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Sabres Central

Noronen breaks AHL shutout record in Amerks' series clincher
By Rick Anderson
May 6, 2000

A 53-year old AHL shutout record was broken in Hamilton's Copps Coliseum Friday night by a rookie goaltender from Finland. The Rochester Americans blanked the Hamilton Bulldogs 3-0 and by doing so, won the second round series 4 games to 2 and advance to the third round against the Hershey Bears. But it was the record-setting performance by a young goaltender from Finland that is the buzz of the American Hockey League right now.

Mika Noronen was the AHL's Rookie of the Year and broke the 53-year old AHL record for most shutouts during the Calder Cup playoffs.
[ Amerks Photo]

It was the third shutout of Hamilton and the sixth in the two playoff rounds the Amerks have played in. The rookie goaltender has been the spotlight of the Americans success so far in the opening two rounds of the playoffs. Mika Noronen, a 20-year old prospect goalie, has turned more than a few heads this season. By recording his 6th playoff shutout on Friday, Noronen shattered a 53-year-old American Hockey League record for the most shutouts in the Calder Cup playoffs.

Last season, the Amerks reached the Calder Cup finals and it was largely due to their goaltender Martin Biron. This season, Biron was up in Buffalo most of the season, thanks to Dominik Hasek's injury that kept him out of the lineup for 40 games, so the Amerks had to call upon rookie Mika Noronen.

The Amerks beat the Hamilton Bulldogs Sunday in Hamilton's Copps Coliseum 3-0 in a game that Noronen once again stole the show. He tied a 53-year old AHL record for most shutouts in the playoffs.

Noronen, who will turn 21 on June 17th, is bigger in size than both Hasek and Biron, going at 6-1, 191 pounds. He was the Sabres first pick in the 97 draft.

"We liked his size," the Sabres' Director of Player Personnel Don Luce said about Noronen. "We liked his composure. He's laid back and he's confident. He was an excellent prospect. Now the learning curve is going in the right direction. He's got great reflexes. He's not just big. This kid is an athlete. He's smart. It's just great when you get a combination of size and reflexes and the mind to do something with them."

The Sabres who were deep at the goaltending position when they drafted Noronen No. 1 in the draft, now are glad that they did take him with their top pick rather than go with a forward.

"You look at the teams that go to the finals or even the quarterfinals," Luce said, "and they all have deep goaltending. It's an important position, and you can never have enough goaltenders. We just couldn't afford to NOT take him. He helps make your whole team better."

Noronen, who hails from Tampere, Finland, has been a dominant force in the American Hockey League this past season. Before finally going pro with the Amerks, he played for Tappara in his home country. While playing for that team in the Finnish League, he played 41 games and had a 2.94 GAA. During the 98 World Junior Championships, he helped Finland win the gold medal. At the end of the 97-98 season, he was actually considered to be ahead of Biron on the Sabres depth chart, according to some sources.

The next year, however, Noronen career seemed to take a downward spiral. The 98-99 season he played with Tappara was disappointing to say the least. He struggled in a lot of games as did his team. Noronen's GAA slipped from a 2.94 in 97-98 to 3.23 the next season. During the 99 WJC, Noronen was not able to come up with the spectacular performance he had the previous year. In fact, he had to be replaced by the No. 2 goalie on Finland's team, who did a much better job in goal. Mika had a horrendous 4.14 GAA during the championships.

With Hasek's major groin injury early this season, the Sabres called up Biron from the Amerks. That injury may have jump-started Noronen's professional career. He took over the No. 1 goaltending position for the Amerks and never relinquished it. For his efforts this season when he recorded 6 shutouts, Noronen was named the AHL's rookie of the year.

"It was a good thing for me," Noronen described how Hasek's injury jump-started his professional career. "Marty got called up and I got my chance to play here. They said when I signed a contract that I would play maybe 20 or 30 games. After Marty got called up, I got my chance. I played good and I played bad. The coach kept giving me chances. And here we are."

After the Amerks posted an identical 3-0 shutout of the Bulldogs last Sunday in the Copps Coliseum, Noronen tried to put the spotlight on his teammates rather than himself.

"I didn't really have to do that much," said Noronen, who made 27 shots in that game as he tied the old AHL shutout record with his fifth. "It is not so hard because very often this team plays so great. The record is a nice thing but, really, it's a reward for the whole team."

