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Sabres Central

Noronen steals the show in Philly
By Rick Anderson
March 15, 2002

Sabres' goalie Mika Noronen puts the brakes on a shot by Flyers' Jeremy Roenick as Sabres defenseman James Patrick tries to break up the play in the first period.
[AP Photo/ George Widman]

Mika Noronen was put into the pressure cooker. With Sabres No. 1 goalie Martin Biron being given a well deserved rest, Noronen was thrust into the starting goalie position in Philadelphia, of all places. Not too often does a callup from the AHL get to play in front of the rabid Flyer fans against the conference leading team. That was Noronen's plight Thursday night and he came away with flying colors. By winning, the Sabres posted their first regular season win in the First Union Center since March 15, 1997.

Noronen made 31 saves and looked down right "Dominating" at times in keeping a swarming Flyer team off the scoreboard except for one goal as the Sabres beat the high-flying Flyers 3-1. It marked the second time in 3 games that the Sabres beat a conference leader. On Sunday, the Sabres embarrassed the league-leading Detroit Red Wings 5-1.

Sandwiched between those two huge victories was an ugly 3-0 loss to the New York Islanders. One has to wonder what Sabres team will show up night to night. However, the Sabres have now won 4 out of 5 games and drew to 3 points from the final playoff spot.

Noronen was definitely the difference maker in this game. After the Sabres dominated play in the first period and took a 1-0 lead on Miroslav Satan's goal, the Flyers stormed back in the second stanza, blistering Noronen with 13 shots and tying it up 1-1 on Jeremy Roenick's 20th goal at 9:30 of the period. Simon Gagne got the puck over to Roenick, who deked Noronen and flipped it past the fallen goalie.

Satan, who had deflected a Chris Gratton shot that had also bounced of a Flyer's skate in the first period, got a beauty late in the second. While the Sabres were on the powerplay, Satan got the feed and one-timed a shot past Brian Boucher for the winning goal at the 18:10 mark. It was Satan's 24th of the season. Taylor Pyatt broke out of his long scoreless streak by scoring an empty netter late in the game to ice it for Buffalo.

Sabres are mystery wrapped in an enigma

The maddening thing about the Sabres this year is their inconsistency. They have been able to beat the Boston Bruins, the Detroit Red Wings and now the Philadelphia Flyers twice. Then they turn around and lose to such teams as Columbus, Atlanta, Florida and Tampa Bay. The real test comes this weekend for the Sabres. If they can beat two teams they should beat in Florida and Tampa Bay, then maybe, just maybe, they may be headed in the right direction instead of being a hockey yo-yo. If not, then the Sabres are not only a mystery wrapped in an enigma, but they are also enshrouded in an identity crisis.

"The win is huge to start the tripand especially to get two points against a team most people thought we weren't going to beat," said Rob Ray.

The Sabres came out in the first period and, after weathering an early Flyer storm, dominated the top team in the East for most of the period. Boucher had to be stellar when the Sabres got some excellent opportunities. He stopped the Sabres time and again until Satan got a lucky deflection of a floater by Barnes that hit a skate and Satan was able to direct in. In the second stanza, the Sabres came out with they style of play that they displayed in their uninspired effort two days earlier against the Islanders.

Two big questions have to be answered this weekend by the Sabres. First is whether they can beat a doormat team. They seem to have no trouble getting up for the league's elite teams, but when they face the bottom of the barrel, they play down to that level of competition.

The other big question is whether Ruff will start Noronen in one of the two Florida games. Noronen, who has allowed just 12 goals in 6 games, have proven to be quite capable of stealing a game when called upon. In the 8 NHL games he has played in the last two seasons, Noronen has 5 wins and 1 tie. Now Ruff must decide whether to keep Noronen in Buffalo or send him back down to Rochester so he can continue playing.

Ruff decided to play a hunch and start Noronen Thursday a pressure situation.

"I didn't find out I was playing until this morning, so I slept pretty good last night," related Noronen. Ruff had full confidence his rookie goalie could get the job done.

"If you go back to training camp, we hoped that Mika would challenge for the No. 1 job," lauded Ruff. "He proved he was confident he can get the job done. He's very comfortable at this level. You could notice from the way he played the puck to the way he carried himself around the crease, he was confident he could get the job done."

One of the highlight saves was when Noronen stopped Simon Gagne on a breakaway.

"He has pretty good speed," Noronen remarked. "He made a move to his backhand, but came too close and couldn't get the puck over my pad. I was lucky that time."

Sabres Talk

Could there be a goaltender controversy brewing along the lines of the Doug Flutie vs Rob Johnson Bills QB battle a few years ago? Not if you ask either Biron and Noronen. Both complimented the play of each other and shied away from fueling such a controversy.

"The team played great," praised Noronen. "I gave up some rebounds and they helped me out. I was pretty sure I was not going to play, but I felt good. I felt confident and pretty focused." Veteran defenseman James Patrick thought that leaving Noronen in the dark and his being a rookie played a part in him not having jitters.

"Being naive is a thing of beauty," Patrick said. "Maybe he didn't have time to understand the intensity of playing in this building at this time of year. There were times when he dominated."

Patrick continued about the importance of beating the first place Flyers.

"This was real big," Patrick went on. "It was a huge outing. We know we have a real busy schedule down the stretch. Everybody's gotta contribute. Every night we need guys stepping up, like Mika did tonight."

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