By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
It was Seventies Night at the KeyBank Center on Saturday night, when the Sabres played the New York Islanders. Names like Jim Schoenfeld, Danny Gare, Rene Robert and Rick Dudley took to the ice as part of a brief pregame ceremony, and they received a nice hand from the sellout crowd.
They deserved that applause. Those guys set the stage for Buffalo’s reputation as a hockey town, which remains more or less in tact in spite of a decade that could leave the most optimistic of people quite discouraged.
It’s hard to describe those first few years of the Sabres’ history to those who weren’t around to see it. The team had a honeymoon period, of course, but having Gil Perreault and Rick Martin around showed the promise of a better future. That future arrived way ahead of anyone’s schedule, as the team had a winning record in 1972-73 and made the playoffs.
That was the year when the Sabres started a sellout streak that lasted about eight years until the 1980-81 season. Considering the size of the market, that was quite an accomplishment. The team’s marketing department, such as it was back then, spent most of its time trying to figure out where it could squeeze in more seats around Memorial Auditorium. Buffalo reached the finals in 1975 and were competitive and exciting for the rest of decade, but it couldn’t take that final step. Some good teams like the Canadiens and Flyers were always in the way.
The team and the area had its ups and downs in the years to come, but the attendance figures have remained remarkably solid. The low point came in 1982-83, in which only 12,894 came out on an average night. The previous summer, Bethlehem Steel closed most of its Lackawanna facility, sending thousands to the unemployment line. But the average was back over 15,000 in two years (remember, the Aud’s capacity was 16,433).
The numbers went up after 1996 once the new arena was built. The average crowd dropped under 14,000 in 2002-03, when the team had ownership problems and declared bankruptcy. But the numbers rebounded by 2007-08 when the team averaged a record 19,950 per game.
That brings us to the present day. The Sabres have not made the playoffs since the spring of 2011. Last season was the first in which Buffalo did not average 18,000 per game – and the number was 17,908. That’s pretty good for a team that never had more wins than losses during those eight years. Heck, the 2014-15 team averaged 18,580 – and parts of the front office weren’t exactly trying to win games.
Speaking of last season, the Sabres played in front of 93.9 percent of capacity. That was ahead of eight teams, including Carolina and St. Louis. I would argue that most cities wouldn’t be selling tickets at that sort of rate had they had a team with that little success.
If you’ve been paying attention to the Sabres for any period of time since 1970, the guys who started the relationship between town and team are partly responsible for your interest. That’s why they certainly merited a tip of the hat tonight.
Meanwhile at the game …
If you like scoring, the KeyBank Center was not the place to be on Saturday night.
The New York Islanders jumped out to a 1-0 lead less than six minutes into the game. If you weren’t in your seat or by the television at that point, you missed all the scoring. The Islanders went on to a 1-0 win before 19,070.
What’s more, the only goal of the game came on a shot from behind the net. Derick Brassard apparently figured out that the only way to score on this night was by trying something unconventional.
“I’m on my post, and I’m looking for him to center it,” goalie Carter Hutton said. “It was off of (Colin Miller), and it redirects off my pad and in. I’m looking out to the slot and it redirects and goes in. It was an unfortunate break, but that’s the way it goes.”
It’s worth noting that Hutton stopped all the shots that came from in front of the net, and several of them were very good. But Semyon Varlamov was even better. The Islanders netminder made 27 saves for the shutout.
The New York goalie was helped by his teammates, who bottled up the Sabres’ offense for good-sized stretches. Buffalo never could follow up on its opportunities, as the Islanders showed why they have won nine straight games.
“They were on the right side of pucks,” Marcus Johansson of the Sabres said. “They make it hard to get to the net. We had plenty of chances, but their goalie played well too. That’s what happens sometimes.”
You probably could say that the Sabres have hit their first flat spot of the season. After going 9-2-1 to start the season, Buffalo is 0-2-1 in its last three games. The loss Saturday was the Sabres’ first in regulation time at home.
If you are looking for a bright spot, the Sabres rebounded quite a bit from a poor showing in Washington on Friday – an alarming 6-1 loss. That’s not a high bar to jump over, but the team cleaned some things up.
“We were pleased with the reaction of the group the way they entered this game,” coach Ralph Krueger said. “We were flat after the goal against, but in the second period and into the third we had some chances. It’s closer to the kind of team we want to be. It’s painful right now, but there are a lot of things we can build on as we go to the next games.”
Buffalo had a long road trip coming up, at least in terms of miles. The Sabres will arrive in Stockholm in Sweden on Monday, practice on Wednesday and Thursday, and play the Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday and Saturday. Don’t discount the practice time in that schedule.
“We’ll have a week to build on what we did tonight,” Krueger said.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)