ROCHESTER — At age 32, the Buffalo Sabres have Matt Ellis stashed in the minor leagues to captain their farmhands and teach them how to be professionals.
He showed them exactly how to do that on a pretty big stage Friday night.
The Rochester Americans took it outside for a memorable night of hockey at Frontier Field, the city’s downtown baseball stadium. With a rink stretching from roughly third base to first base and the field all around it covered with snow, it was quite a scene.
And the view on the ice was pretty wild, too. Ellis helped the Amerks persevere after they gave up the tying goal in the final tenth of a second of regulation, and then scored the shootout winner – on his first attempt as a professional – to produce a 5-4 win over the Lake Erie Monsters.
Rochester fell behind, 2-0, in the five-round AHL shootout before Mike Zigomanis, Johan Larsson and Ellis all scored to produce a 3-2 shootout decision.
The result delighted the crowd of 11,015 that just about filled the seats for the first outdoor game in franchise history on a night that saw temperatures slip into the teens.
“This was great. This is the first time in my 12 years I’ve had the experience like this,” said Ellis, who has played parts of the last five years with the Sabres. “I felt like a kid again out there, being outside and being able to share this with some of these guys.”
“He’s a great leader for us, a great captain,” said the 21-year-old Larsson, who opened the season with the Sabres. “It’s a young team and he never takes a shift off. It was great to see him have a really good game.”
Ellis opened the scoring at 3:36 of the first period but Rochester gave up the next three goals. The Amerks rallied to tie it as Jerome Gauthier-Leduc and Phil Varone scored late in the second period, and Colton Gillies pounded home an Ellis rebound at 3:07 of the third period to snap a 3-3 tie.
But with the clock ticking away and Lake Erie on a power play, former Boston Bruins defenseman Matt Hunwick lifted a loose puck over goaltender Matt Hackett just as the horn sounded to stun the crowd and tie the game.
“It was emotional,” Ellis said. “This time of the year, it’s about putting building blocks in place. To be able to deal with that emotion and still come out on top is a big step for our hockey club.”
Ellis, with just five goals in 25 games this year, was an incredibly unlikely choice for a decisive shot in the shootout because he had never taken an attempt in either the AHL or NHL. But Amerks coach Chadd Cassidy played a hunch and was rewarded as Ellis beat goalie Calvin Pickard with a snap shot.
“With the game on the line, I want it on his tape because good things happen to good people,” Cassidy said. “There’s nobody that’s worked harder for the opportunities that he’s gotten than Matty. He did exactly what we needed him to do tonight and exactly what I expected him to do.”
“Use the move that has worked in practice and do not lose the puck,” Ellis said of his strategy. “I was excited to get the tap to get out there.”
The Amerks wore predominantly cream-colored sweaters with the word “Americans” emblazoned across the front, much like they wore from 1957-59. The Monsters, the Cleveland-based affiliate of the Colorado Avalanche, wore blue, 1937 vintage Cleveland Barons jerseys from the franchise’s first year.
During one second-period break, former Amerks Jody Gage, Ray Maluta and Scott Metcalfe sang a mocked-up version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” over the PA that ended, “For it’s one, two, three hockey pucks at the old hockey game.”
Sabres President Ted Black was part of a ceremonial pregame faceoff. Also on hand were Kim Pegula, wife of owner Terry Pegula, and interim coach Ted Nolan.
The game kicked off a 10-day celebration of hockey dubbed the “Frozen Frontier.” It continues today, with the headline affair being Niagara University’s 7 p.m. game against RIT. The Sabres and Amerks alumni play Sunday at 5.