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AMERKS REDISCOVER THEIR GRIT, END LOSING STREAK
VANEK'S TWO GOALS SPARK THIRD-PERIOD RALLY

The smelling salts had been waved under the Rochester Americans' noses for a week, and they finally took a deep snort.

The Amerks, owners of the American Hockey League's best record for months, had started to drift. They lost three straight and trailed for much of Sunday's game against the St. John's Maple Leafs in HSBC Arena.

But the Amerks willed themselves to victory -- and clinched the North Division title -- with three third-period goals, beating the Baby Leafs, 6-4, in front of 15,326 fans in Rochester's final appearance here this season. The Amerks won all four of their games here.

No, the Buffalo Sabres didn't implement their conceptual cages, with the posts bowed outward and the crossbar arched upward to create a larger target. The goal just looked that big for Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville.

Vanek tied the game with 6:53 left and scored the winner with 4:02 to play. Pominville scored a goal in each period, including an empty-netter to seal the triumph.

"We battled a lot harder and stuck together," Pominville said. "It was just a great team effort. It's frustrating sometimes when bounces don't go your way, but finally they did, and hopefully we can keep that going."

The bounces weren't going Rochester's way for most of the game. Even though the Amerks had a 47-33 shot advantage, the Baby Leafs always seemed a step ahead.

"What we saw was a lot more battle," Amerks coach Randy Cunneyworth said of the game, which featured four fights and 72 penalty minutes. "That was our main concern. We battled all over the ice and had to make some good plays to get our goals. It was a pretty hard-fought win.

"What we wanted was a gritty effort, back to basics. We've done that for much of the weekend."

St. John's took a 4-3 lead 8:44 into the third period on a play Rochester goalie Ryan Miller certainly would like to do over. Brett Englehardt sent the puck between Miller's knees from the bottom of the left circle.

It was the type of goal that could demoralize a team, especially one that had lost three in a row against clubs looking at the playoff race from afar. St. John's, on the other hand, was 16 games above .500.

"Guys could've bailed after that late goal St. John's had, and we didn't," Cunneyworth said. "We kept working at it."

Vanek, who has thrived in HSBC Arena since he led the University of Minnesota to an NCAA title here two years ago, tied the game with a power-play goal.

He was stationed in the slot and redirected defenseman David Cullen's slapper. He added the winner less than three minutes later with a stellar individual effort, getting through a defender to pick up a carom off the end boards and stickhandled his way through the crease before depositing it behind St. John's goalie Mikael Tellqvist.

"Tonight was big for our confidence," Vanek said. "We played well (Saturday) night and still came out with the loss. We played really well tonight."

The late surge was even more impressive given the fact the Amerks were playing their third game in three nights in three cities. They lost Friday night against the Cleveland Barons. The lowly Albany River Rats beat the Amerks, 4-2, Saturday night. Then the Amerks bused into slushy Buffalo, arriving at about 5 a.m.

The Baby Leafs were playing in their fourth city in five nights.

"We feel a lot more confident with everything," said Amerks winger Daniel Paille, who had a goal and an assist in the second period. "The three games that we lost in a row we didn't really play our game. We didn't do the little things very well. We were trying to do everything ourselves. We got a lot more goals allowed than we expected, but it's a step in the right direction. We're really happy with that."
e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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