For one rare night in what has been a nuclear winter of a season, the Buffalo Sabres ended a game with genuine reason to celebrate. And even if the Sabres beat an undermanned Maple Leafs team by a 3-1 score in part because of (a) an unsustainable emotional boost from the return of franchise icon Ted Nolan; and (b) a standout showing from a goalie (Ryan Miller) who almost assuredly won’t be with the organization for much longer, that didn’t matter.
The win was a sliver of shade for a fan base that’s been left sweltering and joy-starved in an extended drought of victories.
Having Nolan coaching his first game with the team in 17 years before a sellout crowd at the First Niagara Center infused the arena with more electricity than it’s had for most of Terry Pegula’s era as owner of the Sabres, who flipped the script Friday on a Leafs team accustomed this season to winning while being outshot. And the Sabres players responded to the change behind the bench: where the Leafs came slowly out of the gate and applied more pressure on Miller in the second and third periods, Buffalo wisely avoided any notion of out-bullying the opposition – there was no John Scott controversy on this night – and won on the basis of their work ethic; they were better in the faceoff circle and blocked 16 shots (four times the number of shots Toronto blocked), including Christian Ehrhoff’s win-preserving block of James van Riemsdyk’s shot on an otherwise-open Sabres net in the dying moments of regulation.
Buffalo also wouldn’t have won without Miller, who stopped 27 of 28 shots and continued making a strong case for keeping his name in the mix for the U.S. Olympic team. Miller’s pending unrestricted free agency status and status as one of the last remaining links to the team’s more recent glory days make him look like yesterday’s man on this team, yet hasn’t let that affect his performance. And captain Steve Ott scored the game-tying goal and got the primary assist on the winner in one of his best games as a Sabre. But are either of these two veterans going to be around when the Sabres are good again? Probably not.
It’s important to remember the Leafs were without their three best centermen and that the van Riemsdyk experiment at center ought to conclude sooner than later. And since Toronto has been fairly resilient under coach Randy Carlyle, most people expect they’ll come out with a burr in their saddle when the home-and-home series switches to Toronto Saturday night. Buffalo could easily be brought back to earth in a hurry.
But if you’re a Sabres fan, you ought not to be looking as far ahead as 21 hours from now. You’d be a fool to presume there won’t be rough waters ahead for Nolan, new team director of hockey operations Pat LaFontaine & Co. as they settle in and realize how young this squad is.
For now, Sabres fans are best advised to just enjoy an actual victory. Though Buffalo just passed the quarter-pole of the regular season, it was only their fifth win of the year – and unless Nolan is a miracle worker, it’s tough to imagine winning will become the norm for them the rest of the way.