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Inside the NHL: KeyBank takeover by Leafs fans a low moment in Sabres' lost season

The place to take the scene all in Thursday night was the highest point of KeyBank Center. This corner is a big fan of the view from the press box, from where it's very easy to watch plays develop on the ice and equally cool to scan the stands. What we saw during this game was stunning.

I've been going to Sabres-Leafs games since the 1970s in the Aud and there is no question in my mind there has never been a Buffalo crowd as dominated by Toronto followers as the one we saw here Thursday night. You had to scan with binoculars to find someone in an odd Sabres jersey here and there because they were swallowed up by a sea of Leafs blue and white.

The number of Leafs sweaters in the stands was astounding. The Sabres were booed when they took the ice. So was the announcement of their starters. The noise after Toronto goals was clearly louder than when Buffalo scored. The "Go Leafs Go" chants are generally booed and then drowned out by a response of "Let's Go Buffalo". There weren't enough people in Blue and Gold to offer one on Thursday.

Say this for the Sabres: They didn't have to get worried about getting booed off the ice with all the cheers that went up after the first two periods for the Leafs. When Toronto's 5-2 win ended, there were jokes in the press box wondering if the Leafs were going to go to center ice to salute their fans because there were so many of them in the building.

Now, the explanations for all this are pretty easy to understand. The standings are the standings, with the Leafs headed to the playoffs and the Sabres three weeks from the golf course in a season that's been toast since Thanksgiving. Many Toronto fans who routinely come to Buffalo simply can't get into the Air Canada Centre, where the prices are outrageous and the crowd is much more of the wine-and-cheese variety. No doubt some Buffalo fans stayed home to watch basketball, with St. Bonaventure and UB both playing NCAA games later in the evening.

Obviously, many season ticket-holders cashed out for a night looking for Canadian fans to give them something back for their money after months of the Sabres doing nothing for them. It's all understandable. There's no aspersions to be cast upon Buffalo fans for that decision.

But it clearly shows how far the Sabres have fallen, especially in their No. 1 rivalry, and how much work they have to do to become relevant again. Even to their own fans.

"It was a good atmosphere anyway," Sabres coach Phil Housley said sheepishly when asked about the crowd. "We've got a lot of work to do and we understand that. We have a lot to prove. Not only the players, the coaches. We're all in it together and we're going to try to earn their trust back."

That's going to be a long and arduous process for a franchise with no playoff series wins since 2007 and no berths at all since 2011. As the losing seasons pile up, the scene off the ice in this game rates as one of the lowest moments in franchise history. What's worse than your fans turning on you and showering you with boos? When they don't even care enough to show up and the other team's fans take over your building.

Housley and his players insist they have a lot to play for the rest of the way and young players like Brendan Guhle and Linus Ullmark certainly do with an eye on next season. Longtime prospects like Nick Baptiste and Justin Bailey might in their final push to show they can be NHL players. Jack Eichel wants to get back on the ice and get to a point a game for the year. Other veterans might be playing out the end of their NHL careers.

Mike Harrington: Game by game, Guhle is making progress

How many fans will be in the building is anyone's guess. Still, Housley has addressed motivation with his team and insists he doesn't expect it to be hard to keep his players interested in the rest of the season.

"We not only owe it to ourselves to keep pushing forward to get better as a group," he said. "But we owe it to our fans."

The real question: How many of them will be left when next season starts?

Eichel will research his injury

Fans who were apoplectic that the Sabres were rushing Eichel back into games have to be appeased by the deliberate pace the team is using for the star's return. And they also had to like Eichel's reference Friday to GM Jason Botterill being involved in the decision making.

For his part, Eichel said he'll do some soul-searching over the summer about the back-to-back high ankle sprains he's endured the the last two seasons. He said he spent a lot of time last summer doing exercises to strengthen his ankles and will have to go back to the drawing board on that area again.

"You look into everything," Eichel said. "Your skates, edges, whatever you're doing. I'll do a lot of digging this summer on how to help myself. I think most things are preventable. In that situation, it's unfortuanate that it happened like that. A bit of a freak accident, kind of a freak fall. I"m lucky it wasn't a lot worse and something else."

