With new interim coach Ted Nolan behind the bench for his first game, they were able to play their most complete game of the season and skate away with not only two points, but a sense of pride in their effort.
Goaltender Ryan Miller stopped 32 shots to lead Buffalo to a 3-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs at First Niagara Center. The teams will meet again for the second half of the home-and-home Saturday night in Toronto.
Captain Steve Ott and Marcus Foligno scored for the Sabres, who picked up their second straight win at home.
It was apparent that Nolan’s message to instill a hard-working mentality was taken to heart right away.
“He told everybody, ‘I’m not watching video on you guys. I’m not looking at your stat packs, I really don’t care. I want to see what you’re going to do for me now and I’ll figure everybody out as we go as we go here,’” Ott said. “It made a lot of guys, I think, realize that Game One is basically tonight and throw those other 20 away and honestly, it felt like a completely different room in here.”
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On Wednesday, Sabres owner Terry Pegula announced that former captain Pat LaFontaine would assume the role of President of Hockey Operations and that Nolan would take over behind the bench on an interim basis.
Friday marked Nolan’s first game coaching the Sabres since May 11, 1997. Nolan’s last win in the NHL came on April 4, 2008 when he coached the New York Islanders to a 4-3 win over the Rangers.
Nolan said after the game that his emotions were running high when he first stepped out of the tunnel from the locker room.
“I really had to hold them in tight because it was one of those games where you didn’t ever know that this type of day would ever happen again. So it was really very emotional. I’ll have a good cry after everyone leaves,” he said with a laugh.
When asked what it felt like to step up on that bench again for the first time in 16 years, Nolan reflected back on his early coaching days.
“I can’t even put it into words. It was just one of those – I remember when I first came here a number of years ago, I still remember saying how hard we were going to work and then we got waxed by Detroit 6-1. So tonight was a lot different and hopefully it’s a good sign of things to come.”
Toronto had a golden opportunity to tie the game 2-2 with just about 30 seconds remaining in regulation with the extra attacker out on the ice. Miller got turned around in goal and James van Riemsdyk looked to put the puck into an empty net on the backside.
Defenseman Christian Ehrhoff stepped up and blocked the shot to preserve the lead. Seconds later, he was able to flip the puck down the ice and into the empty net to secure the victory.
“It was nice to finally make a save for [Miller]. He’s got so many saves for us, so it’s just a lot of desperation at the end and I’m glad I made that save,” Ehrhoff said. “It was just a great finish to a fun game tonight. I think the fans enjoyed it and we came out good today. We competed for all 60 minutes and it was very positive to see that.”
Miller looks now at how the team can build off this win and the energy some players seemed to gain from the changes that have overwhelmed the team off the ice.
“For myself, I tried to keep it in a good place. I think a couple of these guys might’ve been looking for something. I’m glad it seemed to work tonight,” he said. “Our biggest thing is going to have to be consistency now. We had good energy a game in a game we were supposed to have good energy so let’s see if we can keep it up.”
Trevor Smith gave Toronto an initial lead in the game. Jonathan Bernier made 24 saves in the losing effort. Toronto took the lead 6:25 into the second period on Smith’s goal. His shot from the point deflected off Ehrhoff and past Miller.
Ott tied the game 3:20 later on the power play. With Drew Stafford battling in front, Bernier turned aside a Tyler Myers slap shot from the blue line. The puck ended up to the left of Bernier, where Ott was waiting. He cashed in for his third goal of the season.
The Sabres took the lead with 4:38 remaining in the second period. As the Sabres killed off a penalty to Foligno, Stafford fired a puck across the ice up to Ott on the left wing. Going down the ice with Foligno on a 2-on-1, Ott wired a pass to Foligno, who backhanded a pass into the net.
Ott had a multi-point game (1+1) for the fourth time as a Sabre. His last multi-point game came on March 19, 2013 in Montreal when he scored two goals.
The Sabres played one of their strongest first periods of the season, out-shooting the Maple Leafs 10-5.
“It was a tremendous team effort to a man,” Ott said. “That’s what a team’s about tonight and that’s what it felt like. It really truly felt like a complete team effort. Talk about fun, that was a fun game to play in.”
Miller made a pair of great saves on van Riemsdyk throughout the game, even before he was ultimately foiled by Ehrhoff. Midway through the second period, Miller stopped a backhand attempt that van Riemsdyk batted out of the air. Then 55 seconds into the third, he made a paddle save to deny the Maple Leafs forward.
Nolan was impressed with not only the performance of his players, but the jobs his assistant coaches did as well. He was quick to compliment Joe Sacco and Teppo Numminen, his assistants on the bench.
“We want to develop a team concept and who cares who gets the credit as long as the result is what we’re looking for,” Nolan said. “And everybody’s part of this thing, so the coaching staff did a great job tonight.”
The Sabres and Maple Leafs meet again at Air Canada Centre on Saturday at 7 p.m.