"I think he's deflecting some of the credit he deserves," said Amerks' center Domenic Pittis. "Defense has always been a top priority. You get praise for playing defense here."

After receiving much praise for his fifth shutout, the Rochester Americans came home for Game 5 on Wednesday. The Rochester fans were anticipating another stellar performance and a series ending victory. Before Sunday's game in Hamilton, the Amerks had all of their shutouts in their Blue Cross Arena. However, what the fans and a number of the Sabres brass on hand witnessed was the Americans' worst game of the playoffs. The Bulldogs turned the game into a shootout and beat the Amerks 6-5.

"Both goalies made some good saves and both let in some bad goals, and I let in one too many," said a disappointed Noronen after getting shelled for six tallies.

"It was too loosy-goosey for our liking," said Eric Boulton, the Amerks' left winger, put the Amerks up 5-4 in the third period. "Run-and-gun is not our game, it hasn't been all year."

The Americans, who have perfected the trap system to help protect slim leads, were in a state of shock when the Bulldogs kept coming back after the Amerks and taken leads.

"We had the lead multiple times and we squandered it every time by not clamping down," said Domenic Pittis.

"We led 5-4 and after 20 seconds, it's 5-5 -- that should not happen," said Noronen, who stopped only 28 shots in that contest. "It was up and down, up and down, all the time and that's not the way our team plays."

The Americans' defense, which had been their main claim to fame all season, had suddenly come apart at the seams.

"For whatever reason," said Amerks' defenseman Mike Hurlbut, "we decided to play our worst game of the playoffs."

Amerks coach Brian McCutcheon knew that he had to get his players' heads back on tight to prevent a miraculous Bulldogs' comeback in the series.

"Maybe we felt with a 3-1 lead and coming home, that things would happen easier than they did, and that just doesn't happen in the playoffs," McCutcheon said. "Now it's up to us to bring our game up to the level it needs to be at. It's up to us to play our best game."

McCutcheon got his troops together and challenged them. His strategy paid off in one of the Amerks most disciplined games of the season Friday night in Hamilton.

"I think it was a really good wake-up call, to lose a game like that at home," said Denis Hamel about the poor performance in Game 5.

Wake up call indeed. The Americans arose to the occasion and put the Bulldogs away for good. The Americans scored two first period goals by Sabres' prospect J.P. Dumont and never looked back. After getting the early lead, the Bulldogs never penetrated the Amerks' stifling defense. By getting the shutout, Noronen broke Gordon "Red" Henry's 47-year-old league postseason record of five.

"This is what we used to do," said a relieved Noronen, after posting his record-breaking 6th AHL playoff shutout. "After letting six goals in, two days after the whole team was different."

"When we put our minds to it, we have great team defense, and we know Mika will pick up that spare change," said Joe Murphy, who scored the Amerks' third goal at 12:19 of the third period.

Noronen, who made 32 saves in his shutout, is well ahead of the schedule the Sabres had set for him.

"It's amazing what he's done for being his first year over here," said Amerks' forward Dominic Pittis, who has been with both the Sabres and Amerks this past season. "Attitude-wise, he has been great. He comes to work every practice. That's the proof. When he first got here, maybe he didn't work as hard as he should have. That can't be said now. He never gives up on the puck in practice and it shows up in the games."

Amerks' coach McCutcheon knows from watching Noronen up close just how far he has progressed so far this season.

"When you talk about first-year players, Mika is front and center," said McCutcheon. "His progression to me has been amazing. He's a young man who comes from a different country and has had to adjust to a new culture, a new style of hockey, a new league, new teammates. He didn't have a great start and you can understand why. Marty was gone, and a lot of pressure was put on him.

"For him to come through all of that, the last two months of the season and now into the playoffs, to do what he's accomplished says a lot for what kind of young man he is and the mental toughness that he's shown."

Noronen has to be penciled in as the Sabres' backup goalie if Hasek is traded before next season or if either Dominik or Biron go down with an injury during the course of the year. The way he played this past year, Noronen may even push Biron for that No. 2 spot. But with his age and lack of NHL playing experience, expect the Finish goalie to be back with the Americans again next season, paying his dues and getting valuable playing experience. One thing is sure, however, and that is Mika Noronen will figure prominently in the Sabres' future goaltending situation. In fact, he may just be the Sabres' No. 1 goalie of the future.

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