So how ready are Buffalo Sabres fans to endure a rebuilding project? Among many ways to gauge it: Give a listen in the home opener tonight in First Niagara Center the first time an Ottawa Senators skater heads to the penalty box.
Sabres fans seemed to spook their own team at times last season when the Buffalo power play sputtered at home and the boo birds rose to the rafters. And after an 0-for-7 start with the man advantage in Wednesday’s 2-1 loss at Detroit, you have to wonder how much rope the paying customers will give their team no matter how young parts of the roster may be.
The season opener started poorly as the Sabres had a two-man advantage for 91 seconds after just four minutes of play. But they were unable to capitalize and it set a negative tone for the night.
“It’s frustrating, especially with the first five-on-three to start the season. That’s a juicy opportunity with clean ice,” Tyler Ennis said after practice Thursday. “It would have been nice to kick the season off with a quick five-on-three goal like that. Definitely frustrating but it’s not going to get any better complaining and whining and pouting about it.”
The power play will obviously be a main focus tonight, as will Buffalo’s growing kiddie corps.
The Sabres are expected to again have teenagers Rasmus Ristolainen, Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons in their lineup. And 21-year-old center Johan Larsson, acquired from Minnesota in April in the Jason Pominville trade, will make his debut here because winger Ville Leino suffered a broken rib in the first period Wednesday. Larsson, who played one game last year for the Wild, is expected to center Ennis and Steve Ott after Ennis played center in the opener.
Leino played 16 shifts and finished the game but the injury was discovered Thursday morning. Coach Ron Rolston said Leino – who played only eight games last season due to hip and lung injuries – will be out indefinitely.
Leino joins Marcus Foligno (shoulder strain), Joel Armia (broken hand) and Corey Tropp (broken jaw) on the list of injured Sabres forwards. Foligno said Thursday his chances of playing this weekend are “slim” and that he’s targeting Tuesday’s visit by Tampa Bay for his return.
While the Sabres are toeing the company line that the power play was what cost them the opener, the reality is they were very fortunate to be in a close game. Were it not for a solid 32-save performance by Ryan Miller, it could have easily been a blowout as the Red Wings outshot them, 34-20, and controlled play.
The Sabres gave up two goals in a 36-second span of the first period and then blanked the Wings for the final 47 minutes thanks to Miller.
Rookies like Ristolainen and Girgensons found their bearings as the game moved on, with Girgensons getting the Sabres’ only goal in the third period.
But at the other end, the Sabres weren’t working into the Red Wings’ zone with any efficiency on the power play, with overpassing or downright poor passing undoing their efforts.
“You can’t relax and think that you have a man more and it will get handed to you,” defenseman Christian Ehrhoff said. “You have to outnumber them. It usually starts with getting some pucks at the net from the point. That’s when things open up for you down low, when you make the penalty killers more aware of the point shots and they drift out higher.”
The Buffalo forwards as a whole did little in Detroit, combining for just 10 shots on goal the entire game. That’s far too low a number over 60 minutes to give a team a reasonable chance to win.
“I think we’re just a little too stationary,” Ennis said. “There needs to be a little more movement as a whole. When you’re standing still and moving it back to the point and everyone is flat-footed and shooting pucks, it’s hard. When there’s motion, it’s easy to get pucks back because everyone is moving and you know you’ve got your feet.”
“I thought we played slow on the power play,” agreed Rolston. “I think at times I think we have to ‘pass’ it in the net. We just played slow, didn’t move it quick enough and once we got the puck out top we didn’t get things down there.”
Rolston knows there will be plenty of pomp prior to this one that might further unnerve his young players. The word around the building is that pregame ceremonies will include some sort of spectacular laser projection show. And remember, it will be the coach’s first home opener in the NHL.
“I’m looking forward to us getting better on a daily basis,” Rolston said. “I’m looking forward to the new game production to make the game great for the fans. And I think we owe it to the fans to put that kind of energy on to the ice too.”