Before during and after the game, this was all about the man they call Gio.
As an organization, the Buffalo Sabres honored captain Brian Gionta's 1,000th NHL game with a video tribute and an on-ice presentation featuring his wife, children and parents that drew a standing ovation from the crowd Monday night in KeyBank Center.
Gionta's inspired teammates, who respect their captain like no other player in the dressing room, played inspired hockey for much of their 4-2 win over the Florida Panthers. After they game, they donned white T-shirts with a caricature of Gionta and his captain 'C' on the front and the word "Gio" and No. 12 on the back.
"That was pretty cool," said a beaming Gionta, all 5-foot-7 of him. "They said it was life-like, lifesize on the front."
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) March 28, 2017
Gionta has always played bigger than his size and he did again Monday, scoring what proved to be the game-winning goal on a power play 1:25 into the second period. His 15th of the season banked in off Florida defenseman Jason Demers and gave the Sabres a 3-0 lead.
Matt Moulson, who has tapped in a couple goals this season just before the line that could have gone to Gionta, was near the crease again but Gionta kept this goal by firing it to the goalmouth and getting good puck luck.
"I was joking with 'Mouls' that I didn't know if he was going to steal another one of mine," Gionta said. "I didn't know at first whenther it went off him first or off the D. Just a lucky bounce I guess on this night."
"That's awesome. Good for him," said goalie Robin Lehner. "It was special night for him and his family and it was cool to be a part of.
Coach Dan Bylsma certainly liked the cool factor too.
"When he scored the goal, I think half our bench jumped up like it was a playoff goal," Bylsma said. "Everyone was pleaased to see him get the reward and in a goal scorer's touch around the net."
Defenseman Josh Gorges has spent eight years with Gionta, more than half the captain's career between time with Montreal and Buffalo.
"To be able to be out there with him is a great honor with him but it's a proud moment for me being a teammate, being a friend," said Gorges, who joined Kyle Okposo and Ryan O'Reilly in presenting Gionta a framed painting during the ceremony. "To be able to witness the emotion of his family, it was a great night. Top it off, the guy scores end it ends up being a game-winner."
Lehner made 30 saves -- including a left wrist stop on Reilly Smith's third-period penalty shot that could have pulled the Panthers within a goal. He did it all for Gionta too.
"True professional, true leader," Lehner said. "He alwys leads by example and it was a big night for him."
The Sabres have won two straight and four of five games to get back to even with 76 points in 76 games (32-32-12). One frustrating sticking point to their season is that they're 19-14-6 against teams currently in the playoffs -- including a stunning 8-0-2 against the trio of Ottawa, the New York Rangers and Edmonton.
But they're just 13-18-6 against non-playoff teams, including a 7-12-6 mark against teams in the East on the outside looking in.
"We get swept by Carolina, we get swept by Boston. You can't do that in a season like this," said winger Marcus Foligno. "Against teams we're playing four or five times, you certainly have to get points from those guys. There's a lot of teams we didn't show up against and it's going to hurt us in the end."
The Sabres are 2-0-1 against Florida and persevered on this night. They had a Zemgus Girgenson goal disallowed on a controversial kicking call with a minute left in the second period and then had to kill off a weak Justin Falk penalty a few seconds later. They survived the penalty shot too. All good signs.
"We showed composure, a huge save by 'Lenny' on the penalty shot there," Gionta said. "It's a pivotal moment in the third period there that can change the mmomentum."
"We've got to start doing these things night-in and night-out and we wanted to have a good showing for Gio," Gorges said. "This is something we have to continue to learn from. When we do the right things, pay attention to details, success comes."