Even in showing deference to the wild Saturday experienced three hours West by the good folks from the University at Buffalo, I’m not going to, ahem, take the layup and talk much about the finish to the afternoon at First Niagara Center.
It would be easy to turn a few phrases about how Jack Eichel took a breakaway and coolly deposited a puck through the legs of former Stanley Cup winner Cam Ward so easily that it looked as if he was still playing with a tennis ball on the streets of suburban Boston. All with one measly second left in overtime, when mere mortals would have been turning puck into hot potato.
The call from here is to look deeper. One of the signature plays to the Sabres’ season started way back in the Buffalo zone. And it really started on so many cold winter practice mornings when the building is empty, save for a few of us media types.
Believe it or not, Evander Kane’s brilliant long flip pass to Eichel is something we see a lot.
You’ll be watching some drill and you’ll suddenly hear a loud “doink” or a “ping” from high over the rink and a puck will splat to the ice. Inevitably, you’ll find Kane flipping pucks as high as he can. Early in the season, it was easy to think Kane was just goofing around trying to actually hit the scoreboard and create the noise.
It’s actually the opposite. There’s a method to the madness. He’s trying to avoid the big screens, the ring message board that encircles the lower third of the Jumbotron and the round Sabres’ logos on the bottom. And practicing it over and over again sure came in handy Saturday.
Someone suggested to Kane the pass that set up Eichel’s overtime winner was the kind of play we’d see on a lacrosse field. He responded it was more of a sand wedge. Then he reminded us about what we’ve seen at practice.
Ah, the flips. The light certainly popped on over my head.
“They’re helpful when you get caught on a line change,” said Kane. “It’s kind of like a punt. You’ve got four seconds of hang time in the air and you can get off the ice.”
In this case, Kane’s thinking was twofold. He said he looked and saw eight seconds on the clock. An easy flip out of the zone meant the Sabres were at worst going to a shootout and not giving up an overtime goal to a Carolina team that already owned eight OT winners, two off the NHL lead.
But Kane said he heard a yell. He knew he had been on the ice a long time – it was 1 minute, 57 seconds – and that Eichel had been there for all but 16 seconds of that, the time it took Johan Larsson to take one defensive zone faceoff. He guessed correctly it was Eichel taking one last break up the ice.
“I figured I could lay it out there. It’s a good thing it was ‘Eich’ and he was able to catch up to the puck,” Kane said. “I was pretty sure it was him. I knew he was on the ice and I knew it had been a pretty long shift. I thought I’d flip it out and see if he could chase it down and he did.”
Eichel was still inside the Sabres’ zone when Kane unleashed the flip to the right of the scoreboard. From atop the 300 level, you could see the fans in Sections 104-106 instantly pop from their seats, sensing what was about to happen.
The whole building picked up on it right away. Eichel was gone. The problem he had was finding the puck. He actually got help from his teammates on the bench, as if they were infielders pointing a fly ball in the sun to the center fielder.
“They were pointing, yelling,” said a laughing coach Dan Bylsma. “I looked at him. He was looking up, couldn’t see it. He was trying to get it over his shoulder and it was coming down. It was so high, if it had come down in the middle of the ice it would have caught the scoreboard. Luckily it came down and didn’t have too much forward spin on it and he had time.”
“I was just trying to stay patient,” Eichel said. “The guys on the bench helped out a lot yelling with the time I had, where their guys were. A lot of credit to the bench for all the communication there.”
Eichel, for his part, said he looked up to the end zone clock above Section 226. He saw four seconds and knew he was golden. Talk about presence of mind.
The frantic finish provided a long-term memory for the remnants of a sellout crowd that endured what was one of the sleepiest games all season over the first 40 minutes. Spring training is in full bloom so let’s borrow again from baseball. This was a no-hitter. Seriously.
In the first period, the Sabres were credited for two hits and the Hurricanes for none. As in zero. That’s hard to fathom for a team that entered the day four points out in the wild-card race.
It was a figure skating exhibition. You could have skated around the ice with an hors d’oeuvres platter atop the palm of your hand and not gotten it toppled.
The Sabres have played a lot of mind-numbing hockey downtown this season. They have gone scoreless in the first period for 25 of their 36 home games. They remain last overall in the NHL with 36 first-period goals in 70 games, a preposterous figure.
But they finally have a top line that can do some magic with the puck now to give fans something to leave the building with. Like Saturday’s buzzer-beater. And not just the way it was finished.