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Mike Harrington: Empty seats get another empty result

So if you were an empty seat Thursday night in KeyBank Center, you came close to outnumbering live bodies in the stands.

The empties, and those who actually did attend a Thursday night affair against the who-cares Florida Panthers, saw a disastrous final nine minutes of the first period followed by a pretty solid showing in the second and third period. And ultimately, another loss in KeyBank Center, where the Sabres fell to 6-14-2 this season after their 4-2 defeat.

We're at the point of the season where the natives are throwing up their hands and not bothering anymore. Tickets are flying around StubHub for $6, and you want to hand out crying towels to the poor season subscribers who have performed a complete money flush yet again this season.

The Sabres announced 16,707 tickets sold for the game, the second-lowest count of the season. The in-house crowd looked substantially smaller. It wasn't USA-Slovakia World Junior level but it easily looked like the tiniest non-snowstorm crowd in many years.

The Sabres are averaging 17,921 tickets sold downtown this year, which puts them 17th in the league. They're playing to 93.9 percent of capacity, which puts them 24th out of 31 teams. Both figures are their lowest since 2005-06. Just two years ago, in Jack Eichel's rookie season, they averaged nearly 700 more tickets sold per game and played to 97.5 percent capacity.

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With no weather issues, the guess here is there hasn't been fewer people in the building on any single night since the bankruptcy era of 2003. That was when some guy named Gary Bettman was essentially owning the team.

Terry Pegula, Kim Pegula and Russ Brandon better be getting the message from the paying customers.

It's February and the Sabres have won six home games. Six.

They have 18 home games left. There's not much left to see here.

The other team is going to have to be a big part of the attraction the rest of the way and that's OK. What opponent you're seeing should be part of the reason to go to a game. It makes plenty of sense more people will be interested in seeing, say, Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals in person than the Panthers.

And there's definitely some attractions left on the schedule. The Maple Leafs come to town twice in March, likely with their legions of fans in tow. Saturday matinees in March include Patrick Kane and the Blackhawks and the first-ever visit from the upstart Vegas Golden Knights. Ovechkin and the Caps are coming. So are Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and the rest of the Lightning. The Predators, Bruins, Islanders and Kings will all be worth watching too.

Will the Sabres be able to compete with them? They lost to a goalie named Harri Sarteri Thursday night. Not to be confused with Braden Holtby, Marc-Andre Fleury or Andrei Vasilevskiy.

The Sabres were in a 3-1 hole after 20 minutes Thursday and there were plenty of indications from the principals afterward that choice words were flying around the locker room during the first intermission.

Reporters doing interviews in the room after the game could here some loud voices rumbling from a nearby restricted area, and the frustration was palpable on the ice in the final two minutes with unlikely pugilists like Jake McCabe, Kyle Okposo and Johan Larsson getting ready to rumble as the frustration set in.

About time.

"We showed some emotion in here," said Ryan O'Reilly. "It wasn't what we wanted. We were disappointed with it and we made a change. We just all committed to sticking together and outworking the rest of the game. It was better but not consistent enough."

The Sabres had 67 shot attempts in the game to just 50 for the Panthers. Over the final two periods, the count was 51-22 for Buffalo. Much better effort, same old results.

"It's so frustrating when you don't win at home," Okposo said. "It was an emotional game. It was a physical game. Tempers were flaring on both sides. Hey, that's hockey."

"It's good we're sticking up for each other," O'Reilly said. "We have to have each other's backs. It's an emotional game. There was a lot of emotion. We wanted this one. We wanted to respond after the way we kind of had a lifeless effort last time at home. We wanted to come out and play well. I thought we were physical."

Things were on the brink of getting out of hand at the end of game, with the Panthers chasing Evander Kane around the ice after his hit on Aleksander Barkov drew a major for interference (that's a joke, when you consider that Taylor Hall only got a minor for his from-behind plummeting of Okposo Tuesday night). Larsson is almost certainly looking at a suspension after getting a match penalty for a cross check to the face of Vincent Trocheck.

Even as this death march of a season rolls on, a little fire and brimstone never hurt anyone. Even if not many people were there to see it.

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