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Fans don’t mind second-place finish

Imagine taking home the million dollars you’d already won, instead of winning two million more in a risk-free drawing.

That’s how many Buffalo Sabres fans seemed to find the results of Saturday’s 2015 National Hockey League draft lottery when the Edmonton Oilers came out with the first pick in this June’s actual draft and captured the right to pick Connor McDavid, the consensus number one pick this year. The Oilers overcame an 11.5 percent chance to win the slot and drop the Sabres into the second slot.

“We still got a great player,” said William Golias of Buffalo, who attended a draft party with hundreds of other hockey fans at (716) Food and Sport downtown.

The Sabres finished in 30th place in the NHL this season, assuring they’d walk away with nothing short of a heck of a consolation prize in Boston University freshman forward Jack Eichel. In any other draft but this one, Eichel might be a number one.

“That was the whole point of finishing 30th,” Golias said. “(McDavid) would have been a bonus, we were playing with house money.”

Chants of “USA, USA, USA,” erupted inside (716) seconds after the initial sting of losing the lottery wore off.

The 18-year-old Eichel is a native of North Chelmsford, Mass.

Sabres fans seemed thrilled his next home will be in Buffalo. At least one fan already donned a blue Eichel Sabres jersey.

Leading up to the NBC telecast, most fans claimed they were “relaxed” knowing Buffalo had a great player sewn up, but as the results were revealed one-by-one by NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly on the huge 38-foot video screen that hangs overhead, nervous anxiety mounted.

A massive cheer rose through the restaurant when Daly showed fourth-seed Toronto failed to move up.

When the third-seeded Oilers moved up to grab the first spot, the air left the room, if only for a few seconds.

“If we’d have stayed in the three slot, we’d have won the lottery,” said Cam Hoffman of Niagara Falls, Ont.

The Sabres already had Eichel locked up nine days ago when their last-place finish in the league was solidified.

So Saturday night’s lottery posed little risk for Sabres fans, but still had many hoping the team could overcome 1-in-5 odds and snag the bigger sack of gold in McDavid, an 18-year-old phenom racking up points like a pinball machine with his Ontario Hockey League junior team in Erie, Pa.

McDavid’s been called “a generational player” capable of boosting a team in the same way many of the last decade’s previous number one picks like Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, Steven Stamkos and Alexander Ovechkin have done.

Now, he’ll go to the place Wayne Gretzky made famous to join the likes of other first overall picks like Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov who the Oilers picked in three consecutive years between 2010 and 2012.

It’s the second year in a row the Sabres went into the draft lottery with the best chances of scoring the franchise’s third-ever number one pick but came away empty.

Last year, the Florida Panthers leap-frogged Buffalo to the number one spot. The only times the Sabres drafted first in their history was in 1970 when a spinning wheel came up in their favor, allowing them to grab Gilbert Perreault over fellow expansion entry, Vancouver, and 1987 when the team picked Pierre Turgeon first overall.

Eichel, however, is considered elite-level, “generational” talent as well.

Draft experts regarded his hockey prowess closer to McDavid’s than to the expected third pick in the draft – Dylan Strome – a teammate of McDavid’s with the Erie Otters.

Hoffman, sporting a retro royal blue Sabres jersey emblazoned with legendary defenseman Jim Schoenfeld’s name and number 6, admitted he leaned toward Eichel even before the results were revealed because of his experience playing with older players at the college level.

“It’s boys against men,” Hoffman opined comparing McDavid’s Canadian junior league with Eichel’s elite-league in the NCAA’s Division I hockey.

And, after spending much of nearly two years warming up to McDavid, it’s not like Buffalo fans will have much chance to hate him.

“We’re glad he’s in the West,” said Mike Turner, a Sabres’ season-ticket holder from Niagara Falls, Ont. “Thank God it’s not Toronto. Thank God it’s not Philly.”

email: tpignataro@buffnews.com

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