The Buffalo Sabres’ six-month roller coaster of a regular season culminated Friday night with a memorable celebration of the franchise’s 40th anniversary. By night’s end, the Sabres had secured a berth in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs and given the fans an awful lot to cheer about.
More than 85 former Sabres accepted an invitation to come to Buffalo for the largest alumni gathering the team had ever held. Generations of Sabres reunited on Thursday night at a reception in the HSBC Arena Harbour Club and spent the evening catching up and reliving memories.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to not only see some old faces that we haven’t seen in a while, but to meet some new faces who really have laid the path of the Sabres organization. It’s great to catch up with those guys, it’s great to catch up with guys you were teammates with. It’s a great thing that Mr. Pegula did and I hope it’s something that he continues in the future,” said Brian Holzinger, who played over 350 games with the Sabres from 1994-2000 and was a member of the ’99 squad that went to the Stanley Cup Finals.
The bond shared by former Sabres has always existed, but Joe Daley, a member of the inaugural 1970-71 team, said that notion was reinforced by owner Terry Pegula on Thursday night.
“So many of the players obviously came after my career here, so it’s nice to meet a number of players who were part of this organization, and it was nice to hear Mr. Pegula say that ‘if you played three minutes or three shifts or three games, you’re part of the fraternity of the Buffalo Sabres.’ I’m proud to say I am, too,” Daley said.
On Friday, several of the alumni watched the Sabres take part in their morning skate before the entire group attended a special Power Play Luncheon at the Arena, where the keynote speakers included Larry Playfair, the team’s director of alumni relations who also appeared in nearly 600 games in a Buffalo uniform, as well as Team President Ted Black and Terry Pegula.
Later in the day, the alumni returned to HSBC Arena for the crucial game between the Sabres and Flyers, and they arrived in style, walking a red carpet into the building. Thousands of loyal Sabre fans lined the street and the red carpet to take photos and get autographs from the former players amid a party atmosphere. Fans even stood in various levels of the parking ramp adjacent to the Arena in order to get a view of the festivities from above.
Just prior to the game, the alumni group was honored once more as they were introduced by decade on the ice in front of a sellout crowd and received a rousing standing ovation from the 18,690 fans in attendance.
“The alumni is excited to be back in this fashion,” said Pat LaFontaine, a former team captain who registered 385 points (158-227-385) in just 268 games with the Sabres, which included the highest single season point total (148 points in 1992-93) in franchise history. “I’m so proud to wear this jersey and so proud to be able to tell stories of good days and great times in Buffalo and we’re rooting this team on; we’re behind them. It’s a great feeling to be back in this fashion. It’s everybody – it’s the community, it’s the ownership, it’s the players, it’s the coaching staff, it’s everybody pulling in the same direction.”
Once the alumni received all of the well-deserved recognition, it was time for the current crop of Sabres players to take center stage. It began with the presentation of the 2010-11 team awards, which were voted on by the players. Cody McCormick
received the Unsung Hero Award after recording career-highs in goals (8), assists (12) and points (20) this season while also leading the team with 142 penalty minutes. Tyler Ennis
was named Rookie of the Year in a season in which he collected 20-29-49 to rank fifth on the team in scoring and also ranked among the NHL rookie leaders in the major offensive categories. He scored his 20th goal of the season Saturday night in Columbus, becoming the first Sabres rookie to reach the 20-goal plateau since Thomas Vanek
netted 25 goals in 2005-06. Ryan Miller
was selected as the team’s Most Valuable Player by his teammates. The reigning Vezina Trophy winner dealt with injury issues early and late in the season, but posted a 34-22-8 record with a 2.59 goals against average and a .916 save percentage, along with five shutouts. Miller has now achieved the rare feat of winning 30 or more games in six consecutive seasons.
All of the pregame festivities would seem hard to top, but the game itself between the Sabres and Flyers did just that. Needing just one point to secure a playoff berth, the Sabres engaged the Flyers in a back-and-forth affair. After falling behind 1-0, Buffalo came back to take a 2-1 lead in the second period. Philadelphia promptly responded and took a 3-2 lead after two periods of play. Sensing his team needed a boost, Lindy Ruff inserted Miller into the game to begin the third period.
Midway through the third, Nathan Gerbe
scored on a spinning backhand shot from the right face-off circle for his second of the game, tying it at three. Miller, meanwhile, stopped all eight shots he faced as the Sabres hung on to force overtime and clinch the 29th playoff berth in franchise history.Thomas Vanek
then capped off the day-long party in highlight-reel fashion as he scored on an end-to-end rush in overtime to give Buffalo a 4-3 win in the final home game of the regular season.
“This atmosphere was tremendous,” Lindy Ruff said following the game. “I told the players, ‘it’s going to feel like a playoff game, you’re going to feel the intensity.’ You felt it, you knew you were in a game that meant a lot to both teams. I got to the rink around 4:15 and there was already 500, 1,000 people around… so it really had a feel that you were in a playoff match.”
As the final special event of the evening, each player gave his game-worn jersey to a winning fan on the ice at the conclusion of the game.
“That was a lot of fun,” said Miller when asked how loud the Arena was on Friday night. “Great time to have all the alumni out here, giving our fans the shirts off our back, and it really felt like a really involved game. The crowd got a lot out of it and got to be excited and you could feel it.”
The Sabres traveled to Columbus after the game and closed out the 82-game regular season with a 5-4 win over the Blue Jackets, extending their winning streak to a season-long four games. Now, an Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Playoff series against Philadelphia awaits, and the Sabres hope the good times can roll on.