The Sabres’ arena was rocking Monday. The trick is to keep the atmosphere festive Tuesday.
The Sabres welcomed 1,000 screaming students to practice in First Niagara Center, and they made the building jump with chants and cheers. It was louder than many games, the next of which comes Tuesday when the Florida Panthers visit.
The best way to keep the arena loud will be to win. Buffalo is just 1-6-2 in its last nine home games.
“We’ve played some good games, some tight games, but things haven’t gone our way,” left wing Evander Kane said. “We need to make this a tough place to play for the visiting team.”
Bringing back the students would be a good start. They had fun watching, which allowed the players to enjoy themselves.
“It’s fun for us to have some spectators here,” defenseman Mike Weber said. “As a kid I would have loved the opportunity to come to an NHL practice like that and watch. It was probably a pretty cool thing.”
The students are part of the “Future Goals” program started by the NHL and its players’ association. The children learn science, technology, engineering and math through hockey-related questions. For example, Sabres broadcaster Brian Duff asked the students how many miles the players skate during an 82-game season if they average 5 miles per game.
“I heard some of the math questions and I was skating around trying to figure them out,” Weber said.
At the end of practice, Weber, center Ryan O’Reilly and defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo shed their skates, slipped on sneakers and went into the crowd to high-five the kids. While they went willingly, the trip wasn’t entirely altruistic. Coach Dan Bylsma set rules for the session-ending shootout contest.
“The last three guys to score had to go up and shake some hands,” Weber said.
Forward Marcus Foligno, who missed Saturday’s 2-1 overtime loss in Boston because of a lower-body injury, practiced fully and expects to play against the Panthers. He suffered a deep bruise when he missed a check Thursday against the Bruins.
“It was good to get a full practice in with the guys,” Foligno said. “It was tough to even skate a couple days ago.”
Forward Zemgus Girgensons missed practice with a lower-body injury.
“I’m hoping this was nothing more than a maintenance day for Zemgus,” Bylsma said.
Concussed forward Tyler Ennis remains out.
“Still not able to get on the ice other than to be on the ice by himself,” Bylsma said. “His timeline is no better than week-to-week. He has progressed over the last 10 days but still needs to go a little bit further before he can be cleared to go onto the next level.”
Kane has scored in four of the last nine games, bringing his season goal total to 12. One of the goals (against Colorado) came from the slot. Bylsma would like to see Kane there more often.
“Love to see him get into the area where he scored in Colorado, take advantage of his shot inside a little bit more versus just coming down the wing,” the coach said. “He’s taken it inside with the puck when he’s had it. It’s more getting there without the puck, getting in those open spots and utilizing his shot on the outside.”
Kane said the team could do a better job of getting in front.
“We’re getting lots of pucks to the net, but when you don’t have anybody there it’s tough to get the second and third opportunities,” he said. “In today’s NHL, that’s how you score a lot of your goals. For us, it’s about working hard to get to the net without the puck.”