It all started out so quietly.
A Sunday morning skate at First Niagara Center – about 12 hours after a marathon shootout – had finally concluded against Toronto.
But it wasn’t the typical morning skate we’ve seen during the preseason.
The line combinations and defense pairings weren’t obvious. And Mikhail Grigorenko was the only one wearing a white jersey among the forwards, which seemed to indicate that he probably wouldn’t play in his fifth straight game once the team made its way to the Air Canada Centre Sunday night.
As the first group of players made their way off to prepare for the game ahead, the second group hopped right on to the ice.
Not even a flood. Again, not the normal routine.
As that second session wound down, there were some interesting (one would assume) and lengthy conversations between coach Ron Rolston and his veteran players,Thomas Vanek and Steve Ott most noticeably.
Vanek, Ott and Drew Stafford would later converge at the far end of the ice, seemingly and casually discussing whatever needed to be discussed.
Afterward, Rolston talked about how important those chats are for him.
“It’s just to constantly get a feel of how things are going,” he said. “How the young guys are doing [through the eyes of the veterans] and where they see things.”
Team building. That’s really what it’s all about. Developing relationships, establishing trust, and moving forward together.
Who could have known what lay ahead?
Grigorenko did play in his fifth straight Sunday and he did so as the centerman between Kevin Porter and Brian Flynn, a combination not used before.
Heading into the game, Rolston had acknowledged to the media that Grigorenko had been “OK” in camp so far, and that “he is still working for a position on this team.”
And that simply added to the intrigue, given that the roster in Toronto was full of players who might well be on the bubble to make it, and there is an expected round of cuts coming as early as Monday.
The Grigorenko line had a tough shift early as Phil Kessel opened the scoring at 1:35 of the first. But it got more comfortable as the game went on to the point where it was likely creating the most opportunities in the first 10-15 minutes of the second.
However they just couldn’t finish and another tough shift defensively was part of a Leafs two-goal surge as they led 4-1 after 40 minutes.
But team building was not done on this night. Not by a long shot.
Nikita Zadorov (fighting for a spot) had Buffalo’s opening goal in the first. Jamie McBain (fighting for a spot) scored his second of camp to pull the Sabres within two goals in the third.
Corey Tropp (fighting for a spot) scored 86 seconds after McBain and all of sudden, it was 4-3. The distressing part of Tropp’s goal was that Marcus Foligno - who earned an assist on the play - was pushed from behind by T.J. Brennan into the boards as he released the puck. Foligno left the game and did not return.
Then the fuse was lit.
With the Leafs hoping to regain momentum, Jamie Devane dropped the gloves with Tropp, who gave up about 5 inches and more than 30 pounds as he entered into the altercation.
The result was sickening and devastating.
Tropp lay bloodied, presumably from the final left Devane delivered, and medical help was sought.
A large portion of those attending the game roared in approval, knowing full well Tropp was in distress. It would seem, based on immediate interactions witnessed between the two benches, and post-game comments from Sabres players and coaches, that it wasn’t only the spectators that crossed the line.
The visitors were now incensed and we all know what happened next.
Regardless of your view on fighting and its potentially devastating effects, the only truly good thing that came of this from a Sabres standpoint was their ability to fight for – and play for one – another all the way ‘til the end.
And there weren’t many left on the bench to be able to do so after the brawl!
But the likes of Hodgson, McBain, Porter, Larsson, Grigorenko, Armia, McNabb, Myers, Zadorov, Adam and Hackett all kept pressing, even after falling down by a pair with about five minutes to go.
Hodgson wore the “C” for this one, as the captaincy continues to rotate during the exhibition games, and he was still visibly affected by everything that had happened by the time he spoke with media.
His comments were somewhat muted, as he did not want to get into a war of words, but his message was clear.
“I’m just glad we stuck together,” he said.
Probably not what anyone was expecting 11 hours earlier at the morning skate, but overall, not a bad message to end the day with.