The Buffalo Sabres are no longer 0-for-Marine Midland Arena, and the win couldn't have come at a more opportune time.
The Sabres defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins, 4-1, before 14,116 Thursday night. It was their first regular-season victory in the new building. More important, it was a welcome reprieve for a team that had spent the past several days spiraling down into an abyss.
Buffalo had been blown out at home by the Detroit Red Wings, 6-1, and Tampa Bay Lightning, 4-0. Those losses had people in and out of the organization wondering just how bad the season would be. On Thursday night, the Sabres brought speed, aggressiveness and -- maybe most crucial -- effort to their home arena for the first time.
"We are the same team, but we played much better tonight," goaltender Dominik Hasek said. "It's important to get the first win in this building. We showed we can play some good hockey, and score a couple of goals. It's a nice feeling."
The Sabres will try to continue those good feelings tonight when they play in Washington against the Capitals (7:30, Empire, Radio 550, 710).
After Thursday's game, the sense of relief was evident throughout the Sabres' organization. Coach Ted Nolan's exhale probably was the biggest.
"This hockey club had some work to do in the past couple of days," he said. "We had some bad habits. . . . We're far from out of the woods, we've got some work to do, but there were some bright signs out there tonight."
The brightest sign probably shined when things looked the bleakest. At the 1:17 mark of the first period, Francois Leroux -- as in 6-foot-5, 235-pound Francois Leroux -- flattened Buffalo center Pat LaFontaine with a shoulder to the jaw. LaFontaine immediately went down to the ice in a heap, and Rob Ray jumped to his captain's defense with his fists.
Ray and Leroux earned fighting majors, but Ray picked up an extra minor for instigating and a 10-minute misconduct. That meant the Penguins had a chance to use their awesome power play to take the early lead, but they couldn't capitalize.
"It's funny how things happen," center Michael Peca said. "On the bench, guys were looking around saying, 'We're going to get our shot, we're going to get our consistent ice time.' The guys just went hard. Our leader was out, so they all stepped up. We had to play well."
LaFontaine suffered a mild concussion and did not return to action. He did not make the trip to Washington for tonight's game.
About eight or nine minutes into the period, the Sabres put together two hits in a row for the first time in the home season. That was followed by two near-misses on shots from Curtis Brown and Donald Audette, as the Sabres started to use speed to their advantage.
"It's something we talked about," center Brian Holzinger said. "We have a lot of guys on the team that can skate. It's something we haven't used much, so it was good that everyone had their feet moving tonight. It will pay off in the long run."
Almost inevitably, the goals started coming. Derek Plante tipped in a shot by Garry Galley with 10 seconds left in the first period to open the scoring. Galley -- who had a hand in all four goals -- beat Pittsburgh goalie Ken Wregget with a slap shot from the point early in the second period. Peca tipped in another Galley shot for a goal early in the third period.
The 3-0 lead could have been much bigger. Buffalo missed five breakaways in the first two periods, and pucks bounced off a crossbar and goal post as well. The Penguins, who now have the worst record in the entire National Hockey League, looked tired and disinterested for much of the contest.
They did manage to end Hasek's bid for a shutout, as Jaromir Jagr scored with a little more than 10 minutes left. But Holzinger's empty-netter had the fans -- and the rest of the Buffalo organization -- thinking good thoughts for the first time this season as they left the MMA.