By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
It was the type of night that would have put a smile on the faces of Seymour and Norty Knox.
Those two were the leaders of the group that was awarded an expansion franchise in the National Hockey League on December 2, 1969. They wanted to do something for the community, just like their father had done with a certain art gallery. The Buffalo Sabres were an immediate success starting in 1970, and they still are a cornerstone of the region’s quality of life.
Exactly 50 years after that announcement, the Sabres played like they were wearing hats and blowing into noisemakers to celebrate the milestone. They simply thrashed the New Jersey Devils, 7-1, in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicates. Come to think of it, the final score might have been 15-0 and still not been indicative of the competitiveness of the game.
“We came out and played our game, played the right way,” Victor Olofsson said. “We got a lot of goals right away. It feels like we’ve been playing well for the past week. It’s nice to get a big win.”
About the only complaint the Knox brothers might have had would center on the attendance. It looked like only 12,000 people turned out for this one (15,422 was the announced number). Perhaps the fans remembered how the first meeting between the teams came out – a 7-2 blowout for Buffalo in the home opener, and preferred a more competitive matchup. Still, Seymour and Norty always liked a full house.
An overwhelming start
This one essentially started and ended in the first period. It was easy to guess it would be a long night for the Devils when Jack Eichel was left all by himself in front of New Jersey goalie Louis Domingue. Considering Eichel is one of the hottest players in the league, it would have been a good idea to keep an eye on him. 1-0.
Jeff Skinner followed with an open shot from the right side. 2-0. Conor Sheary had all kinds of room and time to score off a juicy rebound. 3-0 – after only seven minutes. And then things turned really ugly. Sheary’s routine shot was blocked up in the air by Domingue – who didn’t realize that the puck was headed over his head and into the net. It was a play you wouldn’t see at a pickup game at Northtown Center in Amherst. 4-0.
“It was good to get it out of the way early tonight,” Sheary said about his first goal since October 17. “Although I’ve been struggling to score, I think I’ve been doing a lot of good things. Our line has had some chemistry, so it’s only a matter of time.”
Rasmus Asplund got into the act with a harmless looking shot from long range that went straight in. 5-0.
Footnote to non-members of the Asplund family: It was his first NHL goal, and it came with his parents in the building.
“It was a really nice pass,” Asplund said. “I just tried to get it to the net as hard as I could. It was a great feeling, a big relief. I had been playing well, creating chances. I knew that I was close.”
Mercifully, the period ended shortly after that, and so did Domingue’s night. He was given the rest of the night off, but not before he turned his stick into kindling wood on the way out. Normally I’d say something about how a good carpenter never blames his tools for mistakes, but it probably was the most passion shown by a player wearing a Devils’ uniform during the entire period.
The Devils had been playing .500 hockey for the past few weeks, so this “effort” was a bit on the startling side. It was the type of game that gets coaches fired. We’ll have to wait to see how New Jersey reacts to this.
That’s not the Sabres’ problem, of course. They’ve been on the wrong side of some shellackings over the past decade, so they were entitled to enjoy it.
From there, it seemed to be a case of just how many goals the Sabres could run up against a different goaltender, Mackenzie Blackwood. The answer was two –Olofsson and Henri Jokiharu doing the honors. Nico Hischlier spoiled Linus Ullmark’s shutout. The third period could have been played with running time, as both sides seemed in a hurry to get this one finished as quickly as possible.
Ullmark finished with 44 saves, an amazing number considering the way the game went. Eichel and Johan Larsson had three points each; Larson couldn’t remember the last time he had three assists in a single period.
The performance was particularly important considering that the Sabres were coming off an emotional weekend series with the Maple Leafs. It’s tough to predict what would happen in that situation, but Buffalo clearly passed that test.
“We had a chat about that (being ready for the game) this morning,” coach Ralph Krueger said. “The last six games had been games of good habits. A lot of the offense that we were starting to create did not match up with the goals. The first period was almost a case where the fruit of the labor paid off. We were hot, and they did a good job of managing it once it was 5-0.”
Buffalo has now gone 2-0-1 in its last three games and 3-1-2 in its last six. That’s a sign that the team might be out coming out of a funk that had lasted for a few weeks.
By game’s end, the fans were counting up the number of goals scored by the Sabres, and starting their game-ending applause with 30 seconds left. The Knox brothers would have felt right at home with that, too. It was an appropriate ending for a heck of a birthday party.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)