Professional hockey returned to Buffalo on Friday night.
With the Rochester Americans in town for the second time this season, a team-record 19,070 fans made their way to First Niagara Center for another glimpse of the future of their hometown team.
Cody Hodgson scored twice and the Americans treated the hockey-hungry crowd to a 4-1 win over the Lake Erie Monsters as the Buffalo Sabres’ American Hockey League affiliate filled in for its locked-out parent club.
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“The crowd tonight was outstanding,” Amerks head coach Ron Rolston said. “It was really a great experience for our young guys to play in front of a crowd like that in this building. I was very happy with their focus and execution. With a crowd like that, I think it was really just exciting for everybody.”
With the win, Rochester (15-11-2-1) pulled even with the Monsters (15-13-2-1) for third place in the North Division at 33 points. The Amerks have won each of the high-scoring meetings between the two teams this season, scoring 18 of the 31 goals in the three games.
Rochester finished 2-for-3 on the power play thanks in large part to Hodgson’s play, who is doing his part to keep the Amerks among the league’s best with the man advantage.
In six games since returning from a broken hand two weeks ago, the 22-year-old has eight points, including four (2+2) while centering the Rochester’s top power play unit.
The Amerks are 8-for-23 (30 percent) with the man advantage since Hodgson’s return, and his chemistry with linemates Marcus Foligno and Brian Flynn, as well as Mark Mancari on the power play, is something that Rolston said has been key.
“[Cody] came back from injury and started a little slow; I know he definitely was not where he wanted to be,” Rolston said. “But I thought the last two games he’s been outstanding, especially on the power play.
“What he does is on your breakouts, your entries are a lot better because he can make those passes that get us set up. There’s a lot of good elements to it, good ingredients in our power play. But Cody just pulls it all together.”
Hodgson started the scoring with just over five minutes remaining in the first period. With the Amerks on a 5-on-3 powerplay, he stick handled from the right boards and slid the puck past Monsters goalie Sami Aittokallio.
The Americans upped their lead to 2-0 early in the second period when Mancari grabbed a loose puck in the neutral zone, skated down the right side and snapped a 40-foot shot over the glove of Aittokallio for his second point of the night and sixth goal this season.
Mancari, who finished with a goal and an assist, has now scored two points in three of his last four games and extended his point streak to five.
Hodgson scored his second power play goal of the game midway through the second period. Lake Erie responded with its first goal minutes later, also on the power play, but Nick Tarnasky put the finishing touches on the win late in the third after a crease-side scramble led to his fifth goal of the season.
Defenseman Brayden McNabb finished with a pair of assists, while David Leggio stopped 36 of 37 shots for his 14th victory.
Leggio, the Williamsville native who earned the win in the Amerks’ first game in Buffalo on Oct. 23, said it’s easy for him to get up for a game when his friends and family are in the stands.
“It was really exciting the last time just because it was the first time, but this time maybe even moreso because we sold it out,” Leggio said. “It’s been exciting both times. We’ve gotten good results both games and hopefully we get some more.”
The Amerks will play their third of four-games-in-six-nights on Saturday back home at Blue Cross Arena against the Binghamton Senators for a 7:05 p.m. faceoff, before closing out the 2012 calendar year with a New Years Eve tilt at home against Hamilton on Monday afternoon.