Return uncertain, but Eichel relieved to be back on ice

Kane goes fourth in San Jose

Evander Kane poured in four goals for the Sharks late Friday night in a 7-4 win over Calgary and got his name off the top of a dubious list: Most two-goal games in a career without a hat trick.

Kane led active NHL players with 27 two-goal performances before finally getting his first three-goal game by the end of the second period. He notched No. 4 just 62 seconds into the third period and only a big save by Calgary goalie Mike Smith prevented Kane from becoming the first NHLer since 2011 with five goals in a game.

Evander Kane nets first career hat trick in four-goal game for Sharks

"Most two-goal games (without a hat trick), I’ve been reminded of that for awhile,” said Kane, who posed for photos in the dressing room with four pucks along with teammates Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski. “It was great to be able to get the third, and especially in a real important game."

Kane has 10 points in eight games for the Sharks, including five goals. The Sabres can only hope he keeps piling up the points and continues to pique the interest level in San Jose to get paid this summer. Remember: A re-sign with the Sharks turns the trade into what Buffalo wants with a first-round pick in 2019 then coming the Sabres' way.

GMs have lots to talk about

NHL general managers start their annual spring meetings Monday in Boca Raton, Fla., and it will be interesting to see what changes, if any, they make to goaltender interference rules. There's continued chatter the GMs will push for decisions to be made at the situation room in Toronto rather than on the ice as a way to enforce consistency from game to game.

You wonder if the GMs may set the groundwork at this gathering for discussion at the draft about offside rules (the skate on the ice is a bone of contention) and playoff formats. You wonder if the divisional format will get increased opposition this year if 100-point teams get eliminated again in the first round, and there's likely to be some talk about increasing the number of teams to make the postseason.

Commissioner Gary Bettman seems to have no appetite to going past 16 teams in the postseason but the NHL is likely only 2-3 years away from adding Seattle to become a 32-team league. Only half that group would make the postseason, the same number as in 1979 when the league had just 21 teams. It's to the point where it's getting too hard to make the playoffs at all, as Sabres fans can attest.

Inside the Sabres: Assistant GM Steve Greeley is on the rise, sees Buffalo doing the same

Happy 100th to Punch

There was a certain symmetry to Thursday's meeting between the Sabres and Leafs because it was the 100th birthday of Punch Imlach, the legendary coach and GM of the Leafs who was the original coach of the Sabres and the GM who built Buffalo's 1975 Stanley Cup finalists.

Imlach died in 1987 at age 69 after the last of a series of heart attacks that marred the final 15 years of his life. He stepped away from coaching for good in 1972 after the first cardiac issue, turning the reins over to Joe Crozier and watching Crozier lead the '72-73 Sabres to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

Around the boards

*The Professional Hockey Writers Association announced Friday that it will become fully transparent on members' votes for various postseason awards, effective with this year's balloting. By a vote of 174-40, the PHWA will now release all ballots cast for the Hart, Norris, Calder, Lady Byng and Selke Trophies. The PHWA does not vote for the Vezina (selected by general managers) or the Jack Adams Award (NHL Broadcasters' Association).

The voting will be released on the organization's Website after the awards are handed out in June. A similar process is done in baseball, where ballots for the MVP, Cy Young, Manager of the Year and Rookie of the Year awards are released in November when the awards are announced.

*Everyone knows Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin is the consensus No. 1 pick in the June draft. The early-line favorite for No. 1 pick in 2019 is center Jack Hughes of Orlando, Fla., and he's making history with the U.S. National Development Team. Hughes had a five-point game last week in the USHL, and his season point total of 87 has broken the under-17 record of 83 set by Phil Kessel and Clayton Keller.

*Leafs coach Mike Babcock, on the lack of NHL time that's been available to star goaltending prospect Garret Sparks: "In the end your job as a prospect is to keep pushing the people who make the decisions. You do good things, eventually you’ll play in the NHL ... The great thing about the AHL is that you’re trying out for 31 teams every night. To think anyone is not watching you, you’re sadly mistaken. There’s no vacuum, you’re playing in front of everyone.”

*Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet gave it up to his 93-year-old mother, Norma, upon returning to the team Thursday following her death: "I never deserved a penalty. I never had a bad game. It was always the coach's fault. I could do no wrong. In her eyes, I was like Gretzky and Lemieux put together."

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