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Sabres Central

Noronen wins Battle of the Goalies
By Rick Anderson
December 15, 2001

Stu Barnes scores the winning goal against former Sabres goalie Tom Barrasso in overtime. Barrasso made 36 saves, equal to his age, in an impressive showing.
[AP Photo/Don Heupel]

It was something old versus something new in HSBC Arena Friday night. Tom Barrasso, who started his NHL career in Buffalo under then coach Scotty Bowman, played like he was a kid again in kicking out 36 shots. But it wasn't enough as 22-year old rookie goalie Mika Noronen outdid the former Vezina Trophy winner for his third career NHL victory and helped the Sabres beat the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2. One strange irony about this game was both goalies had total saves equal to their age. The Sabres took the Carolina Hurricanes to overtime and captain Stu Barnes notched the winner against the old pro.

Barnes was in the right place at the right time to finally end the Sabres three-game losing streak just 50 seconds into overtime. Miroslav Satan got things going when he fed the puck to Zhitnik from the blue line and Zhitnik got a centering pass to Barnes all alone in front of Barrasso. Barrasso had no chance on the shot as he left a huge opening to his left and Barnes just tapped it in for his 11th goal this season.

Mad Max on fire

Maxim Afinogenov scored the Sabres first two goals and seems to be finally getting the scoring touch that Sabres coach Lindy Ruff had been wishing for. Afinogenov, who's flashy skating style has impressed fans and the league alike, has always had trouble finishing off his flurry with a goal. Now maybe his new-found scoring touch is the icing on the cake.

"Maxim, in the last three or four games, has played very well,"lauded Ruff. "He has been good in every zone and he is being rewarded for making some real nice plays."

Although Mad Max had put the Sabres into a one-goal lead twice, the Canes were able to battle back and tie the game and send it into overtime. Afinogenov got open with a nice pass from Slava Kozlov and got a shot off on Barrasso from the slot area. The former Sabre great made a skate save but the puck came back to the speedy Russian and this time Mad Max made no mistake as he slammed it past Barrasso.

Exactly ten minutes after Maxim's goal, the Canes tied it up when Erik Cole got a shot off Alexei Zhitnik's skate and it went 5-hole on Noronen.

"He (Zhitnik) knew he had a guy right behind him and he didn't see the puck coming," Noronen explained.

Afinogenov got the lead back almost 6 minutes into the second stanza when his backhand handcuffed Barrasso for his 10th of the season.

When it appeared as if the Sabres were going to hold onto the 2-1 lead, Martin Gelinas sent a pass over to Josef Vasicek, who got a one-timer past Noronen to tie the game at the 13:02 mark of the third period.

From that point until Barnes overtime goal, it was the old Sabres goalie versus the new one.

Barrasso was in his old form as he shut down the Sabres time and again. Noronen put his claim in for the Sabres No. 1 goalie job with an outstanding performance in his first start of the year. Now the question is whether Ruff will come right back with Noronen against the Rangers on Saturday night or go back to Martin Biron, who has been struggling as of late.

Sabres Talk

Barnes fended off praise for scoring the game-winner.

"I got the goal, but I really don't deserve the credit for that one," said Barnes. "As usual I was just trying to stay out of (Satan's) way and let him handle the puck. He made a great play at the blue line and getting it to (Zhitnik), and as fast and as strong as (Zhitnik) is, he wheeled that thing right in and threw it over to me. I just tapped it in."

Even though he deflected off credit for the winning goal, being the Sabres captain, he'll do anything to help his team win.

"Bottom line, it was an important win," admitted Barnes. "Losing three in a row and having the stretch three weeks ago when we lost four in a row, things weren't looking too good around here. Everybody was down in the dumps. All of a sudden, we're on the verge of losing four in a row again, not that three in a row isn't bad enough already."

Barnes has had some problems with the transition from being a gritty, play your-heart-out team player to Sabres captain. Just like Michael Peca, Barnes does most of his talking on the ice.

"We're a team that's just trying to find consistency, and every single guy who put the skates on tonight went out and battled hard," praised Barnes. "The Canes were strong as well. They kept coming and Mika made some big saves."

Noronen, who started only one NHL game before this one (a victory over the Los Angeles Kings early last season) had a bout of butterflies before this game.

Rookie goalie Mika Noronen slides to make an impressive save on Hurricanes left winger Martin Gelinas during third period action. Noronen, like Tom Barrasso, had a save total equal his age. Noronen made 22 stops as he recorded his first victory of the year.
[AP Photo/Don Heupel]

"I was a little nervous but after a couple saves I felt better and better," admitted Noronen. "Actually I had a little fun out there."

About the tying goal in the third period, Noronen said, "I was kind of blocked. I really didn't see the shot go in. You always think, "One save. Why not one more?' "

In the opening game last season, Dominik Hasek went down in the first period with a strained knee and Noronen was called into action as Biron was a contract holdout.

Making his NHL debut against the Chicago Blackhawks after the Dominator went down, Noronen stopped 15 shots over 48 minutes as the Sabres opened their season with a 4-2 victory over the Hawks.

"Between the first and second period, (Hasek) wished me luck," then a 21-year-old rookie goalie Noronen said. "He said, 'C'mon, try to play well."'

He has been unbeaten since. The next game, Noronen started and allowed 3 goals in a 5-3 victory over the Kings.

Noronen even got kudos from Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice.

"We got in alone on him three or four times, and that's something you rarely see us get to do against Buffalo," Maurice said. "He held his ground nice, didn't blink first, really controlled the bottom of his net and had Gelinas' number."

Ruff has been walking on eggshells the past two day trying to delicately handle his goaltender situation. Biron's ego has been bruised by his current play and the 24-year old goalie's career may hinge on Ruff smoothing over the edges of his No. 1 goalie.

"It wasn't an easy decision to put Mika in," Ruff admitted, "but I thought our team was ready to play and ready to play hard. Our team gave him the type of first period he needed, where there wasn't a lot of shots. We gave Carolina a couple great opportunities in which he made big saves off of. He gave us a chance to win the hockey game."

Not only has Biron been struggling in the actual games, but players like Rob Ray have had an easy hand getting the puck past him during practice. After getting two quick goals on Biron, Ray yelled at Biron to get his act together.

"I'm just trying to help him," put in Ray following a practice on Thursday. "Obviously, he's a kid that wants to win just as much as anybody else. It's not as if he's not trying. It's just a matter of getting a bounce, getting a break."

Maurice, who has been frantically trying to keep Carolina in the playoff race, suffered his first loss in three games.

"We didn't have a good start to the game, but I think a lot of that is because Buffalo played very well," said Maurice.

Canes' defenseman Sean Hill was happy with the point on the road.

"We've played some very good games lately and we got another point tonight," said. Hill "We're not worried about a watch over the team, we're worried about putting points in the bank and playing our game."

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