By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Let’s get this out of the way first and foremost.
There’s never been a Buffalo Sabres’ home opener that was more fun than this one.
The one in 1974 was a good one, when the Sabres blasted the powerful Bruins to make a statement that they were ready to become an elite team after a poor 1973-74 season. And the one in 1989, featuring Alexander Mogilny’s goal on his first shift in the NHL, was exciting too.
This one featured even more joy.
From a pregame ceremony marking the team’s 50th anniversary, through a dance by the legendary “Earl of Bud,” to the horn-honking on the streets surrounding the KeyBank Center a half-hour after the end of the game, the start to the season couldn’t have gone any better.
In between, the Sabres crushed the New Jersey Devils, 7-2, in a game that really wasn’t that close. And for virtually every second over that span of time, the players fed off the fans … and the fans fed off the players.
“We really had a full team performance today,” said Ralph Krueger, who became only the fourth Sabre coach to win his first two games on the job. “The fans, who I got to see for the first time, the heartbeat that we have, and the opportunity we had – what a day for everyone to step up like that.”
A roaring start
The night started a little before 7 p.m. with a fine pregame ceremony as the Sabres celebrated the beginning of their 50th year (and 49th season) as an NHL franchise. After bringing out 50 season-ticket holders who have been around since 1970, several of the team’s captains were introduced. A highlight might have been the roar that accompanied the just-departed Jason Pominville to center ice. It was downright touching. Floyd Smith, who was part of the first ceremonial faceoff as the team’s captain in 1970, dropped the puck in the 2019 version.
“It was a moment I’ll never forget, going out there with those guys and standing in the same circle,” said Jack Eichel, the latest of the team’s captains. “It was a tremendous moment.”
The latest edition could no doubt hear the roars from the locker room before they took to the ice to receive their own introductions. From the start of the game, it seemed as if the Sabres’ biggest task would be to capitalize on the emotion of the night and score an early goal. When New Jersey’s Will Butcher cooperated with a holding penalty at 1:35, Buffalo buzzed the Devils’ net until Victor Olofsson scored at 2:56. It was pretty obvious at that point that New Jersey would be fighting an uphill fight the rest of the night.
“It was unbelievable,” Olofsson said about the fans’ support. “It helps us get a good push.”
Later in the period, just as the game was settling down a bit, Eichel took his turn on the power play to make it 2-0. Buffalo had three scores on the power play, and was a dominating presence whenever it was on the ice.
In the second period, New Jersey tallied an early goal to cut the lead to one, and Kyle Okposo answered about two minutes later with a deflection around the net. Suitably inspired, the Sabres were all-powerful for the rest of the period. Marcus Johansson found Jeff Skinner with a perfect pass on left wing that led to a goal. And Olafsson added to the joy when, after his first shot was blocked, the puck simply came back to him. The second time was the charm.
“I was surprised to get the puck right back,” he said. “It was kind of lucky.”
The Sabres moved the puck well throughout the night, always looking for that extra pass to get a better shot on goal. It didn’t always work, but even the close calls were exciting to watch.
“It was pretty good,” Okposo said. “It looked like a Superball out there in the second period. I thought we moved it pretty well, supported each other pretty well. It was a lot of fun.”
Jake McCabe supplied a different reason to cheer with a punishing hit on the Devils’ Taylor Hall.
“With the crowd reaction (to the hit), and the way we were playing – that’s why you play the game,” McCabe said. “It’s fun. Games like this, we’ll keep building on, and we’ll make this place a really tough place to play this year.”
Sam Reinhart added a couple of more goals, and Buffalo finished up its second win in a row. Let’s not take that stat for granted. Last year’s Sabre team went about four months at one point without winning two in a row.
Now, a little dose of perspective was supplied by the Sabres after the game. We’re done with only two games out of 82. (“Let’s not plan the parade right now,” Okposo said.) They were too polite to say that the Devils had played Friday night and lost to the Jets in horrible fashion. (As one New Jersey player said after the game, “We should have won last night after being up, 4-0, and now this.”)
This was not a night, though, for perspective. It was a night for the Sabres’ backers to celebrate past triumphs, and to ponder the possibilities of what might lie ahead for the team and its town in the coming weeks and months.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)