On Tuesday night, professional hockey was back at First Niagara Center.
Of course, it wasn't the Buffalo Sabres. Rather, the Sabres' farm club the American Hockey League's Rochester Americans facing the Hamilton Bulldogs in front of 10,936 hockey-starved fans.
In the Amerks' 3-1 win over Hamilton, Rochester gave Buffalo hockey fans a taste of the Sabres' future – whenever they agree on a new collective bargaining agreement and begin playing again.
“It's a shame that the Sabres can't play here every night,” goalie David Leggio said. “Hopefully we were able to provide a good game for them.”
Defenseman Joe Finley opened the scoring at 11:45 when a harmless looking point shot deflected off a Bulldogs defender over the shoulder of netminder Peter Delmas to put the Amerks up 1-0.
In the second period, just after a fan was shown on the video board with a sign asking the players to “Fire Fehr,” the Bulldogs tied the game. Marcus Foligno forgot about his assignment and forward Michael Bournival sneaked in for a wide open look at the net.
Foligno made up for his mistake just 45 seconds later when he assisted on the Amerks' second goal of the night. Should-be Sabre Cody Hodgson poked the puck off linemate Evan Rankin's skate and wristed it past Delmas.
“We've been jockeying those lines around a little bit to find the right mix of players,” Rolston said. “It's still important to find the right chemistry with the lines and I think we're getting closer.”
Unlike Saturday night, a game in which the Amerks gave up seven goals to Hershey, the defense locked down. They avoided penalties, only landing in the box twice after the first period, and despite giving up 37 shots, they allowed few chances to the Bulldogs.
Late in the third period, T.J. Brennan continued his scoring streak by blasting a slap shot into the net on the power play. Brennan's goal was fourth of the season and eighth point in six games. Hodgson, who was named the first star, got his eighth assist of the year on the play.
“The late goal was big to give us some breathing room going into the last couple of minutes of the game,” Rolston said.
The Amerks are now 4-2-0.
The entire Rochester Americans team was excited to play at First Niagara Center on Tuesday night. For players who had been there before, it was a homecoming. For rookies, it was a look at how beautiful the bright lights can be. But for goalie David Leggio, getting a 3-1 win over the Hamilton Bulldogs meant a little bit more than everyone else.
Leggio grew up in Buffalo. That's part of why the night was special. He went to St. Joe's and grew up rooting for Dominik Hasek, Michael Peca and Rob Ray. He understands what it means to love hockey in Western New York and he certainly understands how much it pains the hockey community to be without their Sabres this year.
But for the 27-year-old netminder, standing in between the pipes at First Niagara Center in front of nearly 11,000 fans was validation for years of hard work. You see, it was in Rochester last season that, for the first time in his pro career, he became the No. 1 goalie. He had battled for a job overseas in Finland, in the ECHL and in the AHL last year. On Tuesday night, even if it was still an AHL game, he got the chance to be the No. 1 in the NHL arena he'd always dreamed of playing in and in front of his friends and family.
“It reminded me of college and playing in the NCAA tournament,” Leggio said. “I couldn't stop thinking about the game today and yesterday. I had a chance to think and reflect about how special it is to play in this building. It was a little emotional for me and the team came out and gave an unbelievable effort.”
Leggio stopped 36 of 37 shots, rebounding from a game on Saturday in which he allowed seven goals to Hershey.
His teammates, especially the ones that were in Rochester last year, all appreciated seeing the hometown goalie get the win.
“We try to do all we can for him,” Brennan said. “He's a great goaltender. Sometimes we let him see the shots because we know he can handle so much. It's good to see him get some recognition here.”
Because of the lockout, the AHL features several players who are far too good for the league. More so, though, it also has players who would have been battling for spots in the NHL, but had their chances delayed by the work stoppage.
For the Amerks, Cody Hodgson is the guy too good for the AHL. T.J. Brennan is one of a group that had their chances at The Show put off.
On Tuesday night, Cody Hodgson – who was slated to play on the Sabres' top line this year - sent a message to the fans and the brass in attendance: Don't forget about me.
The Amerks' center skated circles around the Bulldogs, scoring two points and creating several more scoring chances with ease. He came into the game leading the AHL in assists, largely because of his superior skills on the power play.
“He's got a lot of professionalism about him,” Rolston said. “He comes to practice every day and works extremely hard. Tonight he even had a lot of big faceoff wins. He's worked on that in practice and he just works constantly on getting better as a player.”
“It's great to play here again,” Hodgson said. “We know these fans will support us no matter where we are playing.”
Sabres fans at First Niagara Center won't forget Brennan's name after his third period power play goal. Brennan, an offensively-skilled defenseman, blasted a shot past Delmas that looked a lot like the ones we see from Christian Ehrhoff. Brennan already has four goals in six games after posting 16 last season.
“It was great to hopefully give a good impression to the fans,” Brennan said. “And nice to be here in this locker room again.”
He played 11 games with the Sabres last year and scored one goal.
Cody Hodgson – Coach Rolston called it Hodgson's best game of the year. He dominated both ends of the ice.
Zemgus Girgensons – Girgensons played his best game, playing physical on nearly every shift and making a nice breakout pass to Mancari that nearly turned into a breakaway. He's coming along.
Marcus Foligno – He made one defensive mistake, but it was clear he wanted to show the Buffalo fans he wants to be at FNC every night. Played his usual strong, tough game.
Brayden McNabb – It's amazing how easy it is to forget about a stay-at-home defenseman when he's doing his job, but that's McNabb nearly every game. Nothing was different Tuesday. He looks a touch stronger than last year.
Luke Adam – Last week, Rolston said Adam needs to just shoot the puck. He didn't get the message. Several times he had a chance to put one home and hesitated.
Evan Rankin – Rankin played on the top line with Hodgson and Foligno and looked really good. He rung the post once and assisted on Hodgson's goal. Even though he's not really considered a prospect, he keeps showing he can handle every situation.
Fredrick Roy – He's shown a little grit playing on the fourth line and created a chance or two on Tuesday night. Roy looks like he'll keep the gig until Max Legault gets back.
Mark Pysyk – While the reviews are still raving for Pysyk, he didn't play his best game on Tuesday. Still, everyone is very impressed with how he's adjusting.