There was a gnawing question all around KeyBank Center during the Sabres' bizarre Fan Appreciation Night: Come October, will they be back?
There's several players you could ask that question of. Certainly coach Dan Bylsma's status is up in the air. And you have to wonder how many of the paying customers are going to say no mas to an organization that gives them little reward for their hard-earned bucks.
The night began, however, on a sobering note with the growing mystery over Kyle Okposo's medical condition. The team has been very tight-lipped about his status, understandably so when it's learned he's been admitted to a neuro ICU unit at Buffalo General Hospital. At this point, you're not worried about Okposo's hockey career. You're simply rooting for his return to health from whatever malady has struck him down.
With the Okposo news as a backdrop, the Sabres bounced back from their embarrassment Monday against Toronto to put up a solid performance against a Montreal team that has already clinched the Atlantic Division and is in playoff tuneup mode. It was great to see a goal for Tyler Ennis, who has battled back from two years of injury problems and scored for the first time since Feb. 12, beating two Canadiens to a loose puck in front of the net.
"A few weeks ago, maybe a month ago, maybe I don't have that pop to go get it," Ennis said.
Ennis is the senior member of the team in terms of service, dating to his callup from Portland of the AHL in the spring of 2010. He played on both of the playoff teams in 2010 and 2011, with his overtime goal in Game Five of the '11 series at Philadelphia still standing as the club's last playoff victory.
Prior to the game, Ennis admitted he pondered the possibility this could be his last home game.
"Especially nowadays, anything can happen. Anybody can get traded and there's a new team coming in," Ennis said, referring to the Vegas Golden Knights. "There's so many different things."
The Sabres have said all the right things about their fans the last two days. As they should. Plenty of cities would produce a half-empty arena for this kind of hockey years running.
"It's your last game in this arena for a while, so that stinks," said Jack Eichel. "More than anything, it's another year with an outcome that you don't want. Last year at this time, I bet we're saying the same thing we said this year. 'Oh, we'll get 'em.'... We didn't make any improvement from last year. It's another failed season in my mind."
"The fans have been great this year," Ennis said. "They came out, they were emotional, they were hoping to see the playoffs. It's understandable the frustration the city has with us. Everyone talks about it. It's well-known what's gone with the Bills and Sabres. They're still filling up the rink. Even if they get upset, we know they're there and they're paying."
Of course, there's not much appreciation for the fans in Sabreland. Plenty of season ticket-holders have said they're going to be jumping ship after the season, given the ease of getting tickets on the secondary market. And if the Pegulas dare foist another price increase upon them? It's going to be a mass exit stage-left.
Enough about revenue sharing. This is the year there should be no price hike whatsoever. Anything else is a slap.
It wouldn't be a surprise though. The Sabres are just clueless about how to market their team and show their fans -- especially their season ticket-holders -- that they care about them.
On Wednesday, the Vancouver Canucks tweeted that renewals made before Friday will receive a 2017-18 Canucks jersey. You may snicker that's a desperation move from a sad-sack club but winning teams like Chicago and Pittsburgh routinely do giveaways, including those coveted bobbleheads.
Subscribers in places like Washington and Nashville receive many items, with longstanding Caps season seat holders earning extra swag. Even when the Sabres do something cool, like having players give the jersey off their back to selected fans after the last home game, they decide to taint it. This year, fans had to bid on Sam Reinhart's jersey on -- where else? -- the One Buffalo app.
As for Fan Appreciation Night, the end-of-season awards ceremony was junked, sentenced to video snippets throughout the game that were, of course, sponsored segments. At least that thankfully cut down on the amount of air time given to mind-numbing arena host Lauren Hall (At least the Sabres aren't unique here: Every host we hear around the league should be shelved, be they male or female).
Even during the tank years, award winners were greeted fondly by fans. Former defenseman Mike Weber called it a career highlight to be given an Unsung Hero award in front of the crowd. What a silly decision to not hold a ceremony. Most fans hardly noticed or responded to the videos.
There were certainly several prize contests for fans but the only giveaway to those walking in the door was a set of sunglasses festooned with the One Buffalo logo. And, by the way, just for the first 10,000 fans? You can't spring for a cheap pair of plastic sunglasses for everybody?
One Buffalo, of course, is the Pegulas' contrived mantra. A cynic might note it represents a figure one more than the number of playoff teams their ownership has produced in the NHL and NFL since 2011.
We'll see if that problem returns come October.
"It's very upsetting," said Ryan O'Reilly. "This city deserves a winning team and it's an organization that deserves a winning team. We underachieved and we're all disappointed."