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by Jourdon LaBarber / Buffalo Sabres
(Photo Credit: Bill Wippert)

Jack Eichel wasn’t making his regular season debut for the Buffalo Sabres on Friday night, but you certainly wouldn’t have been able to tell by looking at the stands in First Niagara Center. A record crowd of 17,115 flocked to the arena for the annual Blue & Gold Scrimmage on a hot summer evening to watch Eichel and other young players usher in a new era of hockey in Western New York.

“It was definitely an unbelievable crowd,” Eichel said afterward. “It’s crazy to think there were 17,000 people here for a scrimmage in July, but like I said earlier it says a lot about Buffalo and how passionate they are about the Sabres.”

All the way through, the game had the feel of a regular-season contest. Fans participated in organ-led chants, “oohed” and “ahhed” at close calls near the net and cheered triumphantly when 2014 first-round draft pick Sam Reinhart scored each of his two goals. There were even some boos behind the net when a goal was waved off in the second period.

“That’s awesome,” Reinhart, whose Blue Team came out on top 5-2, said of the crowd. “For practice, the crowds have been great. If the practice crowds were here for the game, that would give us some energy and reason to kind of put on a show. But to see that – that’s something else, I don’t even know how to describe it. That was awesome.”

Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma, who had several tastes of the Stanley Cup Playoffs during his tenure as coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, said he felt a familiar buzz around the city throughout the day.

“It started even this afternoon,” he said. “This place was jamming around the rink and even coming to the game with the weather, it had a feel of excitement of a playoff game almost with the people that were here – 17,000 on July 10, pretty awesome.”

The noise in the crowd translated onto the ice, too. Defenseman Jack McCabe, now in his fourth camp, said afterward that having so many fans behind them made the game noticeably different from past scrimmages.

“Yeah, I think so for sure. You see how many big hits are out there and guys are throwing weight around – guys want to win,” the 2012 second-round pick said. “When the puck’s out there you want to get it … you’re busting your butt off trying to impress management, coaching, whatever it may be and the fans definitely add to that.

“The cheers, it kind of gets the blood flowing and its fun.”

If the word “scrimmage” tricked anyone into thinking that Friday’s game would be a friendly one, it didn’t take long for them to get the memo. There are roster spots on the line and impressions to be made, and as McCabe said, the young players at Development Camp can’t afford to take their feet off the pedal.

Enter Josh Chapman, an undrafted defenseman from Stouffville, Ont., who logged 84 penalty minutes last year in the Ontario Hockey League and had displayed an aggressive style of play throughout the week in practice. Chapman, playing for Team Blue, met forward Maxwell Willman with a devastating hit in the neutral zone in the final minute of the first period – and Justin Kea took exception.

Kea, a third-round pick by the Sabres in 2012, instantly pursued Chapman and the two dropped gloves before exchanging blows. It was Kea’s second career fight at the annual scrimmage – he fought Anthony Florentino in last year’s game.

“It’s a game. It’s another game,” Eichel said of the physicality. “You want to make an impression so it’s another game and whatever you do – if you fight, if you score goals, if you check – you do what you do.”

Bylsma tapped the mic before commenting on the skirmish.

“What I didn’t like about the [play] was that there was a no-call on the hit. The Chapman hit was clearly an interference penalty by a mile, so I am upset at [the referee] for not calling a penalty. That’s the only thing I didn’t like about that play,” he said while laughing.

One player with a lot on the line this summer is forward Justin Bailey, who is entering his first year as a pro with hopes of securing a spot on the Sabres’ NHL roster. With that in mind, Bailey started the game strong for Team Blue.

He delivered a noticeable hit on his first shift and followed up with a goal – from one knee, nonetheless – midway through the first period.

“I think for me, one of the things that’s been communicated to me is I need to be a little harder to play against,” Bailey said. “Playing in the NHL, you’ve got to be physical and it was good for me to get out there on my first shift and that set the tone for the rest of the game.”

Bylsma admitted that he had spoken to Bailey about that critique of his game before, but said that it wasn’t noticeable at all on Friday night.

“I did not see that at all in today’s game, in fact the opposite,” Bylsma said. “He showed his speed, showed his size, also had the ability in the offensive zone; he had a couple plays that didn’t turn into goals that I was impressed with a big guy with his speed being able to make those plays. Of this whole week so far this is his best performance and it’s where he should be in the game.”

Not only did Bailey make a good first impression on his new coach, but the Western New York native got to enjoy scoring in front 17,000 fans from his hometown, amongst which were his friends and family, too.

“It was probably one of the most fun games of hockey I’ve ever played in my life,” he said.

Development Camp concludes on Sunday with the 3-on-3 tournament, beginning at 10 a.m.

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