PHILADELPHIA — It was May 2011 when the Sabres lost an epic, seven-game playoff series to the Philadelphia Flyers. Not that long ago really. But ages in hockey time.
Philadelphia won Game Six in overtime in Buffalo on a goal by Ville Leino and cruised in Game Seven at home. Leino then signed a six-year, $27 million free-agent contract with the Sabres two months later.
As he sat in Wells Fargo Center early Thursday afternoon, Leino was stunned how much things have changed for both franchises the last 2½ years.
Both teams fired their coaches this season (Ron Rolston and Peter Laviolette). And the Sabres, of course, sacked Lindy Ruff in February as well. Buffalo and Philly came into Thursday night’s meeting as two of the bottom three teams in the Eastern Conference.
“That team has changed quite a bit and so have we,” Leino said. “We had a pretty good team when I first got to Buffalo and now we’re pretty young and rebuilding. The Flyers had a big slump at the start this year but they’re getting better and we’re gettng a few more veteran guys and you can see we’re improving too. It’s interesting. It’s really a similar state with both teams.”
Leino is trying to improve by playing center at the urging of coach Ted Nolan. Leino, remember, was signed to play center but quickly begged off the position in his first month with the team. Nolan wants Leino to shoot more and get the puck more. The way to do that, in the coach’s mind, is to get in the middle.
“Since he got here, he thought I’d be good at center,” Leino said. “I don’t know how I always feel about that but since he’s been here I’ve been playing better and I’ve been at center so that’s something. I’m just trying to be good no matter where I play.”
Leino entered Thursday’s contest with no goals and just two points in 11 games but got an assist on Tyler Myers’ first-period power-play goal. That gave him points in back-to-back games for the first time this year.
“I know he’s a highly skilled individual,” Nolan said. “You’ve got to work that skill. He’s got to get that back and be that player we hope he should be. He’s got to get the puck, handle it and make some plays with the puck. When a guy is that skilled, he has to do that.”
With a matchup of Nolan against Philadelphia’s Craig Berube, the game marked the first in NHL history matching two coaches of Native Canadian descent. Both coaches are from the First Nation tribe.
“It’s huge,” Nolan said. “I was pretty happy when I heard Craig Berube was the head coach here. It’s really big in First Nation territory back home in Canada. The word spreads quite quick so I’m sure there’s a lot of people are extremely proud and will be watching this game.
“It’s really good for the next generation of young kids to see that also. We do have a lot of talented kids out there who just need a little break.”
Berube said Thursday it was “cool” to see the matchup come to pass. The former Flyer, who played 1,064 games with several NHL teams, took over as head coach four games into this season after Laviolette was fired.
“Teddy and I played against each other in the minors a little bit,” Berube said. “That’s when I first played against him. I’m very happy for Ted to be back in the NHL. He’s a good coach. He’ll do a good job there.”
The Sabres’ new third jersey, a gold version unveiled to howls of derision in early September, will make its debut in Sunday’s game against Detroit, the team announced Thursday.
The sweater will be worn for 10 home games, including Sunday and Wednesday’s game against Montreal.
Sabres President Ted Black initially declined comment on the jersey in early September when asked by The News about hugely negative reaction from fans and on national websites.
Black did address it last month on the morning after the season opener on his weekly show on WGR Radio – when he famously said, “If it’s a turd burger I’ll have to put it on a bun and eat it. It’s the way it is.”
The full schedule for the third jersey: Sunday, Detroit; Wednesday, Montreal; Dec. 5, New York Rangers; Dec. 14, Calgary; Jan. 4, New Jersey; Jan. 14, Philadelphia; Feb. 5, Pittsburgh; March 16, Montreal; April 1, New Jersey; April 8, Detroit.