By Kevin Oklobzija
Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
BUFFALO - If ever a guy looked right at home on the NHL ice of the First Niagara Center, it was Cody Hodgson on Friday night.
The shifty centerman with the slick hands and ESP vision scored two power-play goals - the first and the third - as the Rochester Americans defeated the Lake Erie Monsters 4-1 in front of a sellout crowd of 19,070.
Starved for hockey due to the NHL lockout, Buffalo fans - as well as a whole lot of Thruway-dashing Amerk diehards - packed the arena. It was the largest crowd ever to see the Amerks play in their 57 seasons, and the eighth largest in American Hockey League regular-season history.
"It was pretty special to play here," Hodgson said. "It pumps you up to get back in this arena."
The First Niagara Center is, after all, where Hodgson should be playing this season. But with no NHL so far, he met the requirements to return to the AHL - mainly, he's still on his entry level contract.
His performance on Friday gave Sabres fans a taste of what awaits. He showed patience and puck trickery on his first goal, darting in through the left circle toward the net and thinking pass before a quick shake-and-bake move at the crease allowed him to slip it past goalie Sami Aittokallio on the far side. The goal gave the Amerks a 1-0 lead at 14:48 of the first period.
His goal at 7:52 of the second period pushed the lead to 3-0. This time it came on the rush out of the Amerks' zone, triggered by defenseman Brayden McNabb.
Hodgson took a return pass from Marcus Foligno and sped down the left of the slot. Having created his own free space, he again gave Aittokallio two or three fakes to think about before he tucked the puck between the goalie's legs.
In the past two games, Hodgson has combined for four goals and an assist in a pair of victories over the Monsters.
"He's a difference-maker for us, for sure," Amerks coach Ron Rolston said. "I thought the last two games he's been outstanding."
Had he not missed 14 games with a broken hand, he might very well be among the AHL scoring leaders. As it is, he has 5-13-18 in 15 games.
"You know when you give him the puck he's going to do something with it," McNabb said.
Hodgson had a lot of fun making those plays on Friday, too. His parents made the trip down from Markham, Ontario, and being in Buffalo just added a little extra energy.
"It's always nice to play in front of the Buffalo fans," Hodgson said. "They want hockey as bad as we do in the NHL. It was just nice to be back here."
He wasn't alone in those thoughts. The Amerks are 2-0 this season playing in the Sabres' rink; they defeated Hamilton 3-1 on Oct. 23. That game drew just under 11,000. Friday it was packed and noisy.
"It was pretty cool to have all that support from these fans," McNabb said.
Said Rolston: "It was a really great experience for our guys. I think they were focused and motivated and excited by the crowd."
It showed, too. They played a very solid first period, taking a 1-0 lead into the intermission.
Mark Mancari's rocket snap shot from the high slot at 2:10 of the second period made it 2-0. He simply blew the straight-on shot past the glove of Aittokallio and into the top right corner of the net.
After enduring a 15-game goalless drought, Mancari has scored 3-7-10 in his past seven games. That includes three 2-point performances in his past four outings (he assisted on Hodgson's first goal on Friday).
"I'm starting to get back on track," he said.
So, maybe, is the Amerks' team defensive system. While goalie David Leggio was required to make three big saves to preserve a 3-1 lead, it was very much clamp-down time for the final 10 minutes.
"Protecting a lead's a simple thing when everyone's on the same page and tonight we were," said defenseman Joe Finley, who played a team-high 21 minutes, 27 seconds. "It's hard for them to score goals when they're playing in their own end.