The Buffalo Sabres’ season is over. Try not to cry.
Aside from the scoreboard crashing to the ice again or the team having to forfeit for lack of players, there was no more fitting end to the Sabres’ miserable season than goal-less Ville Leino losing the puck and failing to score in a shootout Sunday night.
Buffalo’s chaos-filled, loss-plagued, forgettable year ended with a 4-3 loss to the New York Islanders. Leino, the much-maligned face of the downtrodden bunch, had a chance to extend the shootout but couldn’t get off a shot.
Despite the game-long urging of 18,804 fans in First Niagara Center, Leino finished with no goals on only 38 shots in 58 games. The Sabres found the net just 150 times this season, one fewer than the 151 scored by the 1997-98 Tampa Bay Lightning.
“It just didn’t happen,” Leino said. “It’s been rough.”
The Sabres finished last in the 30-team NHL with a 21-51-10 record, including only 14 regulation or overtime victories. They endured a 2-16-2 slide during their final 20 games. They totaled 52 points, 14 fewer than 29th-place Florida.
“It’s just one of those years,” said coach Ted Nolan, who was impressed so many beleaguered Buffalonians stayed in the arena on “Fan Appreciation Night.” “It’s two last-place teams playing, and the fans are still right here till the end cheering and everything.
“I had a meeting with the team afterward, and that’s why it’s so important this summer that we come back with a whole different attitude to try to get this thing turned around because if there’s fans that deserve a championship, this is the town.”
What’s sure to be a wild offseason begins today when the Sabres report for locker cleanout. General Manager Tim Murray and Nolan will kiss the season goodbye with a news conference Tuesday, which is also when the NHL Draft Lottery will be held. The Sabres have the best chance of getting the No. 1 pick for June’s selection process.
It’s expected Murray and Nolan will make changes to their scouting and coaching staffs. The midseason hires will want their own personnel in place as they head toward their first full season together.
There’s absolutely no doubt the roster will change.
“We know that we’ll be a different team come September,” said forward Marcus Foligno, who also singled out the crowd for making the finale memorable. “I definitely want to thank them. They’re the best fans in the league, I think, and they deserve better.”
Even the Sabres’ top highlight Sunday had a degree of madness to it. Jamie McBain opened the scoring with a dazzling end-to-end rush. Nolan’s thought?
“Where was it the whole time?” the coach said.
The Sabres started the game with team awards – the players voted Tyler Ennis as their Most Valuable Player, Zemgus Girgensons as Rookie of the Year and Jhonas Enroth as Unsung Hero – and the organization paid tribute to retiring broadcaster Mike Robitaille.
The festivities ended with the players giving select fans the jerseys off their backs. Many won’t put the blue and gold sweater on again, starting with Leino. He’s a prime candidate to have the remaining three years of his contract bought out.
“I’ve got to think about it and talk to the coaches and GMs what’s going on,” said Leino, who signed a six-year contract that averages $4.5 million per season. “There was so many chances that could have turned into a goal, but it didn’t. There was a lot of posts, lot of good saves. I don’t know. I guess it’s hard to describe. It hasn’t really hit me that hard.
“A lot of ups and downs, a lot of emotions, and definitely has been hard to play my game.”
Thankfully, there are no more games to play. There’s always next year … or, more likely, a few years after that.
“Like Tim Murray said, the guys who want to be here and who care are going to be here,” Foligno said. “That’s what it comes down to. We’re going to need players to get us out of the hole.”