ROCHESTER (LGS) — When I stood outside the Rochester Americans' dressing room in late November conducting an interview with Mark Mancari, he spoke of how he dreamed of playing in the NHL as a kid. He spoke at length about how he spent countless hours working in the previous two off-seasons to improve his game and make it NHL-ready.
“I’ll do whatever it takes, as long as it gets me to the NHL,” Mancari told me that November morning.
On Saturday, February 24, that childhood dream was finally realized. Mancari made his NHL debut when the Buffalo Sabres took on the Ottawa Senators at the ScotiaBank Place in Ottawa. Mancari narrowly missed scoring a goal in the second, fanning on an empty net.
“I saw the puck coming across, and I guess I thought a bit too much. I had a real tight grip on my stick, and just missed the net.”
Playing on a line with Adam Mair and Michael Ryan, Mancari skated 11 shifts and saw 8:24 of ice time.
Mancari drew the praises of Jim Lorentz after knocking Ottawa forward Dany Heatley off the puck halfway through the second. Heatley had beaten Mancari in the first, leading to Ottawa’s first goal.
“I wanted to step up defensively, because he had gotten me earlier. I was the first guy back and just wanted to keep him in front of me and move him (off the puck).”
Making his debut was thrilling enough for the 6’4” second-year pro, but to have it take place in Ottawa, where he played his junior hockey, was extra special.
“It was awesome, just a great feeling. Lindy (Ruff) even gave me the start.”
Mancari estimates that about four of his friends and family were in attendance.
“It’s a seven-hour drive from home, and it was such a late notice. They watched the game on TV. I had a lot of people who used to watch me play with the 67’s there.”
All of the injuries and additions to the lineup proved to be too much for the Sabres that night as they fell 6-5.
Mancari has since played in two more contests with the Sabres, both against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Mancari picked up his first point in the NHL this past Saturday night when he assisted on Toni Lydman’s game-winning goal in the second period.
“It was a great feeling,” Mancari reminisced. “I didn’t get the puck because it wasn’t originally my assist. The refs thought that (Dainius) Zubrus tipped it in, but he went to the refs and told them to look at it again because he didn’t think he touched it.
“The guys were great.”
Despite being sent back to Rochester, Mancari has his sights set on the next level.
New additions to Sabreland surprised
Newly acquired defensemen Mikko Lehtonen and Timo Helbling were not expecting to be traded as the NHL trade deadline approached.
“It was a complete shock,” Lehtonen said. “I had just received a promise from Nashville and was told to get an apartment in Milwaukee.
“I didn’t know how to tell my wife, it was a shock.”
“I was surprised, but it’s an honor,” Helbling said. “It means that someone wants you.”
Helbling was literally sitting around waiting to leave for a road trip with the Hershey Bears when he received the call.
“It’s exciting. I came here (North America) to play in the NHL and now I’m a little closer,” the Swiss native said.
“It’s hard to switch teams and learn the new systems,” Lehtonen added. “It’s going to be fun; they’re (Buffalo) a good team that has a very good chance at winning the Stanley Cup.”
Buffalo felt it necessary to trade for blue-line depth after injuries derailed a run at the Stanley Cup last June. While first-year pros Mike Card and Mike Funk have played well, Sabres' General Manager Darcy Regier typically likes his defensive prospects to have three years of seasoning in the AHL.
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