Professional hockey returned to the First Niagara Center in Buffalo tonight, as the Rochester Americans hosted the Lake Erie Monsters before a sold-out (and Rochester record-setting) crowd of 19,070 hockey-starved fans.
Both Sabres and Amerks fans alike had to be satisfied with what they saw, as the home team scored early and never looked back, en route to a 4-1 victory that pulls them even with Lake Erie in both the win column and the division standings. The game wasn’t always pretty, and once Rochester notched its fourth goal in the third period what little suspense remained disappeared completely, but it was a nice opportunity for some younger players to begin making a name for themselves in front of the Buffalo faithful.
The game started out tight enough, with Lake Erie actually coming out of the locker room the aggressors, only to see Rochester scratch its way to a 1-0 at the end of the first period. Less than halfway into the second period, however, the Amerks were up 3-0, and even a Lake Erie power play goal did little to make the game feel like it was going to come down to the wire. The majority of the final period found the fans doing anything they could to entertain themselves – yes, even the wave made an appearance – but aside from a few last-gasp scrums between the two sides, the thrill had long since died.
Check out the highlights here:
The win pulls Rochester into a three-way tie for ninth position in the Western Conference . . . which makes little sense, since Rochester is clearly located in the Eastern part of the continent. But, it is what it is. Rochester returns home to Blue Cross Arena for tomorrow night’s matchup with the Binghamton Senators; let’s hope they don’t suffer a letdown after all of the build-up that went into tonight’s contest.
Stars of the Game (which I totally pegged long before they were officially announced at the conclusion of the game!):
1. Cody Hodgson was a man among boys tonight, tallying two goals (both on the power play) on just four shot attempts. That gives him back-to-back games in which he has found the back of the net twice. The fact that both of his goals came on the power play only adds to the fearsome reputation Rochester is building when it comes to their power play unit, which came into tonight’s contest ranked third in the AHL. He definitely did not shy away from the spotlight tonight, which cannot be said for some of the other young studs who hope to spend more of their career playing in the First Niagara Center.
2. Mark Mancari had the sort of solid, crafty game you expect from a veteran, assisting on Hodgson’s first goal and then intercepting a pass and getting in the perfect position to wrist a shot over Monster goalie Sami Aitokallio to put Rochester up 2-0 early into the second period. He easily was on track to be my star of the game until Hodgson tallied his second goal later in the period.
3. David Leggio had a really solid, if not flashy, game between the pipes tonight. He was in position all night long, never needing to rely on the spectacular save because he was never scrambling to make up for his poor decisions. The one goal he did give up was off a rebound during a Lake Erie power play, but even though that put the Monsters on the scoreboard and brought them within 3-1, you never got the sense that Lake Erie was going to mount a comeback. Leggio just seemed to be in the heads of the Lake Erie players all night long.
Ah, but it’s not all hugs and high-fives: it was a disappointing night for Buffalo potentials Luke Adam and Brayden McNabb. Adam failed to notch a point, and managed only one shot on goal. As for McNabb . . . the stat sheet will tell you he scored two points on assists, but what it will not tell you is how out of sorts he looked for parts of the game. He committed two senseless penalties early in the first period, and it was only due to Leggio’s goaltending and Lake Erie’s insisting on meeting Rochester penalty-for-penalty that McNabb didn’t put his team behind on the scoreboard. He also got whistled for elbowing literally seconds after Rochester had gone up 3-0, and that penalty DID result in a Lake Erie goal, their only one of the game. Maybe McNabb is listening to people criticize him for not being enough of a “physical presence” this year, but there’s a good, smart way to play physical . . . and then there’s tonight, where all he did was hand Lake Erie extra scoring chances. To top it off, McNabb floated some really target-less passes out there tonight, so he’s lucky the stats are going to be forgiving and make it look like he had a solid game. Trust me: he did not.
Overall, the Rochester Americans, and the AHL as a whole, have to be pleased with what they saw here in Buffalo tonight: an announced, sellout crowd of 19,070, which is a new attendance record for the Americans and the 8th largest ever AHL crowd; an NHL prospect – Cody Hodgson – who probably have the Buffalo faithful drooling at the thought of what they might be spending the next few years watching (if the NHL ever resumes playing, of course); some strong goaltending by David Leggio, who was great early on when the game was still tight; and a lot of hype that built this game up into a fitting way to bring 2012 to a near-close. We all know it wasn’t NHL hockey, but anyone who bemoans that fact misses the point: it was hockey, in Buffalo, in late December. Mission accomplished!