After a game like Monday night, I realize the first thing – and maybe the only thing – we’ll remember is what instantly got christened the ButtGoal.
But I wonder if the absolutely wacky overtime win over Phoenix will eventually have deeper meaning down the road. That’s because pretty much everyone in the Sabres’ locker room was talking about the crowd.
It seemed like there was a little bit of reconciliation going on between a team and its fans.
No more boos. No more “Fire Somebody” chants. The paying customers loved the effort and were as loud as they’ve been all season, probably louder than just about any point last year too. The players heard the noise that filled First Niagara Center, felt the energy and attacked the game even harder.
It was easy to see Ted Nolan on the bench, look back to the ice and think back to The Hardest Working Team in Hockey.
Remember them? It was 18 years ago when Nolan’s first Buffalo team, a club bereft of talent and going nowhere near the playoffs just like this one, captured the hearts of the town because its collective noses were always pressed against the grindstone.
(OK, their fists were on others’ noses a lot too, but go with me here a little).
It’s all anybody in this town wants. Give an honest effort, you’ll get a response. And boy, did the folks give the Sabres a response Monday.
“I was so pumped about that,” said Tyler Ennis. “It was cool. The fans were great. Heading out to the third period, they were really loud. It’s so nice to see. We want to win for those people who are dying for wins.”
“It was fantastic,” added a beaming John Scott, he of the 8:50 of ice time and nearly two minutes on the power play. “I know our record. I know where we are. But to have the crowd behind us like that is unbelievable. It’s something you can’t describe on the ice. You get goose bumps and you feel the energy in the crowd.”
Don’t look now, but the paying customers are getting rewarded.
The Sabres are 5-1-1 in their last seven home games. They’re 4-0-1 in the last five. They’ve won three straight downtown for the first time in 21 months. Seriously. They didn’t do it all last season.
I’m betting you had no idea of those stats. I didn’t until at least a half-hour after the puck plopped on Mike Smith’s sweater and he slid into the net to produce what certainly rates as one of the most bizarre overtime goals in NHL history.
When Ennis scored the tying goal with 5:59 left, it was easily the loudest roar of the season. And the noise didn’t stop. The fans even got to hear a pair of foghorns and celebrate twice – once at full volume – on the game-winner.
Coming two days before Santa arrives, Seinfeld fans might chuckle that it was a Festivus Miracle (if you’re too young, ask your parents). But the plain fact is the Sabres deserved to win this game. They were the better team for at least the last 35 minutes of play and maybe even more than that.
And they were better on a night they had a flu-ridden roster with just 16 skaters. And on a night when a veteran like Drew Stafford did the unconscionable and got kicked out midway through the game for foolishly flailing his elbow.
The Sabres seemed undeterred. Zemgus Girgensons, all of 19 years old, played 22 minutes, had seven shots on goal and was an absolute beast. And he’s 19! Johan Larsson played 18½ minutes and looked like a different guy after a few weeks in Rochester.
Matt Moulson continues to look like a guy you should think about re-signing rather than trading. Ennis has been rejuvenated under Nolan.
Buttgoal man Mark Pysyk played 21:25 and was plus-2 in his return from a quick trip to the minors. Tyler Myers played 25 minutes. Ryan Miller was, well, Ryan Miller.
And the crowd loved all of them. Given what these fans have endured, especially in the last 11 months, you had to feel great for them too.
“You could hear it out there in the third when we got the first one. All game, they were there for us screaming,” said Pysyk. “Good atmosphere out there and it was fun to play for them. People want to see hard work and also results. Hard work is the formula to get the results.”
We’re seeing that more and more around here. Great fun.