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Sabres players trying to remain focused on the job at hand

by Dan Rosen
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Sitting inside Ralph Wilson Stadium for Buffalo Bills games this season, Jason Pominville felt the roar of the crowd and witnessed the sea of people engulfing a stadium that seats 73,967 for football games.

Each time he was here, Pominville couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like when he got his chance to stand center stage with thousands upon thousands of screaming Buffalo Sabres fans roaring before and during The AMP Energy NHL Winter Classic (Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS, NHL Radio).

He’s less than 24 hours away from finding out how NFL players feel every Sunday.

“We know how many people are going to be here. We know how quick the tickets sold. We know how proud people are of this team,” Pominville told after Monday afternoon’s practice session inside the stadium. “As we walk out that tunnel it’ll probably be pretty impressive. We’ve never experienced it, so it’s going to be a little shocking when we go out there.”

While Tuesday’s event -- and it is an event, not just a game -- is expected to shatter attendance records for an NHL game, it also likely will be, literally and figuratively speaking, the largest home-ice advance for any one team in League history.

Literally because the League has never hosted a game inside a venue as big as Ralph Wilson Stadium, and figuratively because it’s anticipated that more than 50,000 -- or two-thirds of the attendance -- will be pulling for the Sabres.

When the Edmonton Oilers were the home team for the Heritage Classic on Nov. 22, 2003, a little more than 57,000 fans packed into Commonwealth Stadium, but there was still a substantial group cheering for the Montreal Canadiens.

The Pittsburgh Penguins will have their share of backers Tuesday, but Buffalonians have their collective arms wrapped tightly around this game. While it’s an NHL event, they believe it’s their game, it’s their Super Bowl, and their team is on display to the world.

“It’s a good thing we’re the home team, huh?” Thomas Vanek said. “A lot of us have been in here watching the Bills, so it’s going to be great to be on the opposite side, on the field. All of our fans here in Buffalo are great. At the HSBC Arena it’s really loud, and the fans here will take care of business for us.”

“You would hope that most of them will be cheering for the Sabres,” Adam Mair said. “It would be nice to win for the people of Buffalo. It’s a real important game for us.”

In the midst of everything -- the hype and home-ice advantage included -- that’s matters most to these Sabres.

While it may feel like the Super Bowl has come to Buffalo -- and it’s being treated that way by many locals -- the essential two points to be gained Tuesday has not been erased by the hype surrounding the NHL Winter Classic.

“Two points last year in the East would have gotten Montreal and Toronto into the playoffs,” Mair said. “We’re going out there trying to win.”

The Sabres trail the Penguins by two points in the Eastern Conference and entered Monday night ranked eighth with 40 points. The New York Islanders and Boston Bruins each had 40 points, too, but the Sabres currently own tiebreakers over both.

Buffalo, though, has lost three straight close games since winning six in a row to get back into playoff position. Ottawa handed them a 5-3 loss this past Wednesday at HSBC Arena. They lost in a shootout to the Devils on Friday, and 2-0 to the Penguins at Mellon Arena Saturday.

“This is a good interruption,” goalie Ryan Miller said. “If we we’re somehow on a winning streak it could be a big interruption and you might argue that we had something good rolling. We have had some tough losses in tight games, so it’s good to have some fun in the locker room. This provides that environment. The guys were having a lot of fun today.”

That’s what coach Lindy Ruff was hoping for. Tuesday, though, is all about business, all about two points.

“First and foremost I told them; ‘I want you to have fun today,’ ” Ruff told the media after Monday’s practice. “Then, we’ve got to focus on winning a game. It’s important for us to win a hockey game.”

It’ll be even better to do it in front of the greatest home crowd in NHL history.

“We couldn’t ask for anything better than to do it in front of that many people,” Pominville said. “It’s great timing for us to turn this thing around.”

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