There were just over 12 minutes to go in the first period Thursday night when it became quite clear that this was no ordinary hockey game between the Buffalo Sabres and the Arizona Coyotes.
A noticeable cheer rose from the crowd of Sabres fans at First Niagara Center when the team from Arizona scored the first goal. A woman in a Sabres jersey stood and applauded the Coyotes. Frank Taberski, who loves the Sabres, was jubilant and let the fans around him in Section 115 know that on this night he would be rooting for Arizona.
And by the end of the game, there were plenty more Buffalo fans cheering: the Coyotes beat the Sabres, 4-3, in overtime.
It was a fitting end to a bizarre night in Buffalo when the hottest ticket in town was for a game between the two worst teams in the National Hockey League.
Of course, everyone in the arena knew what was riding on this game. Under the NHL’s lottery system, the team that finishes last would get at least the second pick in the draft, guaranteeing them one of two so-called generational prospects in Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel.
The Coyotes had 5 more points for the season than did the Sabres heading into Thursday’s game and, with eight games left in the season, an Arizona victory would put the Sabres in good position to win the race to the bottom.
It has been one of the few things to get excited about in yet another dismal hockey season in Buffalo, and it has created a not-so-subtle divide between the “tankers” who want to the team to lose for the long-term good of the franchise and those who see rooting against the Sabres as betrayal to the blue and gold.
Each time the Coyotes scored, Taberski stood up, raised his arms and pointed to the crowd.
“I love the Sabres,” said Taberski, 32, of Williamsville, “but how are you going to pass up on a generational player?”
In fact, what made this much-anticipated game even more intriguing was how conflicted fans might react at First Niagara. Curiosity alone drew more than a few to seek out tickets.
Would fans cheer for the Coyotes?
Would they boo the Sabres?
Of course, 3 minutes after the first goal, the Sabres responded with a score of their own. It elicited an even bigger response from the crowd at First Niagara, as if to say, they wouldn’t stoop to cheering for the other team – not matter the cost.
“In fact, when the Sabres scored, that was the loudest cheer I heard at a Sabres game in a long time,” said Sabres fan Bryan Tasker, 30, of Hamburg. “I was shocked.”
And so it went with each goal.
A cheer for the Coyotes.
A louder cheer for the Sabres.
A cheer for Arizona.
A louder cheer for Buffalo.
Tasker, on the other hand, went to the game with a Coyotes emblem taped to the front of his shirt. He came to grips weeks ago with the idea of tanking for the betterment of the franchise and admitted cheering when the Coyotes scored.
“I did,” said Tasker, a delivery driver from Blasdell. “I felt dirty, but it is what it is.”
Dennis Badding, a season-ticket holder from South Buffalo, cheered the Arizona goals, too.
“I did – quietly,” said Badding, 45. “It was an inner cheer.”
But Paul Kowalski was among those who just couldn’t bring himself to do it.
“I grew up a Sabres fans,” said Kowalski, 33, a teacher from Newstead. “I just can’t do it.”
But Kowalski admits this race to the bottom is the only thing keeping the Sabres season interesting: Buffalo’s version of a playoff race.
The Coyotes are now 6 points ahead of the Sabres in the race to last place with the two teams meeting again Monday in Arizona.
You can count Derrek Drass, who taped the name “Eichel” to the back of his jersey, among those who will be glad when this is all over – last place securely in hand for the Sabres.
The worst part of all this is how it has pitted Buffalo fans against each other, he said.
“It’s just very weird; it’s strange,” said Drass, 25, an engineer from Buffalo, “and hopefully, we never have to do this again.”