There was an overtime winner scored Thursday night in First Niagara Center that sent tons of folks home happy. It was accompanied by loud cheers with fans leaping out of their seats, many with arms in the air.
One thing was missing: The goal horn. That’s because the goal wasn’t scored by the Sabres.
It came from Arizona’s Sam Gagner and gave the Coyotes a 4-3 win over Buffalo in a game played through what has to rate as one of the most awkward atmospheres in franchise history.
In the bizarro world of Tankapalooza 2015, Thursday’s defeat rates as a major victory in the turtle race for 30th overall in the NHL. The Coyotes moved six points ahead of Buffalo in 29th place. Buffalo has a game in hand but only eight games left, including Monday’s rematch in Glendale, Ariz.
It looks like a huge deficit for Buffalo to overcome. The fact is, however, the masses’ obsession with Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel means they want no part of it getting wiped out.
There were clear, loud cheers for each of the Arizona goals from the announced sellout crowd of 19,070, which featured plenty of empty seats. And the place erupted when Gagner’s sizzler from the left circle burned Matt Hackett 56 seconds into overtime.
It came with Mike Weber in the penalty box after a tripping penalty with 30 seconds left in regulation. Weber, a part of the organization since 2006, was disappointed to get nailed with the penalty – and downright stunned by the reaction of the crowd.
“It’s tough to get momentum when your fans are rooting against you,” Weber said. “That’s the unfortunate part. I’ve never seen that before. I’ve always spoken extremely high of our fans. I don’t even know if disappointed is the word. They scored that first one, our fans are cheering. Delayed penalty, they cheer. They cheer when they score to win the game. I don’t know. I don’t even know what to say.”
Weber, however, had plenty more on his mind.
“This is extremely frustrating for us. We don’t want to be here,” he said. “We understand where we are. We understand what this team is doing, what the organization is doing, the place we’ve put ourselves in. I’ve never been a part of something like that where the away team comes into a home building and they’re cheering for them.
“I respect our fans. I love our fans. I show up to work every day to do whatever I can for them and to play hard for them and my teammates. I’ve never seen that before.”
A fan base that’s still pretty much filling the building through two straight years of abhorrent hockey has officially cut the cord to this year’s team in the names of McEichel. A “Pray for McDavid” sign that’s been visible for a few games popped up again above Section 312.
That quest may be helped further by the loss of leading scorer Tyler Ennis. The shifty winger scored Buffalo’s first goal – bringing loud cheers from Sabres fans – and added an assist but missed the entire third period with an upper body injury. Coach Ted Nolan said he will be further evaluated on Friday.
There were decent cheers for Rasmus Ristolainen’s power-play goal at 8:37 of the second that gave Buffalo a 2-1 lead but strong applause for goals by Oliver Ekman-Larsson and David Moss that put Arizona in front, 3-2, through 40 minutes.
Things got really strange in the final four minutes. Captain Brian Gionta tied the game on a power-play with 3:37 left – with audible groans throughout the building on the brutal giveaway up the middle by Coyotes captain Shane Doan that set up Gionta for his slap shot.
Arizona goalie Mike Smith got big roars with his late-game saves as the Sabres pressed, including one when Buffalo defenseman Zach Bogosian cut in alone but could not score inside the final two minutes. As it turns out, that save is a three-pointer; Buffalo would have been within three points with a regulation win.
Weber was the most vocal about the fans but there was plenty of chatter elsewhere as well.
“I’m never going to complain about the fans in this city. We get 19,000 on a regular basis,” Nolan said. “I didn’t hear what happened at the end. I was just focused on the game. You have to be a little bit disappointed as a player. They come here, perform and work. I can see sometimes you get booed when you don’t give an effort. Tonight wasn’t one of those nights.”
“We play the game for each other in this room and we have great fans,” said a tight-lipped Gionta. “I’m not going to say anything further.”
Hackett, who had a strong night with 38 saves, first swatted a question about whether he had ever been cheered at home for giving up a goal. He then relented, admitting he heard the noise. Was he surprised by it?
“We all want to win here. That’s our goal,” Hackett said.
Effort aside, the Sabres’ execution was far from flawless. This was an Arizona team that was 2-17-1 in its last 20 games and it had a 42-35 advantage in shots on goal. The Sabres have dropped four straight and are 1-8-3 in their last 12. They finished last year 2-16-2 en route to 30th place and are well on their way to a similar cliff dive to end this season.
“This is two years in a row now,” Weber said. “Physically, mentally, this” stinks. “To compound things, you have your home fans cheering against you. ... This is a whole new low right now.”
There was no word on the reaction of Tim Murray to Thursday’s result because he was in Erie, Pa., and not in his usual press box perch. Where was the Sabres’ general manager?
Watching McDavid’s Ontario Hockey League playoff opener.