Ville Leino had no idea what was going to happen when Ted Nolan called his name to take part in the rollicking shootout. The Sabres’ coach did.
“I mentioned to John Scott, ‘Watch the crowd go crazy on this one,’ ” Nolan said with a smile.
Indeed, the folks in First Niagara Center raised their voices, arms and bodies Tuesday night when Leino hopped over the boards as Buffalo’s ninth shooter in the breakaway challenge against New Jersey. Everyone in the building was well-aware Leino hadn’t scored this season, which has made him the most-maligned player on the last-place team.
Despite – or, more likely, because of – the forgettable times, the fans jumped at the chance to cheer and applaud Leino’s time in the spotlight.
“I didn’t know if they were going to boo or cheer, so I was pretty happy about that,” said Leino, who scored to join goaltender Nathan Lieuwen in delivering a 3-2 win. “It was actually pretty awesome. I just wanted to score for them, and they gave me a little extra effort there.”
Leino is still stuck on zero goals in 53 games because shootout winners count only toward the team total, but even a real tally won’t elicit the same emotion that roared through downtown Tuesday.
“I miss a little bit of that feeling when you get that,” Leino said. “Obviously, we haven’t been in playoffs for a while or been winning that much, so it’s tough. It’s tough times, but those moments you get a little energy, extra effort to want to win it, put it in.”
The victory was the first in the NHL for Lieuwen, a 22-year-old rookie who made 33 saves during the game and seven in the shootout.
“It was unbelievable, one of the most amazing feelings of my life,” said Lieuwen, who was serenaded with chants of “Loooo” through the game. “I felt like I belonged, and that’s a good feeling.”
Tyler Ennis scored twice to jump from 19 goals to 21. He also scored 20 goals during his rookie season of 2010-11. He stared at an empty net on both his third-period goals as Leino and Cody Hodgson set him up with pinpoint passes.
“Hopefully, I’ll get 20 or more for a long time to come,” Ennis said. “I didn’t have to do a lot of work to get it. I was the beneficiary of great playmaking. It was nice to get them, and it was even better to win.”
Jake McCabe, who starred collegiately at Wisconsin and for the United States in the world junior tournament, may pass up his senior year with the Badgers and join the Sabres.
“Jake McCabe is close to signing,” General Manager Tim Murray said on WGR-AM 550. “If it gets done, he’ll more than likely be here versus going” to Rochester.
The Sabres selected McCabe in the second round of the 2012 NHL Draft. The 20-year-old served as an alternate captain at Wisconsin and put up eight goals and 25 points in 36 games this season. The product of the U.S. National Team Development Program has 14 goals, 44 assists and 58 points in 100 games with the Badgers.
McCabe shot up the prospect charts in January 2013 when he captained the United States to the gold medal at the world juniors in Russia.
The Sabres have signed Justin Kea, their third-round pick in the 2012 draft, to a three-year deal potentially worth $1.94 million.
Kea brings size to the organization’s corps of forwards. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound center had 22 goals and 49 points in 58 games with Saginaw of the Ontario Hockey League. The 20-year-old will finish this season with the Rochester Amerks on a tryout contract, and his entry-level deal will kick in next season.