Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Dear Winnipeg, Track-suit Night was fun, Love, Evander Kane. PS, Sam Reinhart says hi!

Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com

He slipped on a puck during warm-ups, he was vociferously booed every time he touched the puck, and the hometown Winnipeg fans cheered loudly every time a Jets player laid a hit on him.

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to "Track-suit Night in Winnipeg" to honor the incident that would become the precursor to the eventual trade of Winnipeg's least favorite ex-player, Evander Kane. For Jets fans it was fun as the teams met for the first time since last February's blockbuster trade and for the team it was an opportunity for them to ride an emotional home-wave after having been on the road playing five games in eight days.

Winnipeg may have been a little too preoccupied with Kane early on as they allowed the Sabres to do something they don't really do too often, score first. It only took Buffalo 1:37 to get on the board as Sam Reinhart took a feed from Johan Larsson and rifled a wrister past Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck.

Before we get too much further into the pregame headliner which was Kane "The Evil" and his return to Winnipeg, big props to Reinhart for his first career hat trick. It started early with that first goal and ended with an empty-netter with only :26 seconds left on the clock.

In between Reinhart was the beneficiary of a deflection off the stick of Jets d-man Toby Enstrom. The Sabres were on the powerplay because former Buffalo Sabres defenseman, Tyler Myers, who was a part of the trade, put an arm on a streaking Kane and pounded him to the ice much to the pleasure of the fans in Winnipeg. Myers was whistled for holding and Reinhart was the recipient of a the fortuitous deflection past Hellebuyck on the ensuing powerplay.

Somehow Reinhart named the game's third star behind another part of the Kane/Myers deal, Drew Stafford.

Stafford had spent his first nine NHL seasons with the Sabres before the trade and had a solid game which included a lot of skating, one assist, four shots on goal and two hits. He was named the game's second star, perhaps it was because he was robbed by Buffalo's rookie goaltender, Linus Ullmark, and looked like he was the one who should have had the hat trick. At least in the eyes of those in Winnipeg who voted for the stars of the game.

Ullmark, the game's first star, was stellar in goal for Buffalo turning aside 42 of the 44 shots he faced with many of them being huge saves for the Sabres.  He flashed the leather on one, flicked his blocker on others and stopped a couple of breakaways just for good measure. The Sabres finally gave the rookie some goal-support scoring four goals against the Jets. During the last four games Ullmark started for Buffalo, the team scored a grand total of two goals and were shut out twice.

The Sabres stopped a six-game losing streak with the win, halted an 0-fer for the month of January and also put to rest a month of January losing streak that dated back to 2014. All three lines contributed in some way to the win while defensemen Mike Weber and Jake McCabe started the play on the Sabres first and third goals.

Head coach Dan Bylsma may have found some line combinations as all four looked good out there, including the third line which produced a goal by Marcus Foligno, his third of the season and first 10 games. Foligno was set up by a low shot from Brian Gionta which Helleybuyck kicked to the far side right to Foligno who snapped it home.

But the real play may have been on the last goal when Kane set-up Reinhart for his empty-net hatty.

Bylsma had both on the ice late in the game with the Sabres clinging to a 3-2 lead. As luck would have it, a Reihnart clearing attempt would be deflected by Byflugien into Kane and the two would soon hit the Winnipeg blueline on a two-on-one with Myers defending. Kane drew the attention of both Myers and a back-checking Stafford which opened up Reinhart. Instead of shooting himself into an empty net, Kane sent a saucer-pass to Reinhart and the 20 yr. old sent it home for the hatty.

No doubt Kane would have liked nothing better than to score on his former team in his first game back, but he showed a lot of class dishing to Reinhart. "I thought it was great," said Bylsma of the play to the gathered media post-game. "It was a class move by Evander because I know how very much he wanted to score one tonight."

Kane was very team-focused after the game, much like he was prior, as he tried to deflect the spotlight away from him to where it belongs, on the team. But regardless of what he said, having known the fans of Winnipeg and how very vocal they can be, especially when mocking a hated player (for example, Sabres goalie Ryan Miller with "Sil-ver, me-dal" after Canada beat the US for gold at the 2010 Olympics,) that assist for Reinhart's goal was every bit as good as a goal. Maybe even better.

"I've never scored a hat trick in this league," said Kane post-game, "so when you get an opportunity to have one...You know, he's a young kid in his rookie year, [he was] wide open so might as well hit him for the pass and get him his hat trick. It was great to see from him."

Kane had a huge smile on his face on the bench afterwards because it was a good night. His team won, he helped a rookie do something he's never done in his 393 NHL games and maybe, just maybe, that one primary assists may have shown another side to him on the ice, one that got lost in all the tracksuits, money phones and fan-fueled innuendo that plagued his career in Winnipeg.

Although one game or even one assist does not make a career or totally dissolve a self-crafted image, Kane definitely had an affect on his teammates, especially Reinhart. "For him to handle the 'Welcome back' the way he did," said Reinhart post-game, "and to make the play that he did shows that he really is unselfish and will do anything for the team."

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