Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
The Buffalo Sabres will be visiting Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alberta tonight to kick off a three-game West Coast swing. Originally known as Northlands Coliseum, Rexall Place opened in 1974 and was home to the Edmonton Oilers of the WHA. It is the second oldest arena in the NHL, behind the legendary Madison Square Gardens (1968,) and will soon be relegated to NHL history once the new Rogers Place opens up in downtown Edmonton in time for next season.
The banners up in the rafters boast five Stanley Cup Championships and an impressive display of retired numbers featuring some to the greatest ever to play the game. The Great One's No. 99 headlines a group of six great players from their heyday in the 1980's. Wayne Gretzky is joined by "The Captain's Captain" and six-time Stanley Cup-winner, Mark Messier (No. 11,) three-time Norris-winner and four-time Cup-winner Paul Coffey (No. 7,) six-time Cup-winner Glenn Anderson (No. 9,) and five-time Cup-champions Grant Fuhr (No. 31,) and Jari Kurri (No. 17.)
The No. 3 banner belongs to defenseman Al Hamilton who played for the NY Rangers and their AHL affiliate, the Buffalo Bisons, before the expansion Buffalo Sabres selected him in the 1970 Expansion Draft. He played two seasons for Buffalo before he jumped to the WHA, signing with Alberta Oilers, forerunner to the Edmonton franchise. He retired after the 1979-80 season and is the only player with a number in the rafters who was not a part of the Oilers dynasty of the 80's.
A quick note, the other banner with the No. 3542 belongs to long-time broadcaster Rod Phillips and represents the number of Oilers games he called.
The Buffalo Sabres have their own banners hanging from the rafters of the First Niagara Center. The French Connection--Gilbert Perreault (No. 11,) Rene Robert (No. 14) and Rick Martin (No. 7)--are the crown jewel of the retired players numbers having been there the longest. Recently, Sabres' great Dominik Hasek's No. 39 joined Tim Horton (No. 2,) Danny Gare (No. 18,) and Pat LaFontaine (No. 16) placed high above the ice. But what's missing at the F'N Center are the Stanley Cup banners that this wave of youngins will be staring up at tonight as the Sabres face the Edmonton Oilers for the last time at Rexall Place.
Sabres players like rookies Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, along with Rasmus Ristolainen, all 21 years old or younger and all with a very high upside, may someday have their numbers retired and join the other Sabres greats in the rafters of the First Niagara Center. But whether you're those three, or Ryan O'Reilly, Evander Kane, Zemgus Girgensons, Zach Bogosian and a host of other roster players looking up at Rexall, those five Stanley Cup banners will be the object of their affection and their sole hockey purpose as members of the Buffalo Sabres.
Only three points separate the Oilers and the Sabres at this point in the season which is a bit of a surprise. Many had the Sabres about where they're at in the standings and nearly every one thought that the Oilers would be much better than their league-worst 22 points. It looked as if they would be, until Connor McDavid went down. McDavid went awkwardly into the boards in a game against the Philadelphia Flyers back on November 3rd and he left the ice with a broken collarbone that has him on the sidelines until sometime early in 2016. He had just been named the NHL's Rookie of the Month as he posted 12 points (5+7) in 12 games and the Oilers seemed to be gaining traction after an 0-4-0 start to the season.
The hearts of Edmonton fans as well as Canadian hockey fans sunk as they watched the 18 yr. old head to the dressing room with his hand on his shoulder. McDavid is a generational player touted as the best player drafted since Sidney Crosby and like Crosby succeeded one of the greatest players of all time in Mario Lemieux, so McDavid was to succeed "The Great One" and bring Edmonton back to the heights achieved in the 80's.
All that's on hold, however, as he recovers from injury. Not only that, but the much anticipated match-up between McDavid and Buffalo's Eichel, selected Nos. 1 and 2 overall at the 2015 NHL Draft, will also be on hold. Too bad. Their players from different countries playing for teams in different conferences in different regions of the continent with different styles, but each possess a whole lotta talent. They were, and still are, expected to lead two struggling franchise out of the depths of despair and into a prominent place amongst the Stanley Cup contenders.
As we head into tonight's game the Sabres are 3-0-1 in their last four games and have found the back of the net 17 times in that span. It was the first time since 2007 that Buffalo scored four or more goals in four consecutive games, and they'll be looking to extend that as the Oilers rank 27th in the league in goals-against giving up an average of 2.96 per game.
Neither team took the morning skate and it's assumed that the Sabres will be using the same lineup tonight as they did in their 5-2 win over the Arizona Coyotes. A minor change has Cal, O'Reilly, brother of Ryan, called up from Rochester and joining the team on the trip.
Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma concurred that his team is in a good place right now. He told Sabres.com's Brian Duff yesterday that the recent success the team has had lately has them "on the winning side of the ledger." Bylsma also mentioned that the last even in the teams shootout loss to Dallas they fought back, leaving him feeling as if the team lost a point.
Bylsma, who played in 429 games in his nine-year NHL career, was a "huge fan" of the Oilers growing up and had played on that ice a number of times. "I was a fan," he told Duff. "and coming here for the first time and special because of that."
WGR's Paul Hamilton says Chad Johnson will be in goal for Buffalo.
Game-time is 8:00 pm.
FWIW: This is my 1000th published blog on buffalosabresnow.