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Mike Harrington: Cubs show Sabres and Leafs anything is possible

It hit me just after the warmup Thursday night in the KeyBank Center. Roughly 16 hours earlier -- around 2 a.m. -- I was inside a clubhouse in Cleveland with champagne and beer flying through the room. The Chicago Cubs had won the World Series.

Repeating: The Chicago Cubs had won the World Series. Yes, I couldn't believe it either.

It was a victory that spurned some quality phrase-turning across the country. One of my favorites was the lead to Rick Morrissey's column in the Chicago Sun-Times: "And on the 39,466th day, God smiled and said, 'Oh, what the hell,'" wrote Morrissey in a piece headlined "Cubs win the World Series, and Charlie Brown kicks the football."

That's just hysterically beautiful. So how, you may ask, is this relevant to the Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs?

The Cubs' victory was fantasyland stuff. It was 108 years in the making. By the end of this season, the Sabres and Leafs will be at a combined 97 years and counting with no Stanley Cups. But the Cubs' victory gives hope to every franchise out there. It really can happen. The Sabres and Leafs are both on target to think they're on the right road even though times have been very lean of late, with neither winning a playoff series since 2007.

It's easy to forget the Cubs lost 101 games in 2012 and 96 more in 2013. It's not as if that was the days before they only played day games in Wrigley Field. In any sport, the phrase that works most of the time is draft and develop. That's what we're seeing with both teams.

You saw plenty of glimpses Thursday night during the Leafs' 2-1 win in KeyBank Center.

The Sabres will have Jack Eichel back at some point before the calendar turns to 2017, and hopefully before it turns to December. They have Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe. They're eager to someday add Alex Nylander to the mix. And then you add trade acquisitions like Ryan O'Reilly and a marquee free agent like Kyle Okposo.

The Leafs have all-everything No. 1 overall pick Auston Matthews and shifty Mitch Marner (who burned the Sabres for both goals). There's William Nylander, Alex's big brother and the NHL Rookie of the Month for October. They have Team North America alum Morgan Rielly on defense. You have to like some of their "veterans" like Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner. Frederik Andersen was brutal in goal to start the year and has been sensational of late, with 42 saves here Thursday.

The teams won't see each other again until Jan. 17 in Air Canada Centre, which is a shame. The Leafs won't be back here again until March 25, which is almost scandalous. The days of eight meetings a year are over. We should consider ourselves lucky we get five this season. Some years, it will be only four. Not enough for the dueling fans chants of "Go Leafs Go" and "Let's Go Buffalo".

These teams really need to meet in the playoffs someday soon. Leafs coach Mike Babcock knows a thing or three about rivalries from the days of Anaheim vs Los Angeles and, especially, Detroit vs. Chicago. Babcock has to pay the most attention to the Leafs-Montreal head-to-head matchups and maybe even when the Leafs play Ottawa.

Someday, that might be Leafs-Buffalo. We're getting closer.

"There was no rivalry last year. We were both bad," said Babcock, although the Sabres' 27-point improvement to 81 might say otherwise. "I think as the teams get better you have a chance. I mean, we’re so close to rekindling that. They’re trying to build a program. We’re trying to build a program."

"I like winning hockey games and I think if the rivalry is going to get bigger or better it's not going to be because of Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel," said Sabres coach Dan Bylsma. "It's going to be because we're both competitive, winning hockey teams. I think that's where it's going."

Thursday's game was scrambly fun, exactly the kind of game that coaches hate but phooey on them. The teams combined for 72 shots on goal with Andersen standing on his head to make 42 saves.

The attendance was 18,183 was 900 shy of a sellout. That's more than fine in places like Raleigh or Brooklyn. But not here. It was disconcerting to see so many empty seats in the building Thursday. But it's clear the Sabres are getting the message from their fans that there's not much of an appetite to pay in the $70 range for high corners on the 300 level.

The thinking, of course, is that someday the bloated prices won't matter. That people will be clamoring to get inside the building to see the results of all this development.

After the morning skate, Babcock was asked his opinion of the Cubs' win and revealed he went to bed when the tarp was put on the field for a rain delay after the ninth inning. But he knows darn well what it meant.

"I think some good sports franchises can do a lot for their community, the feel-good of the community and the energy of the community," he said. "What I like the best was watching the fans. Even though the players were a nervous wreck, with the fans it was like their life was on the line. I couldn't believe it. The emotion was spectacular."

Just imagine the Leafs deep in the playoffs. It would be like the last two Octobers of Blue Jays games. Times about 10. Just imagine the Sabres someday turning the clock back to, oh, 2006 or 2007. It seems like it will happen again. You can see it. And when you get into those inevitable it-will-never-happen-here moments, you now have hope.

Remember, the Cubs just won the World Series. Who would have believed that?



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