By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Fan Appreciation Night is something like pro hockey’s equivalent of a Homecoming Game in college football. You want to have an opponent who has a relatively small chance of winning, especially when your team will miss the playoffs and this last home game will be the final chance for your fans to see the team in person.
Playing the role of the Designated Victim – often portrayed in college football circles by Kansas or Rutgers – was Ottawa. The Senators came in to the KeyBank Center on Thursday night as the last-place team in the NHL. Ottawa even cooperated by starting Joey Daccord in goal. He was studying at Arizona State University about a week ago before signing a pro contract on Monday, and this was his first NHL game. No pressure, kid.
The Senators put up a fight for a while, but the Sabres had good reason to keep at it and leave one good memory in the hearts of the 17,988 in the building. Buffalo took a 5-2 victory, which meant the team wouldn’t extend its losing streak past eight games.
“It started on Tuesday, when we played a solid game (against Nashville),” coach Phil Housley said. “It was really important for our group to finish the right way.”
It was the type of night when a relatively meaningless goal by the game’s standards will be the one that will be remembered for a long, long time. Veteran Jason Pominville, probably facing the end of his time with the Sabres, took advantage of a miscue by Daccord to score a third-period goal to make it 5-2.
“Not the prettiest goal, but definitely nice to get one tonight,” Pominville said. “I thought our line played pretty good, and (it) deserved to get one. Sometimes when you do the right things, you find a way to get one. It was nice to get one, and the reaction by the boys in the room and the fans was amazing.”
Taking a bow
When the goal was announced, Pominville received a standing ovation from the crowd. The veteran took a little skate during the applause, which came during a timeout, and returned the applause to the fans.
“It was definitely nice to see that, and to get that type of ovation,” Pominville said. “I’m not the type of guy that likes that type of attention but the boys were giving me a signal to go to the middle and give a wave. I thank everyone for that.”
Yes, it got a little dusty in the building at that moment.
While Pominville took the biggest bow, Buffalo’s top line did most of the damage. Jack Eichel had a goal and two assists for three points – the first time he’s reached that number since Dec. 16. Linemates Victor Olofsson and Sam Reinhart also scored a goal each.
Eichel’s postgame reaction to the contest was unexpected and the subject for some scrutiny.
“I think you guys (in the media) tend to look at a lot of negatives frequently, myself probably included, with some of the interviews that we’ve had in the past month or so,” he said. “If you look at our season, there’s been a lot that we need to get better at. Obviously we have another game.
“But I’m saying in terms of home ice, if you look at our home-ice record from last year to now, it’s obviously improved. It’s something that as a group we wanted to get better at. It’s important that we could come tonight and have a good effort for the fans. It’s nice to that they were able to pack it and support us one last time here. It’s good that we were able to get a win and score some goals and make an exciting game. There’s been some exciting nights in this rink this year, probably a lot more than last year.”
Let the record show that the Sabres finished with more wins than losses at home this season, at 21-15-5. Last season, the numbers were 11-25-5, so that’s progress. By coincidence, a Buffalo loss in regulation on Saturday in Detroit would give the team an 11-25-5 road record this season.
Speaking of numbers, this was only the Sabres’ second win in regulation time since Valentine’s Day. The team improved to 4-18-3 in its last 25 games.
Questions, no answers
As everyone exited the KeyBank Center after the game, they had more questions than answers about what might be ahead. It’s a long list, with big names at the top.
Will Rick Jeanneret be back next season? The veteran broadcaster, who is arguably the face of the franchise in some ways, will consider retirement.
Will Housley be back next season? Coaches often pay the price for a team’s collapse, particularly when it comes at the end of the season.
Will Jeff Skinner be back next season? He’s another day closer to free agency, and the Sabres need to make a maximum effort to keep him. But if the offers from various teams are equal, he could stay here or flee to a team with a better chance of winning in the relatively immediate future. His old team, Carolina, qualified for the playoffs on Thursday – leaving the Sabres with the longest postseason drought in the league.
As for Pominville, he’s 36 and has a contract that is about to expire. It’s difficult to see him returning to a team that must make a commitment to developing young players in the near future.
Much will be and should be written about the classy player who has been a true professional throughout his career. However, he’s the one who provided the best valedictory statement when asked what he’d like to say to Buffalo’s fans.
“Thank you for everything,” he said. “I left probably in tears, came back with a smile. Who knows what will happen now, but I enjoyed every moment of it.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)