Alex Iafallo said Feb. 17 was one date he had circled when he looked at the Los Angeles Kings' schedule. It was pretty easy to see why Saturday.
As the Eden native took the ice in KeyBank Center, the Zamboni end of the rink was full of fans in black and silver. "Eden loves Iafallo" read one placard, a heart substituting the word "loves." A comedian in the crew even plastered several big head shots of Iafallo against the glass.
"It's a pretty amazing feeling," Iafallo said after the Kings' 4-2 victory over the Sabres. "Seeing in warmups all the support was pretty special. Especially coming here as a kid with my parents and sister coming to games, it's a special feeling.
"We had a quick practice yesterday, I stepped on the ice and it gave me a lot of goosebumps. In warmup, too. You always dream of playing in your hometown and seeing everybody in the stands."
Two buses full of Iafallo's family and friends came to the game from The Towne House, the Hamburg pub run by his father, Tom, that's been family owned since 1962.
His parents, however, were not in the house. That's because Iafallo's sister, Julianna, was having her senior day in Columbus, Ohio, with the Ohio State women's hockey team. Alex Iafallo said he agreed with that decision because it was Senior Day.
Tom Iafallo even tweeted Saturday that both of his kids got an assist. Julianna notched one in Ohio State's game against Bemidji State, and Alex fed Anze Kopitar for a second-period goal that put the Kings up, 3-0.
Iafallo played 18:29 in his first meeting with Buffalo, a 4-2 victory in October in Los Angeles, registering three shots on goal, but he did not have a point. He played 16:45 Saturday and had two shots on goal.
On the goal, Iafallo got the puck from Dustin Brown to the right of Sabres goalie Robin Lehner and found an open Kopitar in the slot.
"I got the assist there, and one of my buddies is in the corner right by the Zamboni door," Iafallo said. "I looked at him for a second, and it was pretty cool feeling."
Iafallo has six goals, 14 assists and 20 points in 56 games this season.
"He's a hard worker, he skates really well, he's making plays," said Kopitar. "His forechecking ability is obviously very good. It's actually very easy to play with him."
After the game, the Iafallo clan gathered in Sections 113 and 114 to greet him and wish him well as the Kings headed to the airport for Chicago, where they will meet the Blackhawks on Monday night. The crowd rivaled any that observers have seen over the years waiting for South Buffalo native Patrick Kane.
"I didn't expect it was going to be that big," Iafallo said. "I saw new faces every time I looked in this crowd. It was a very special feeling. I can't be thankful enough for all the support I've gotten the whole season and throughout my career. Every time I looked in the stands, I saw an old friend or family member. It was a very cool time here."
Lehner admits things aren't going well in Buffalo.
The goalie allowed four goals on 30 shots through the opening two periods, and he watched from the bench as backup Chad Johnson played the third.
Lehner has been pulled from three of his last eight starts in KeyBank Center. He is 1-5-1 with a .865 save percentage during the forgettable stretch.
"It's a tough environment here right now," Lehner said. "It's been a tough little stretch for me at home trying to regroup and stay confident in this building. I was really confident the first 15-17 games. I was at the top of the league here. The last four, five games I just haven't been able to get that confidence here."
Lehner stopped 18 of 19 shots during the opening period but let a bad-angle attempt slip through his legs. During the second, Anze Kopitar beat Lehner one-on-one after a turnover in the Sabres' zone, and the Kings scored on their next two shots to make it 4-0.
"At the end of the day, it was a 1-0 game going into the second," Lehner said. "No matter what if it's a two-on-one or -nothing or -something, I want to make that save, keep it at 1-0 and spark the team.
"I've got to find a level back to find my confidence here at home because at the end of the day it's momentum in hockey games."
Rookies don't usually get a long leash. Nick Baptiste is learning that.
The right winger scored for Buffalo on Tuesday against Tampa Bay. In Thursday's return to his hometown of Ottawa, Baptiste had no shots and no hits in 8:53 of ice time.
Housley scratched him Saturday.
"Nick took a step back against Ottawa," Housley said. "I didn't see the tenaciousness that he had in his last game using his speed. His wall play, he could have been a little bit hungrier in the battle, but I can see him getting back in the lineup soon."