It's been a long time since Sabres fans had that feeling of being fully invested in their beloved hockey team. Since 2006-07 when Buffalo won the President's Trophy and made their second consecutive Eastern Conference Finals appearance there have been flashes of enthusiasm, most notably the Sabres division crown in 2009-10 and the run to the playoffs the following season under new owner Terry Pegula, but in and around those? Mirages in a desert.
"The Core" years of Darcy Regier did include those two playoff teams and a load of individual talent that could never mesh into a playoff threat, but unlike those two ECF teams, they generally wilted when the heat was turned up. After he was fired in 2013, his core was dispersed and the team fell in a deep rut with a number last place finishes and a high of only 81 points the past seven seasons. Despite the haul the Sabres got from Regier's core and two second-overall picks from back-to-back tank seasons, the Sabres were still a train wreck. Under yet another new GM and coach, the Sabres fell to the bottom again last season after an atrocious start and a downward spiral that had Sabreland talking draft as early as December.
Such was the plight of Buffalo's beleaguered hockey fans over the past decade-plus.
Trepidation marked the beginning of this season and after the opening night stinker against the Boston Bruins fans stayed away from KeyBank Center. The Bruins game, of course, was a sellout with 19,070 fans taking in that 4-0 shutout loss and after that the Sabres average announced attendance for the remaining five home games in October was 15,906.
Attendance was a little better to begin the following month as the Sabres entered November with a decent 6-4-2 record and proceeded to win their first three home games which included a 9-2 thrashing of the Ottawa Senators on KeyBank ice. A come-from-behind matinee win against the Vancouver Canucks and a win against division-leading Tampa Bay would put Buffalo on a three-game winning streak as they headed to the middle of the continent to begin a three-game road trip. The average home attendance in November prior to that trip was 17,085.
Expectations were moderate in Sabreland as their team faced a tough back-to-back at Winnipeg and at Minnesota. Buffalo won both games then headed for Pittsburgh to play a Penguins team that always gave them a difficult time. The Sabres got into a 4-1 hole early but scored four unanswered goals for a 5-4 overtime win which pushed their winning streak to six games. The fans took notice and the Sabres came back home to play the Philadelphia Flyers two days later and won 5-2 before a raucous sellout crowd of 19,070 which began a string of four consecutive sellouts.
Tuesday's game against the archrival Toronto Maple Leafs at KeyBank Center had a Game-7 feel to it in part because it was the Leafs with their large contingent of Blue and White-clad fans in tow but also in large part because the energy is back and the fans in Buffalo are feeling it.
The Sabres are playing an exciting brand of hockey and are winning. It's something that we haven't seen in these parts since the '06-'07 season. For those of us who've been around a long time there were only a few eras in Sabres history with that combination--The French Connection years of the mid-70's, the Pat LaFontaine/Alexander Mogilny years in the early 90's and the post-lockout years of '05-'07. For us old-timers it's great to see this again as they bring up fond memories, but those born in the late 90's and into the new century, this is all new to them and they're becoming more and more invested in their team.
There's a belief this season, unlike anything we've seen in years, that this team has enough firepower to overcome almost any lead and that even though they're in the throes of a four-game losing streak (0-2-2,) there's no where near a feeling of dread. Buffalo has been living on the edge playing one-goal games in 13 of the last 14 games with nine of their 10 wins during winning streak of the one-goal variety with four decided in overtime and three in the shootout. The last four losses have all been decided by only one goal including two overtime losses.
What it all adds up to is that the Sabres are playing consistently competitive hockey and for the majority of the time have been on the right side of a favorable bounce and/or play. All Sabres fans have really asked for over the past seven-plus seasons is a competitive team to get behind. This year their getting one and as a bonus their getting a lot of wins against quality opponents. It's all they really needed to jump back on board.
Injuries hitting the blueline
The Sabres recent four-game slide coincides with their first bout of injuries to key players and they've gotten hit on the blueline.
Defenseman Marco Scandella has missed the last four games, all losses, while fellow d-man Jake McCabe was injured in the game against Tampa Bay and has missed the last three games. The much-maligned Scandella was leading the team in average shorthanded time on ice (2:40/game) before he landed on injured reserve. The Sabres PK went from eighth in the league (81.9% kill rate) to 15th (80.0%.) McCabe was possibly having the best season of his career before he went down with an upper body injury.
The duo was joined on the injured list by defenseman Casey Nelson who suffered an upper body injury against the Leafs. Nelson had played n 22 games for the Sabres averaging 14:31 of ice-time and is second amongst Buffalo defensemen with a plus-6 rating.
The Sabres headed into practice today with only four roster defensemen--Rasmus Ristolainen, Rasmus Dahlin, Zach Bogosian and Nathan Beaulieu--and were joined by Rochester call-up Lawrence Pilut who has played the first games of his NHL career. Matt Hunwick, who was acquired by Buffalo from Pittsburgh, has not yet played for Buffalo because of a neck injury. He's been practicing with the team.
Buffalo announced today that they've called up defenseman Matt Tennyson, who's on his third stint with the club but hasn't played in a game yet.
Sabres GM Jason Botterill is doing a balancing act in blueline call-ups as he has an array of d-men to choose from in Rochester but is also trying to keep the AHL North-leading Amerks in stride. The Amerks are 2-1-0 since the Pilut recall.
This Pilut ready for takeoff?
Prior to his recall, Pilut (pronounced, pilot) was tied for third in the AHL with 22 points (3+19) and had a plus-19 rating in 16 games. It was the 22 yr. old's first foray into North America after the Sabres signed him out of Sweden to a two-year entry-level deal.
Pilut has not looked out of place with the Sabres in his three games thus far and head coach Phil Housley has ramped up his minutes from 12:48 in Florida on November 30 to 19:08 in Nashville to 22:49 against the Maple Leafs.
“I just like the competitive nature of Lawrence,” Housley told the media this week. “He’s a competitor in every sense of the word. In the ‘D’ zone, he fights for loose pucks, he wins his battles, he attacks the game the right way, his decisions up ice. I just like the enthusiasm that he brings offensively. He’s maybe a little overanxious at times, but his intentions are in the right area.”
It's the same thing that Pilut's HV71 coach in Sweden told me this past Spring. "Larry (as the team called him) was very talented at a young age," HV71 coach Johan Lindbom told me via phone. "Maybe a little too small from the beginning but he's a fighter. He takes his hockey very seriously. He practices very hard and that's what makes him successful. He's not the toughest, he's not the strongest in front of the net but he reads the play really well."
And it would also seem as if Pilut never saw a play he didn't want to jump into. "He's over-enthusiastic," is how the Lindbom put it, "he wants to be involved in the play all the time. He had to learn to do the right things.
"He wanted to be involved all over the ice but we told him you start with defense then you take the next step."
For three games in Buffalo that's pretty much what we've seen from Pilut so far. And one might add in his poise and his smarts (something Lindbom mentioned numerous times during our interview) that were on full display against Toronto in a game that was about as fast as a regular season game can get. Yet, Pilut came out with an even plus/minus rating while playing most of the time against Toronto's top line.
What this season brings will be interesting as it looks as if the 2018 SHL Defenseman of the Year is making a very smooth transition to the North American game. Were it not for the glut of NHL d-men in Buffalo and the success that's happening in Rochester, Pilut might be in Buffalo for an extended look when the walking wounded return.
However, regardless of what happens, Pilut seems ready for take-off in the NHL.