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'It gives you goosebumps': Current players, alums react to memorable win

Eichel leads Sabres to 7-2 victory with former captains in attendance

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber /

Jack Eichel waited anxiously on the bench as the Zamboni made its way across the KeyBank Center ice early Saturday evening. It was a three-minute wait between the ceremonial and actual puck drop that must have felt like an eternity, given the performance Eichel and his Sabres teammates had in store for their hometown fans.

In the 48 hours between the team's season-opening victory in Pittsburgh and their home opener against New Jersey, Eichel had spoken at length regarding his excitement towards introducing the new brand of Sabres hockey to the KeyBank Center crowd. 

The 15 fellow Sabres captains in attendance simply added to that anticipation.

"We take a lot of pride in our alumni here," alternate captain Jake McCabe said. "I knew Jack was going to have a good night, that's for sure. He takes a ton of pride wearing that 'C.'"

Video: Condensed Game: Devils @ Sabres

Dressed for the first time in their commemorative white and gold uniforms, Eichel and the Sabres opened the home portion of their Golden Season with a thrilling 7-2 win that inspired an atmosphere reminiscent of the team's 10-game winning streak from a season ago.

The night began with an extended standing ovation for Hall of Fame broadcaster Rick Jeanneret, who had to quiet the crowd before he could begin introducing the former captains in attendance. It ended with a raucous salute for the current team, and with McCabe on the microphone thanking what he deemed as "the best crowd in the NHL."

McCabe continued his ode to the fans in the dressing room.

"You just get goosebumps," McCabe said. "That's all I can really say to describe the feeling. You get goosebumps. You're smiling, you're happy. That's what hockey's all about, right there."

Ralph Krueger said at the outset of training camp that it was his mission to make it so that those who watch the team can feel an identity that they could easily recognize as "Sabres hockey." That brand was clear to the former captains observing from the suite level on Saturday. 

At one point, Michael Peca turned to another alum and echoed a point that current players made throughout training camp: It looked like the players were thinking less. 

"As fans, I think we see the difference in this team," Peca said. "I think Ralph's got them playing more instinctual type hockey. They're not overthinking the game.

"You can see the difference. These guys, they grow up developing and honing instincts in this game. It's so fast that you can't overthink it. It's just great to see them playing the way they are."

Video: Home Opener Full Ceremony

Peca recalled having a sense of freedom during his own time with the Sabres, an era when systems were less complicated compared to how they've become today. Sure, there was strategy - Ted Nolan preferred the left-wing lock; Lindy Ruff ran the trap - but the core of the game was instinctual.

Jochen Hecht played for the Sabres later in Ruff's tenure. Though he smiled sheepishly when discussing the amount of freedom allowed under the fiery head coach, he endorsed Peca's assessment.

"You've got your freedom," Jochen Hecht said. "You've got a little bit of a system, but the best you can be on the ice is when you don't have to think. That's when you use your instincts. When you get a bunch of guys on the ice together who have the same instincts, that will work out great. You'll be dominating in the league."

While Peca identified with the instinctual nature of Krueger's system, others noted the aggressive, pressure-based game plan. The Sabres once again closed their gaps, tightened up the blue line, and controlled the play for virtually the full 60 minutes. The final shot tally was 36-20 in favor of Buffalo. 

"They're pressuring the puck a lot," Don Luce said. "They're using their speed to pressure the puck, create turnovers. I think that's the style Ralph wants them to play they're doing it. They're forcing the other team to make mistakes."

"He's got them working as a team, trying to eliminate people all over the ice," Floyd Smith added. "It's what good teams try to do."

Smith lauded the spirit he saw in the current group, a sentiment you can bet the crowd of 19,070 shared as they waved their commemorative T-shirts in reaction to McCabe's devastating hit on Taylor Hall or marveled at the skill on Victor Olofsson's two goals. 

They never took their foot off the pedal, either. When Travis Zajac scored to make it 5-2 in the opening minute of the third period, the Sabres reacted with a ferocity fitting for a one-goal game. Sam Reinhart answered with a goal less than three minutes later, then buried a breakaway with 3:44 left in the contest. 

 "[The fans] obviously want to see hard work and compete and all those little cliché things that everybody says all the time," Okposo said. "But we did it tonight. I thought we played a pretty blue-collar game. Just ran them out a town. It was pretty fun to be a part of.

"… I just feel like we're kind of suffocating the two teams that we played so far. More nights like this, sign me up."

Video: Eichel on the home opener victory

More nights like Saturday is the top item on everyone's wish list, fans and players alike. McCabe said players spoke in the dressing room about making that sort of an atmosphere a nightly staple of their game.

Eichel, meanwhile, began the night sharing a circle with the likes of Peca, Mike Foligno, Danny Gare, and Gilbert Perreault, a moment he said he'll never forget. He sounded every bit the part of a captain as he put the team's hot start in perspective afterward.

"I think we wanted to come out and show the fans what it's going to be like this year and the type of product we want to put on the ice and just get them excited for the season," he said. "I think we did a pretty good job of that tonight. 

"It's all about consistency in this league. We want to just keep doing it every night, make this place a tough place to come in and try and play."

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