Perhaps the best thing about the Buffalo Sabres’ season is that the visit from the Arizona Coyotes is over.
The three-day buildup to the TankFest seemed to wear on players and coaches from both sides. And although there was some thought Buffalo fans would prefer to see the Sabres lose, there was real surprise from many observers in First Niagara Center about the circus atmosphere that transpired during the Coyotes’ 4-3 overtime win Thursday night.
Sabres defenseman Mike Weber was indignant about the cheers for the visitors and the subject of fans rooting against the Sabres in the name of a draft pick continued to be a hot topic Friday. There was repeated coverage on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” and ESPN Radio, as well as discussion in places like Deadspin, CBS Sports’ Eye on Hockey, Yahoo and the websites of Sports Illustrated and the Hockey News.
“It’s just one of those things,” coach Ted Nolan said after his team’s optional practice on Friday. “People marked that on their calendars as a special thing, and I’m not too sure how special it is to battle for where we are in the standings. I think when you’re battling for first place, that’s when your team and fans should get really excited. Not about a draft lottery.
“But it is what it is right now. Hopefully someday, there will be something you can really mark your calendar for.”
The Sabres’ calendar for this year, meanwhile, continues with Saturday’s game in Colorado against the Avalanche, with Buffalo six points behind Arizona. The party line in the dressing room Friday was to move on from Thursday’s game.
“We come to the rink every day trying to get wins no matter what place we’re in,” said winger Matt Moulson, who returned on a five-year contract last summer. “With the record that we have, I don’t think anyone’s job is safe. That’s another reason to bring it every night.
“I’ve enjoyed my time with this organization. Sometimes you go through the hardest times before the best times arrive. We have to make sure we’re working and getting better and improving.”
Captain Brian Gionta simply was not going to go down the road of criticism of his fans.
“Our fans were cheering for us,” Gionta said. “We have great fans. We have a great city with passionate fans.”
Asked if he really believed the fans were behind the Sabres in the wake of Arizona goals, Gionta said, “It happens. A lot of teams have support here, whether it’s Montreal, New York, teams like that. You get opposing teams in the building. You’re always going to have them cheering.”
But when asked if he really believed those were Arizona Coyotes fans, a stern-looking Gionta said only, “Our fans were cheering for us last night.”
“I don’t think you can let anything outside of the dressing room and off the ice affect how you approach the game,” Moulson said. “We are professionals. A lot of people have different things to play for. There’s a lot of different reasons to bring it every night.”
As for Weber, Nolan said he understood where the veteran defenseman’s thoughts came from.
“Mike’s one of those guys who wears his heart on his sleeve,” Nolan said. “You can never ever question his remarks because they come from a good place. When players hear that, it’s a little bit frustrating and some guys voice their opinion. Mike’s not afraid to voice his.”
Sabres President Ted Black did not respond to an email inquiry from The News regarding the events of the game, clearly one of the most bizarre contests in franchise history.
The Sabres are 1-7-3 since the trade deadline and Arizona was in a 1-17-1 slump until back-to-back overtime wins this week in Detroit and Buffalo.
Responding to a similar inquiry from The News, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said discussion of the teams tanking for the best chance at Connor McDavid was “overblown and exaggerated.”
“I am quite certain that there was not a single participant in last night’s contest that wasn’t trying to win the game,” Daly wrote. “The fact that fans may be looking longer term and bigger picture is not surprising, and ultimately, is really up to them.”
Daly reiterated the league is comfortable with the changes to the odds for the draft lottery this year that dropped the odds for the No. 1 pick to 20 percent for the team that finishes in 30th place.
“That means there is an 80 percent chance they won’t get that pick,” Daly wrote. “I’m not sure how those odds could possibly be argued to incentivize a club to finish last in the League, or lose games on a nightly basis.”
Daly did not mention how teams are apparently incentivized this year by the fact they’re guaranteed the No. 2 pick and a shot at Boston University’s Jack Eichel. That loophole is closed for 2016, when the 30th place team could drop to No. 4
Daly said he believed the major media scrutiny is unique to this draft, without specifically naming Eichel or McDavid. He said the league is also happy with the changes made for the 2016 Draft in Buffalo, when the lottery will choose the top three slots.
“Ultimately, it was the decision that our Managers and ultimately our Board felt most comfortable with,” Daly said.