By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
As Tuesday night’s game between the Buffalo Sabres and the Detroit Red Wings approached, I found that I needed something of a booster shot of enthusiasm. It’s been a tough stretch for the Sabres lately, as their playoff hopes have nearly disappeared during the current homestand.
In other words, we’re all looking at about two months of relatively meaningless hockey – barring a miracle. That’s enough to discourage anyone. Mix the appearance of the last-place Red Wings (are they back again?), and it’s no wonder tickets were selling for as low as $4 on a secondary market.
Luckily, a little help for me wasn’t far away.
The North Park Theater showed the documentary “The Fan Connection” on Tuesday afternoon. It’s a look at some of the team’s fans, with commentary from others along the way. (Note: Seeing Rob Ray and Mike Harrington on the big screen is quite an experience.)
Full disclosure – I was a (very small) investor in the film, having sent some money as part of the Kickstarter campaign. I used to work with the father of one of the producers, and was anxious to see how it turned out.
The movie is mostly set during the 2011-12 season, best known now as the time that Buffalo started its playoff drought. The filmmakers mostly follow three story lines of people who are big Sabre fans. Their passion is apparent – it’s pure and not at all judgmental. They smile when the team wins, and are hurt when it loses – and then get ready for the next game.
All of the main subjects are shown in their daily lives, coping with typical problems. There are the mother and her teen-aged daughter, still coping with the sudden death of a father/husband. An elderly couple grapples with health problems. A young fan with a slight disability battles his physical issues with pluck and good humor. In all cases, a Sabre game is a welcome respite from day-to-day life.
I asked director Mary Wall after the showing how the “stars” were handling the fact that the Sabres hadn’t made the playoffs since filming took place. She reported that while the older couple died in the period between filming and release, the others remain faithful Sabre fans – even though a playoff game still hasn’t been played in Buffalo since they were first interviewed.
These days, we need a reminder of that sort of loyalty – and that’s the function “The Fan Connection” has. Yes, there are plenty of fans who have dropped their season tickets to Sabre games, and some who don’t show up even when they have purchased their seats ahead of time. That’s a part of the story of this season. A lack of enthusiasm is natural after a decade-plus without a playoff series win.
But there are many out there who still care, a lot. They might care enough to stage a protest outside of the arena, showing that the opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s apathy. As for the rest, they are still watching in the stands and on television, ready to do a little jig with every goal.
These fans have an emotional attachment in the Sabres, and it will take more than eight years of crummy hockey to break that connection. They look forward to the next game, eternally hopeful that better times are ahead. Sometimes those people need to be remembered, and celebrated, for their loyalty. So the film comes at a good time for us.
As for the game …
Everyone who came down to the KeyBank Center had the chance to watch a reasonably entertaining hockey game. It came with a bonus – the Sabres picked up the 3-2 win in their second home game against the Red Wings in five days.
Buffalo showed a little resilience in the contest. The Sabres gave up a goal in the first 27 seconds (“I think we need to have better starts,” said Conor Sheary), but got it back on Sheary’s goal 36 seconds later. It was a similar story in the second period, when Darren Helm and Marcus Johansson traded goals.
You haven’t heard those two Sabres associated with goals that often lately, so it was appreciated by coach Ralph Krueger.
“That line in general – Johansson, Lazar and Sheary – gave us some good energy,” he said. “They played an important part of us getting this win today. Marcus was freed from his defensive responsibility, and I thought Lazar played a good game up the middle. I thought that was nice to see.”
Then in the third period, Sam Reinhart scored what might have been the shortest goal of his career. He tapped a puck about six inches after an initial stop by Detroit goalie Jonathan Bernier. It looked the same on the scoresheet as an end-to-end rush.
“Jack (Eichel) made a good play to get it back in the crease,” Reinhart said. “He was fortunate it didn’t cross the line on his kick. I’m just trying to get a piece of it.”
Buffalo shut the door from there. Carter Hutton was sharp throughout the contest once again. The veteran goalie deserves some credit for what’s happened to him in the last couple of weeks. He entered this stretch without a win in three months, and was thrust into the No. 1 spot when Linus Ullmark was injured.
That winless streak is now a memory, as Hutton has won three games. Who knows what this 3-4-1 stretch would look like without him?
“People will talk about his record and what not in a tough stretch,” defenseman Jake McCabe said. “But if you look at the goals that were scored, we weren’t helping him out. It was two-on-ones, back door plays. Those are the goals I get frustrated with. Whether a goaltender is struggling with confidence or (if he’s) not, you can’t be giving up point-blank chances. Tonight he shut the door.
“He’s been phenomenal for us. He’s such a leader in the room. Guys really listen when he speaks up. I can’t say enough about him as a leader for our team.”
Admittedly, a win over the 31st-team in the standing at home won’t prompt a parade. But it ought to bring a smile to the team’s fans. Krueger sounded he had been to the movies as well when he voiced his hopes for a repeat performance of this effort on Thursday.
“We had a lot of energy,” he said. “Let’s learn from this and end this homestand in style, and give the fans what they deserve in the next few games.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)