There’s no question Jack Eichel was the No. 1 reason the streets near First Niagara Center resembled parking lots. Sabres fans filled Canalside to get a glimpse of the future superstar, audibly inhaling in anticipation whenever he had the puck and rising to their feet when he attempted a penalty shot.
But there were 42 other prospects also eager to impress the loud crowd of 17,115 who showed up for Friday night’s prospect scrimmage. The players’ enthusiasm, goal-scoring ability and pugilistic tendencies sent the fans into the summer night chatting about the fun they had.
After more than two years of bad and often boring hockey in Buffalo, a fun night is what folks really wanted.
“That was one of the most fun games of hockey I’ve ever played in my life,” right wing Justin Bailey said. “It was a really special night.”
The Williamsville native showed what type of scrimmage it was going to be by delivering a major hit in his opening shift. When the big-bodied duo of Josh Chapman and Justin Kea dropped the gloves to throw skull-rattling haymakers with 34 seconds left in the opening period, the fans roared in appreciation of a passion that has been lacking at the foot of Jim Kelley Way.
“It was definitely an unbelievable crowd,” Eichel said. “It’s crazy to think there was 17,000 people here for a scrimmage in July, but it says a lot about Buffalo and how passionate they are about the Sabres.”
As expected, the fans cheered for all the players in Blue and Gold. Though even the most rabid die-hards wouldn’t know goal-scorer Tyler Andrew if he autographed their hat, the faithful applauded him like he was Zemgus Girgensons when he found the net.
The fans upped their decibel level for the big boys, of course. After realizing Sam Reinhart had scored the third goal of the night, the noise rose from hearty applause to full-throated shouting.
“Obviously, that support helps each one of us,” Reinhart said. “To hear that, that was nice of them.”
Out to show he’s not just the other No. 2 overall pick, Reinhart led Team Blue to a 5-2 victory with two goals and one assist.
Eichel’s big moment came late in the second period. Reinhart interfered with him during a rush, and referees handed out penalty shots rather than penalty minutes. As Eichel slowly skated in alone on goaltender Jonas Johansson, the fans in middle of the 100 Level rose to their feet and craned their necks.
They sat back down somewhat dejected when Johansson stayed with the deke-heavy Eichel and made a pad save.
“Overall, it was a great experience to play in front of the fans and wear that jersey for the first time in a game,” Eichel said.
Reinhart’s team not only had the best goal scorers, it had the best goalie. Jason Kasdorf, acquired in February as part of the Evander Kane trade, stopped every shot he saw during 29:04 of playing time. Keeping with the theme of the night, fans cheered for him when he headed to the bench after a sparkling glove save.
Fans marveled at the replay of Bailey’s goal. The right winger stumbled to one knee after taking a pass behind the net, but he managed to slide above the goal line and buried a shot into the top of the net while still kneeling.
“I’ll tell all my family and friends that was meant to happen,” said Bailey, who admitted to tripping over his own feet.
Team Gold finally got on the board with 1:09 gone in the final period. Victor Olofsson easily scored on a penalty shot, temporarily tightening things on the scoreboard, 3-1. Reinhart and linemate William Carrier quickly turned the scrimmage into a blowout, assisting on each other’s goals.
The duo earned praise from coach Dan Bylsma, who got as much enjoyment out of the event as the fans and players did.
“I was just telling the coaches at one point I got a little jealous that I wasn’t down on the bench and in the action,” Bylsma said. “Watching upstairs, there was a lot to see, a lot of good players, a lot of good things happening on the ice.”
Williamsville native Andrew Poturalski closed the scoring, treating the locals who came to see him. The fans have one more chance to watch the prospects. The team will take Saturday off and will finish Sunday with a three-on-three tournament from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
“It’s been a special time around here,” Bailey said. “I knew with Jack coming in that people were going to want to see him and people were going to want to see the future of the Sabres.”