Ted Nolan will remember every moment from Friday, starting with the morning drive to Buffalo’s arena and ending with a victory lap to Toronto. He’ll treasure walking to the Sabres’ bench for the first time in more than 16 years. He’ll relive the goals and big saves.
He’ll remember his joy and the smiles he and his team provided.
“It was really fun for me to look up once in a while and see how much fans enjoyed this game,” Nolan said after a 3-1 victory over the Maple Leafs. “We’re in the entertainment business, so I’m hoping they had an entertaining night. It was fun for us, for sure.”
Everyone who walked into First Niagara Center knew Nolan and Pat LaFontaine were back. Something just as important returned, too.
Hope, fun and noise filled the Sabres’ arena, a hat trick that was desperately needed in Buffalo. The joy was topped by a victory, the Sabres’ second straight for their first back-to-back wins this year.
“It was one of those games where you didn’t ever know this type of day would ever happen again,” said Nolan, who coached Buffalo for the first time since May 11, 1997. “It was really very emotional, so I’ll have a good cry after everybody leaves.”
They’d be tears of joy, which is a change from a season previously filled with sadness, disappointment and discontent.
“I love the way we came out in our first game with the big changes,” defenseman Tyler Myers said. “It was definitely our most fun game to play.”
It was fun to watch. The Maple Leafs’ border-crossing brigade took up a large portion of the crowd of 19,070, but Buffalonians and backers of the Blue and Gold also brought the energy. It was a welcome departure from the morgue-like atmosphere that had become common.
The buzz began early with a pregame video presentation highlighting the prior Buffalo accomplishments of LaFontaine and Nolan. The team and fans paid tribute to the coach during the first commercial break. LaFontaine, the freshly minted president of hockey operations, received a partial standing ovation during the second commercial.
Signs of progress on the ice were immediate:
• The only booing of the Sabres came from Leafs fans.
• The Sabres outshot Toronto, 10-5, in the first period. It was the first time all season Buffalo outshot anyone in the first.
• The score was 0-0 after one, only the fourth time in 21 games the Sabres didn’t trail entering the opening intermission.
• Buffalo carried a 2-1 lead into the third, just the third time this year they led after 40 minutes.
“I’m happy to have a nice, full game where we can all be proud,” said goaltender Ryan Miller, who made 32 saves.
Although the Sabres allowed the opening goal for the 19th time in 21 games, they didn’t sulk.
Buffalo scored twice in the second as captain Steve Ott connected on the power play and set up Marcus Foligno during an odd-man rush.
While Miller’s 13 saves in the final period put the Sabres in position to win, Christian Ehrhoff made sure they did.
He stepped in front of a wide-open net to block a shot with 43 seconds left, then found the Leafs’ empty net on a clearing shot with 28 seconds to go.
“He saved our butts, then he put it away,” Miller said. “It was a great turn of events.”
It was a great night, filled with feelings the Sabres hope to duplicate tonight when they face the Leafs in Toronto.
“It was just a great finish to a fun game,” Ehrhoff said. “I think the fans enjoyed it. We came out good. We competed for 60 minutes, and it was very positive to see that. We need more of that moving forward.”