It might have been a carryover from the lager-filled Shamrock Run a few blocks away. Maybe, as Patrick Kaleta said, Buffalo’s fans looked at the afternoon start time and wanted to revel in a Bills-like atmosphere. More likely, Sabres backers saw honest-to-goodness effort and reacted accordingly.
Whatever the reason, fun returned to Sabreland on Saturday.
With the positive backing of a sellout crowd, the Sabres skated to a 4-3 shootout victory over New Jersey. The 19,070 fans in First Niagara Center were more vocal and excited than during any game in Buffalo, with the exception of the home opener, and were treated to the team’s first three-game winning streak of the season.
“We played hard hockey for the fans,” goaltender Ryan Miller said. “I said before that’s all they want. They want you to work hard and they want you to take the puck to the net. If it doesn’t work out, they’re still going to appreciate the effort.
“I’m glad they were able to get rewarded. Guys did a nice job of battling and pulled one out.”
The victory showed the Sabres might be turning the corner toward respectability. They didn’t get overly rattled during a wild third period that featured four goals, three ties and two lead changes.
For the second straight outing, they won via a perfect shootout. Jason Pominville and Tyler Ennis beat Devils goalie Johan Hedberg, while Miller stopped Adam Henrique to end it and got help when Ilya Kovalchuk shot over the net on the opening attempt.
“We’re getting more resilient as a team now, and I think that’s a good sign for us in terms of just the mind-set of our players,” Buffalo interim coach Ron Rolston said. “When I first got here, if we would have gave up the third goal, it might have been a different result. Right now we’re getting to be more resilient to find ways to win games instead of finding ways to lose games.”
Both teams needed to be hardy as they rapidly answered each other:
• Just 1:53 after Pominville opened the scoring during the second period, New Jersey’s Steve Bernier tied it.
• Henrique scored 1:21 into the third to give the Devils their only lead, but Pominville answered 1:49 later with his second of the game. He had just one goal in the previous 11 outings.
• Jochen Hecht’s first goal since Dec. 30, 2011, put Buffalo back in front with 10:13 left, but Andrei Loktionov scored 1:35 later to tie it again and force the shootout.
“It had to be an exciting game to watch,” Rolston said. “At least there was some entertainment value there – maybe not for the coaches, but for the fans.”
Rolston would have breathed easier if the Sabres’ power play had connected. It went 0 for 6, including a one-shot outing during overtime, to fall to 3 for 54 over the last 15 games. New Jersey went 0 for 5, and both teams scored a short-handed goal.
“The urgency right now, whether it’s on the breakouts or entries, can be better,” Rolston said. “In this league, you have to score power-play goals. The difference could have been separation of a couple goals, then you’re not worried about how tight you have to play down the stretch.”
The Sabres play again tonight in New York against the Rangers. It’s the start of four straight on the road as the Sabres also visit Carolina, New Jersey and Philadelphia. Their next home game is March 12 against the Rangers.
The team and its fans can only hope it’s as fun as Saturday’s applause-filled contest.
“The building came alive during the third period,” left wing Steve Ott said. “It’s an understatement how much energy you get from loud fans and fans that want to cheer for you. We’ve been waiting for this. We obviously haven’t shown them everything we have, but it’s definitely a huge bonus when you have 19,070 on their feet.”