ROCHESTER - There’s no doubt Corey Tropp, Marcus Foligno and Cody Hodgson would be in Buffalo tonight if the “H” in NHL stood for hockey instead of hibernation. Alas, the three players with big-league talent are back in the minor leagues because of the lockout.
It didn’t take long for them to show that the skill level will be off the charts in the American Hockey League this year.
Tropp scored twice in the first period, including just 24 seconds into Rochester’s season on a feed from Hodgson, and Foligno added another early goal as the Americans built a 4-1 lead Friday night against Syracuse. The season opener turned wild from there, with the Amerks needing a late comeback to win, 6-5, in a shootout.
“That’s how good the league’s going to be,” Amerks coach Ron Rolston said. “As long as the lockout holds out, the fans are going to see that level.”
The 8,589 who crowded into Blue Cross Arena at the War Memorial expect big things from the home team this season. It’s easy to see why with the Sabres-ready talent stuck down the Thruway.
“You could see with their good young players and us with Marcus, with Corey Tropp, with Luke Adam - the list goes on and on - it’s going to be elevated talent in this league,” said Rochester forward Mark Mancari, who tied the game at 5-5 with seven minutes to play and scored the only goal in the five-round shootout.
The Amerks immediately evaluated their abilities against the AHL’s best team from last season. Syracuse is starting its first year as the affiliate for Tampa Bay, and the Lightning’s prospects spent last season in Norfolk. All they did was win 43 of their final 46 games en route to the Calder Cup title.
There were 13 Crunch players on the ice who skated in the clinching game for Norfolk, including Canisius College product and reigning AHL MVP Cory Conacher. He had a goal and two assists.
“They know what it takes to win, and it’s good to get a win against that team,” Foligno said. “It’s going to be exciting, just the we came out, the way we had offense like we did in the first period. It’s special, and we’ve got to bring that the whole year.
Hodgson and Tropp got the season started on a celebratory note almost as soon as the national anthem singer left the ice. Hodgson started a two-on-one, waited for Syracuse defenseman Evan berg to drop to the ice, then threaded a pass to Tropp for a tap-in.
Following a power-play goal by the Crunch, Tropp struck again. Foligno scored his first of the season just 1:20 later, with 3:48 left in the first.
The Amerks built their lead to 4-1 with less than four minutes gone in the middle period. No one was more surprised than Mark Pysyk, who received hugs and a souvenir. The Sabres’ first-round pick in 2010 took a shot from the blue line, and it struck the stick of a Crunch player and caromed into the net. Teammate Phil Varone recovered the puck for Pysyk, who was making his professional debut.
The Crunch, though, showed they are not accustomed to losing and turned on the burners. The shots, knotted at 10 after one period, ballooned to 31-14 by the time the visitors took the lead midway through the third.
The fans’ anxiety turned to joyous eruption when the Amerks capitalized on a five-on-three power play. Mancari, another former Sabre who has 90 goals the last three seasons in the AHL, buried a blast.
Tropp, though, couldn’t join the celebration. He got hit by defenseman Radko Gudas along the boards and was nearly immobile. He slowly crept on one leg to the Amerks’ bench just as Mancari struck, then was helped to the dressing room. He was on crutches after the game .
Buffalo was scheduled to welcome Pittsburgh to First Niagara Center for the season opener, but the first two weeks of the season have been wiped out. The only definite game set for the foot of Washington Street is Oct. 23, when the Amerks host Hamilton.
Based on Friday’s action, many of the AHL players coming to Buffalo will deserve to be in an NHL rink.