Around the midpoint of the third period Friday, the Sabres announced the lucky seat holder who would get the jersey off Jack Eichel’s back. There were groans from the nonwinners, and they began to fidget in their seats. During the next break, the winning number for the 50/50 raffle – worth more than $40,000 – popped on the scoreboard.
That was the signal to head to the exits. Most of the sellout crowd departed with five minutes left in Buffalo’s 4-1 loss to Columbus.
The Sabres’ goal for next season is to give the fans a reason to stick around until the end.
“The amount of support we’ve been given for how poorly we’ve performed at times, it’s pretty special,” center Ryan O’Reilly said. “There’s not many places like it in the NHL. We’re definitely grateful, but we’ve got to win here. Winning would be something that the city deserves and obviously as players we deserve.
“Next year, it’s time to get better and better.”
There’s still one more game this year – the Sabres will close the season Saturday night at the New York Islanders – but Buffalo fans won’t be back in First Niagara Center until the NHL Draft in June. The Sabres finished just 16-19-6 at home, but they’re excited about closing the schedule with a 7-3-3 run downtown.
“We’ve been going at a pretty good pace here for the last little while,” defenseman Mark Pysyk said. “To finish like that is obviously not what we wanted to do, but we’ve learned we’re a good team. We can play with teams. We can beat teams.
“It’s just building that confidence.”
Pysyk noticed a rise in the decibel level during the first two periods.
Buffalo had impressive zone time early in the first and for long stretches of the second, and the fans responded.
“We had them hemmed in a few times, and you could definitely feel the atmosphere,” Pysyk said. “You get jacked up.”
Alas, not even Jack could get the crowd jacked up for much of the season. One of the highlights of the home schedule was Eichel scoring with one second left in overtime to beat Carolina last month, but two-thirds of the fans had already left. The backers just didn’t have enough reason to stay for the magic after experiencing too many lulls.
“We’re finding a way to compete better at home, to come out better with our starts,” captain Brian Gionta said. “Our starts, I think we were asleep at times, so we’re doing a much better job of maintaining momentum throughout games and controlling that.
“It’s huge having the fans on your side.”
There could have been 50 silent people in the stands Friday and Cole Schneider still would have had fun.
The Williamsville native made his NHL debut for his hometown team, recording two shots and a hit in 12:54.
“Incredible experience,” Schneider said. “Wouldn’t want to do it anywhere else besides here. ... I’d like to do it again sometime.”
That’s the attitude Sabres fans and the players want. They want to feel the rush inside the building again. They want to come back excited for the start and eager to see the finish.
“Before the last world championships, I remember talking with Tyler Ennis about what it was like here,” O’Reilly said. “He said, ‘You’d be surprised what it’s like, the reaction of the fans, the way it is in the city in general and how hockey-crazy it is.’ To actually come and experience it, though, is outstanding.
“In a town like this, everywhere you go there’s Sabres stuff and people are talking about it. Every year we have to get closer and closer to getting in the playoffs and being able to win a Stanley Cup. For us in here, we really want to prove to ourselves that we can win more games and beat any team we’re playing against.”