It’s one thing for Sabres players to hear the fans. Jhonas Enroth learned it’s quite another to see them walk to the arena through wind, rain and snow, to see their faces light up when something happens during the game.
The experience actually made Enroth happy he missed the final month of the season with a knee injury.
“I got a chance to step back and see everything from a different kind of view,” the goaltender said Monday. “Driving into the game, you saw the passion in the fans’ face. It’s not like we don’t expect it. It’s that we don’t really think about it when we’re playing.
“You can really tell how passionate fans here in Buffalo are. It’s something I picked up, something I learned from that. It was something I’m going to take with me to next year and hope that we’ll grow from it.”
The fans and the future were on the minds of many players as they cleaned out their lockers in First Niagara Center. The Sabres know the suffering experienced in 2013-14 was hard on everyone.
“These types of things, they hurt,” defenseman Mike Weber said. “Our fans have been very supportive, but at the same time you don’t want to disappoint people. You don’t want that feeling walking around town that you’ve disappointed people or you’re letting people down, especially a hard-working city like Buffalo. I think to every man, we’ve accepted the challenge.
“We’re not joking around anymore. There has to be a new standard here. I know that word has been thrown around for a couple years here with talking to all of you guys – ‘We’ve got to change the culture, we’ve got to change the standards’ – but enough’s enough. Joke’s over. We’re not in this game to get high draft picks, at least I’m not. I know that’s not the goal for the front office, either. We’re in this to win championships and get things on the right track here.”
The rebuild won’t happen in one summer (and many fans hope it takes a little longer because of the franchise-altering talent available in the 2015 NHL Draft), but adopting a competitive spirit will be an important first step when the Sabres return in September for training camp.
The competition could begin in the Sabres’ net. Enroth wants to be Ryan Miller’s full-time replacement, but Michal Neuvirth joined Enroth in proclaiming his desire to be the No. 1 goalie next season.
“Oh yeah, absolutely,” Neuvirth said. “Jhoni is a great goalie, great guy, and it’s going to be good competition. Hopefully, he’s going to push me to be a better goalie, and I’m going to push him to be a better goalie. It’s going to be good.”
Enroth and Neuvirth were just two of the record nine goalies who dressed for the Sabres this season, but they have the edge to be atop the organizational depth chart next season. Both have one year left on their contracts before becoming unrestricted free agents.
Enroth, who suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament that is nearing a return to full health, had an up-and-down fourth season with the Sabres. He started 1-12-5, which included a couple of hard-luck losses. He finished 4-17-5 with a .911 save percentage and 2.82 goals-against average.
The 25-year-old stopped 218 of 234 shots (.932 save percentage) after the Sabres traded Miller to St. Louis.
“I thought I had a good year, not a great year, but a good year,” said Enroth, who was voted “Unsung Hero” by his teammates. “I was a little surprised by it, but I appreciate it a lot, especially when it comes from the guys. I’m very proud of that.”
Neuvirth, acquired from Washington at the trade deadline, turned heads during his only two appearances. Though he lost both, the goalie stopped 93 of 98 shots for a .949 save percentage.
The 26-year-old remains vague about an ailment that made his 51-save performance on March 13 his final appearance. He merely says it was a lower-body injury, and he also was elusive with the Sabres’ medical staff, a team source said. Neuvirth said he still has no timetable for recovery.
“You come to the new team, and you want to be good for your new team,” he said. “I thought I had a good couple games, but getting hurt was obviously very frustrating for me.
“I’ve got to regroup in the summer and use this frustration to motivate me to even work harder in the summer, come back here in the best shape I can get, work hard and see what happens.”
The other goalies in the organization who got extended looks also will take time to heal. Matt Hackett probably won’t be ready for the start of the year after getting his knee torn up Saturday. Nathan Lieuwen hopes Rochester has a long playoff run so he can eventually join them when his concussion heals.
Concussions nearly ended the 22-year-old’s career during junior hockey, but he says (and hopes) the outlook isn’t as dire this time.
“It’s one of those things where there’s a lot of question marks,” Lieuwen said. “You have no idea what’s going to happen. I’m going to try my hardest to get back.
“It’s incredible just to be here, not only to be here but to play games. A dream come true. It’s obviously a little bit spoiled here with the injury, but at the same time I can take a lot of positives from my experience here. I learned a lot and I can move forward.”
The Sabres all want to move forward. After all, the last-place team can’t step back.
“You have five and a half months here to get yourself ready for training camp,” Weber said, “and I expect training camp to be what training camp should be for a 30th-place team. It should be hard. It should be intense.
“You do have to feel defeat to succeed, and these are the types of things where guys’ true character come out. You see what they’re going to be able to do over these next five months to bring it next season so you don’t feel the same way again.”