NEW YORK -- So much went right for the Buffalo Sabres here Tuesday night. From passing to puck management, from scoring a power-play goal to killing their only penalty. To Anders Nilsson completely outplaying Henrik Lundqvist in the nets. To not allowing the league's highest-scoring team to have a shot on goal on home ice for the first 14 1/2 minutes of the third period.
But there was a much deeper story to the Sabres' 4-1 win over the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden.
This won't be just another game for Williamsville native Justin Bailey. It's a game he'll remember for the rest of his life, making a major contribution to a solid road win for his beloved hometown team.
Bailey scored his first NHL goal in this one, a beautiful tally at 1:03 of the second period that put the Sabres ahead, 3-0. It ended a long wait for the 21-year-old, who was in his 12th game with the Blue and Gold over the last two seasons.
Thanks to some fierce forechecking by Evander Kane on New York defenseman Kevin Klein, Bailey intercepted Klein's pass in the slot. Klein scurried to his right and slid by Bailey, who calmly put on the brakes and waited for him to go past before putting the puck between Lundqvist's legs while falling down.
Sam Reinhart quickly scooped up the puck for Bailey, who clenched his fists and bent down at the knees in a celebration that had so much meaning behind it.
"It's amazing. When I got back to the bench, I was overcome with an emotion I can't really describe," Bailey said. "I had to check that and get back to the game. When it finally went in and I saw it hit the back of the net, it was an amazing feeling."
Justin Bailey's first @NHL goal is a thing of BEAUTY.
— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) January 4, 2017
Bailey, remember, has referred to the No Goal loss to the Dallas Stars in the 1999 Stanley Cup final as "crushing" even though he was just about to turn 4. As a kid, Bailey used to collect autographs from Sabres players after practice at the Northtown Center in Amherst -- often getting the same players to sign over and over again -- and famously had a picture taken with former Sabres captain Daniel Briere that has been widely circulated on the Internet the last four years.
He grew up in a condo complex with his mother, Karen Buscaglia, raising him alone. There were several Sabres living nearby, notably Rob Ray, captain Michael Peca and his main mentor, Matthew Barnaby. Bailey grew into a prospect with the OHL's Kitchener Rangers and the Sabres made him a second-round pick in 2013. He debuted last year as a pro in Rochester, collecting 20 goals and 45 points. He had 13 more goals there this year until finally getting his ultimate goal on his second recall of this season.
"Once I got back to the bench, I did a quick runthrough of everyone who has helped me along the way, supported me," Bailey said. "I'm really thankful for the opportunity I have to be able to play for the hometown team."
As the team was preparing to fly to Chicago, Bailey said he was most looking forward to calling his mother back home.
"It's going to be emotional for both of us," he said. "My mom has been my biggest fan by a country mile. I don't know who's more excited, me or her. She raised me on her own and we've been through a lot. It's going to be a really nice phone call that I'm looking forward to."
What a feeling !!!
— Justin Bailey (@JustinBailey95) January 4, 2017
No one else on the Buffalo roster is homegrown but it's clear everyone knew what this goal meant. After Bailey did a postgame television interview, a smiling coach Dan Bylsma revealed Bailey returned to a dressing room that gave him the silent treatment. Reporters waiting outside heard a big eruption greeting Bailey, which Bylsma said came a few seconds after he entered the room.
"You could see his excitement and his joy in scoring the goal," Bylsma said.
"He's a great kid who works really hard," said Jack Eichel, whose power-play goal 70 seconds into the third period closed the scoring and put the Sabres in control for good. "For a Buffalo kid to come into MSG and get your first, that's really cool. We're really happy for him. It's definitely a moment he won't forget."
Barnaby, now an assistant coach in Kitchener under former Buffalo defenseman Jay McKee, was among several ex-Sabres who tweeted congratulations to Bailey shortly after the game. Said the former Sabres pest: "So happy and proud of him!!! Well deserved!!"
— Matthew Barnaby (@MattBarnaby3636) January 4, 2017
Bailey said it was particularly significant to score the goal during a victory. The Sabres clamped down on the Rangers, allowing just five shots on goal apiece in the first and third periods.
"We just played a simple game for 60 minutes," Eichel said. "At times this season we've gotten away from our game too much. You see in the third period, we didn't give them much at all. Most pucks were north and in their zone."
The Sabres had a 2-0 lead after a solid first period but memories of last week's meltdown against Boston, when a 2-0 lead after 20 minutes, turned into a 4-2 loss, were still fresh. Bailey's goal changed that.
"It was a big goal for him obviously and to do it in Madison Square Garden, there's no better place to get it," Kane said. "But to extend the lead for our team was big. It was nice to see for him."
"It's a game of turnovers and it was a play where we were hounding the puck," Bailey said. "I was happy to get up there and make a play. Stopping and letting [Klein] go by was something that came to me. I don't remember much else after scoring the goal."