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NORONEN GETS TO MAKE HIS CASE TONIGHT

Mika Noronen will finally get a shot to show why he should be the Buffalo Sabres' No. 1 goaltender when he makes his first preseason appearance tonight.

But Noronen's start against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Nationwide Arena (7 p.m., Radio 107.7) might be the only chance to make his case.

The bright prospect, trying to claim the top job from Martin Biron, could soon be assigned to the Rochester Americans.

Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier has stated if Noronen can't beat out Biron, the team would rather put Noronen back in Rochester to play on a regular basis. Veteran Bob Essensa will be Buffalo's backup.

"I think he wants to make a big statement," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said of Noronen after Monday's workout at the Amherst Pepsi Center. "We'd like to see a great game out of him. Obviously, we want to see him play well. It is a big game. Everybody understands there's three goalies here."

Tonight is Noronen's turn in the rotation. Biron stopped 17 shots Friday in a 1-0 loss to the Ottawa Senators. Essensa made 22 saves Saturday in a 4-3 victory over the Blue Jackets.

Ruff doesn't intend to continue the goalie rotation for Buffalo's final three preseason games -- Thursday at Toronto, Friday at Ottawa and Saturday vs. Toronto in Hamilton, Ont.

"I don't think we'd go that route," Ruff said. "I think that after (tonight's) game, after it plays out, we'll put some thought into giving two guys the majority of work."

That, considering Biron's solid outing in the preseason opener, would appear to put pressure on Noronen, although the 22-year-old Finn claimed he's not feeling any.

"It's just normal," Noronen said. "Of course, you're excited for the first game of the season, but nothing else.

"It's just one game, and I think it doesn't help me at all. I just try and do my best. Those guys there (the Sabres' front office) will decide what they want to do. I just try to play well."

Noronen admitted he hasn't had a particularly strong preseason thus far. He partly blames it on the fact he dropped 10 pounds from his 6-foot-1 frame -- down to 196 -- before training camp. Even though he is in better condition, his game has been off.

"I lose a couple pounds, and I think I'm in better shape," Noronen said. "I worked hard during the summer. When I left after last year, I really started getting myself in shape. I think that's a good thing. We'll see where it takes me.

"But actually, I feel worse (on the ice). It's a little bit different. But I think it'll be a good thing when I get used to it. . . . I just can't stop the puck."

That's a foreign problem for Noronen. He went 26-15-5 with four shutouts, a 2.18 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage for Rochester last season.

In 1999-2000, the Hockey News named him its pro prospect of the year for going 33-13-4 and setting team records with six shutouts, a 2.18 GAA and .920 save percentage.

Noronen insisted game conditions will help his concentration level and give observers a better indication of where his game is.

"Every time I scrimmage and each practice you don't have the 100 percent focus," Noronen said. "Sometimes it's hard when you gotta stand out there 15 minutes and there's no shots. When it's a real game you see where you are and how you can play.

"You never know what's going to happen. But it's fun. It's nice to get going again."

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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