After more than five months without hockey, Buffalo fans eagerly welcomed it back Saturday night. They cheered for big hits. They applauded blocked shots. They roared for three goals by the Sabres’ Nicholas Baptiste.
Then, all of a sudden, there wasn't much to cheer for anymore.
After taking a 2-1 lead late in the second period, Buffalo watched helplessly as New Jersey scored four straight to earn a 6-3 victory in the opening game of the Sabres’ prospect challenge. The Devils scored their game-changing goals in a span of just 4:57 to stun the home team in HarborCenter.
"For the first 20 minutes we were really, really good," Baptiste said. "It's tough when you go up, 2-1, and they score the next shift. That hurts a little bit.
"There's a lot to take out of it for the young guys."
Ullmark starts well: Sabres goalie Linus Ullmark stopped the first 12 shots he faced through 33 minutes. The next nine minutes were rougher. The Devils scored three times late in the second period and added two more early in the third to take command.
New Jersey tied the game, 2-2, with 1:59 left in the second and took the lead with only 18.4 seconds remaining. The Devils scored 30 seconds apart in the opening minutes of the third to take a 5-2 lead and end Buffalo's comeback hopes.
Sabres open scoring: Baptiste gave Buffalo a 1-0 lead on the power play with 7:30 gone in the second period. Eric Cornel found Baptiste at the top of the crease with a no-look backhand, and the winger lifted the puck past goaltender Ken Appleby for the tournament’s first goal.
From box to score sheet: Vaclav Karabacek went to the penalty box for boarding the Devils’ Colton White late in the second, and he exited at a perfect time. Karabacek accepted a clearing pass at center ice to start a three-on-one, and he allowed Baptiste to finish it to make the score 2-1. Baptiste used the New Jersey defender as a screen and put a far-side shot past the glove of Appleby with 2:26 to go.
Here come the hats: Baptiste finished his three-goal night with 1:47 to play. Nearly a dozen caps flew from the crowd to the ice to celebrate the hat trick.
T-Peg in the full house: Buffalo owner Terry Pegula took in the game from the Sabres’ box alongside General Manager Tim Murray. They were among the 1,800 people who filled the stands on both sides of the main rink in HarborCenter.
Familiar name: One of the most noticeable forwards for the Devils was Buffalo-born Miles Wood. He is the son of former Sabres forward Randy Wood. Miles Wood joined New Jersey at the end of last season after playing at Boston College.
Wood helped the Devils take a 4-2 lead with 2:28 gone in the third period. He streaked into the Sabres’ zone and fed Blake Coleman, who rang a shot home off the post.
On-the-job training: While some prospect gatherings are a chance to see all players in all situations, the Sabres are getting guys used to their future assignments. The two power-play units featured Alexander Nylander, Evan Rodrigues, Brendan Guhle, Giorgio Estephan and Vasily Glotov; and Hudson Fasching, Baptiste, Cornel, Brandon Hagel and Brycen Martin. Nylander and Cornel, who are wingers, manned the point.
Special teams shine: While it was a rough night overall, the Sabres excelled with men in the box. Buffalo's power-play unit went 1 for 2, while the penalty killers were 4 for 4.
Replay: The prospects got a look at how NHL replays work with 13:15 left. New Jersey’s John Quenneville rang the iron on a breakaway, and the referee signaled goal to give the Devils a 6-2 lead. The officials then headed to the penalty box to look at a monitor, and the video review showed no goal.
Lettermen: Instead of anointing a captain, the Sabres went with three alternates. Baptiste, Rodrigues and defenseman Brady Austin wore the A’s.
Taking a seat: Williamsville native Justin Bailey was one of the Sabres’ four scratches. He watched along with linemates William Carrier and Matthew Lane, plus defenseman Paul Geiger. They are expected to play next game.
Next: The Devils will close their tournament at 7 p.m. Sunday with a game against Boston. The Sabres and Bruins will meet in the finale at 7 p.m. Monday in HarborCenter. Tickets are $10.