ROCHESTER — The puck dropped Wednesday night on the highest level of hockey in Western New York. It looked quite different than in past years.
Instead of fans lining up outside First Niagara Center to see the Buffalo Sabres get dropped off in limos and walk a red carpet, patrons clopped down metal bleachers in a facility that also housed 4-year-old skaters in pink safety helmets. Instead of patriotic displays on a high-definition scoreboard, the anthem singer shouted her notes when the microphone malfunctioned.
Several things were familiar, though. Pucks echoed off sticks. Hard checks rattled the glass. Skates carved the ice.
Judging by the guy who happily shouted, “Hockey!” just before the Rochester Americans took the opening face-off, that was enough.
Several hundred fans watched the Rochester Americans’ first preseason game in Sports Centre at Monroe Community College, a 4-3 loss to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. With the NHL no closer to ending its lockout, the American Hockey League will have to carry die-hard fans in Sabreland.
“It’s nice to talk about hockey again,” said center Cody Hodgson, who served as the Amerks’ captain. “It’s a good feeling just to be on the ice in a competitive nature in games that mean something.”
The Amerks have just two preseason games (they visit the Penguins on Friday), so coach Ron Rolston dressed a lineup that could mirror the opening-night roster Oct. 12.
Four members of the starting five — Hodgson, left wing Luke Adam, right wing Corey Tropp and defenseman Brayden McNabb — played in Buffalo last season. Left wing Marcus Foligno lined up alongside veterans Kevin Porter and Mark Mancari. Sabres prospects Zemgus Girgensons and Mark Pysyk got their first taste of professional hockey.
Numerous members of the Sabres’ hockey department, including scouting directors Jon Christiano and Kevin Devine, spent the evening taking notes.
They saw the Amerks fall into a 2-0 first-period hole but use the power play to open the year with some positives. Adam dumped home the carom of a Mancari slap shot for the first goal. Phil Varone recorded the Amerks’ second power-play goal to send the teams into the third period tied.
The Penguins boarded their bus with the victory after scoring twice in the final 1:52, enough to hold off Brayden McNabb’s goal at the buzzer.
Amerks goalie David Leggio vehemently argued with the ref as the goal light shined on the third goal. It beat listening to lawyers arguing in the NHL offices.
“As disappointing as it is to lose an exhibition game, it’s just nice to get back at it,” said Mancari, who had three assists. “I can’t wait to start the season next week.”