speed left Dagenais in the proverbial dust.

Winger Jiri Bicek remains sidelined with a knee injury. Brian Gionta missed two games this week with the flu, but played well against his home-town Rochester Americans. Gionta?s drive to the net coincided with a precision pass from Andreas Salomonsson on the boards and Gionta?s ninth goal of the season resulted.

Salomonsson remains here while his spot in New Jersey is occupied by Christian Berglund. For the week, Salomonsson was ?-2? and had one assist. His skating is decent and he generated a reasonable number of scoring chances.

Salomonsson had the good fortune to be on the line with center Steve Guolla, whose steady play makes him a clear consensus choice for Albany?s most valuable player. Guolla earned ?first star? in the team?s lone victory (Philadelphia) and played very well in the other games as well.

With Christian Berglund in New Jersey and Jiri Bicek out with a knee injury, the other wing (to flank Brian Gionta) was filled by Stan Gron. Still fighting his tendency to be a ?puck hog? and to want to skate 1-on-2, Gron had one assist for the week. He needs to watch more game videos and start passing more.

As the Rats inch closer to the half-way mark on the season (having played 38 of 80), Albany remains in last place in the Eastern Conference, with 30 points, 7 back of next-best Saint John and 11 points out of a playoff spot.

Power play execution is decent once the Rats get the puck in the attack zone. However, all too often lately, they have wasted time getting the puck up ice.