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BIRON'S ABSENCE LEAVES OPENING FOR NORONEN

For the time being, Martin Biron's contract holdout is the best thing that happened to Mika Noronen, the No. 3 goaltender on the Buffalo Sabres organizational depth chart.

Noronen's getting more quality ice time in practice. He received the green light to play the entire game in Sunday's 3-0 shutout of Chicago, which visits HSBC Arena tonight (7:00, Empire, 107.7 FM). He's had the chance to familiarize himself with many of the players who figure to one day be his teammates.

But once the season starts, a Biron holdout would turn into a detriment for Noronen, who is 21 years old, has just one year of pro experience and figures to have his progress stunted if he has to sit behind Dominik Hasek.

Noronen understands his situation perfectly. He's thankful for the opportunity he's received in training camp but fully expects, and, to a great extent, even desires to head back to the American Hockey League for another season with the Rochester Americans.

"It would be nice to see what this league's all about, but for me, I'm young and I need more ice time to get better all the time instead of sitting here and watching the games," Noronen said after Tuesday's training camp workout at HSBC Arena. "That's not good for anybody."

Noronen, Buffalo's first-round draft pick in 1997, developed a deeper appreciation last season for the value of time spent between the pipes. It was expected he would spend much of his initial season in North America as an apprentice to Biron. That changed when Hasek's severe groin injury led to Biron's elevation to the top goalie in Buffalo for a few months and made Noronen the main man in Rochester. Noronen shook off an abysmal start during which his work ethic was heavily criticized, became the AHL's Rookie of the Year and led the Amerks to the Calder Cup finals.

"I think to training camp this year from training camp last year he's light years ahead of where he was at," coach Lindy Ruff said. "The first three or four months in Rochester last year were a definite learning experience for him. . . . I think part of Mika's development is that he played the number of games he played last year and the fact that Marty ended up here for most of the season. That's the reason he's at where he's at."

Noronen's introduction to this season's NHL came Sunday in Chicago. Granted, it was only a preseason game. Neither team put all of its top players on the ice. The fact the Sabres had 14 power plays allowed Buffalo to control much of the play. Still, a shutout in an enemy barn is an achievement under any circumstances.

"The game in Chicago he played very well," Ruff said. "He obviously didn't make a mistake in the game but he made a lot of the real big saves look easy, which just tells you he was in good position. He got out of his net and really challenged on one outnumbered situation and he looked very good."

The situation to which Ruff refers came in the game's first six minutes. A pair of penalties put the Sabres short for 2 minutes, 27 seconds, 1:33 of which was spent two men down. Some of the Blackhawks best chances among their 12 first-period shots came during that flurry. They had 24 shots overall.

"At the start when they had five against three, I got a lot of shots there and it was a good start of the game," Noronen said. "And after that I felt I could play there."

Ruff is reserving judgment on whether he'd be comfortable with Noronen as his No. 2 goaltender should Biron's holdout unexpectedly carry into the regular season.

"I think that's something we'll have to talk about, but part of Mika's development is playing," Ruff said. "Playing behind Dom isn't an opportunity to play all the time. We've seen him play one really good game at this level. I think you've got to see him against a full roster. Obviously we took about half a roster and we saw half Chicago's roster. Inside of that, we saw him make five or six really good saves against the Amontes, Zhamnovs, the likes of those players. That speaks for itself."

Noronen wrapped the AHL around his finger once he righted himself last season. He finished the regular season 33-13-4 with a 2.18 goals against average and a .921 save percentage. He produced six shutouts in the playoffs, matching his regular-season total. Many a young player would point to those numbers and say: "I'm ready for the big time."

Noronen shows his maturity by saying, "I'm ready to go back there."

Biron is slated to back up Hasek this season while Noronen gains more seasoning in the AHL. If all goes as planned, by this time next year Noronen will have the experience he needs to challenge Biron for the No. 1 job in the event Hasek retires.

"Marty played two whole seasons in Rochester," Noronen said. "For me, it's not a bad thing to play two years there. And Dominik maybe retires after this season, so it's a new situation for the whole organization. I think it would be good for me to play there and get better."

The Sabres announced after Tuesday's practice they had assigned 10 players to their affiliate in Rochester: Craig Brunel, Bret DeCecco, Doug Houda, Mike Hurlbut, Matt Kinch, Jaroslav Kristek, Francois Methot, Andrew Peters, Scott Sterling and Darren VanOene.

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