PITTSBURGH — For Ralph Krueger, this was worth the wait.
The old professor has said all the right things since the Buffalo Sabres surprised the hockey world by calling his name in May to replace Phil Housley. Thursday night's season opener was Krueger's first real game behind an NHL bench in 6 1/2 years.
Krueger has been involved in major events like the Olympics and the 2016 World Cup. But after the Edmonton Oilers coldly turfed him via Skype in the spring of 2013, he had to wonder if he'd ever have this chance again.
Krueger has tried not to let his situation become part of the Buffalo Sabres' narrative this season, but the mystery around the head coach is a huge story. We've spent months talking about his background, but who knew how the team was going to look when the pucks started flying for real?
"I'm keeping it pretty small with the picture, pretty simple," Krueger insisted in the morning, a few hours before his team's 3-1 stunner over the Pittsburgh Penguins in PPG Paints Arena. The World Cup "was an opportunity for me to taste it and since then it's always been on my mind if the right situation evolved. It's not a surprise to be here right now. I was never of the mindset that this was done and gone forever. but it's nice to be back here doing this."
Especially if his team performs like this. The Sabres were flat-out better from the opening faceoff and never let up in this one. They had an attack mentality, they passed well, they skated hard. There was purpose with every play.
The contributions were everywhere.
Fourteen players had at least two shots on goal and six had three or more. The Sabres blocked 19 shots and had a 32-31 advantage on faceoffs.
The embattled Rasmus Ristolainen played 23 minutes, 53 seconds in this one. He had five shots on goal, five hits and two blocked shots. You're not trading that kind of player if that keeps up. Defense partner Jake McCabe played a team-high 25:11 and had four blocks.
Carter Hutton was super sharp in goal. Conor Sheary scored twice on assists from Casey Mittelstadt. The scoring was capped by an utterly ridiculous goal from Rasmus Dahlin in the final minute of the second period that was a Norris Trophy-caliber play.
There's no question this team understood how much significance this game had for this coach. When I asked Sheary if it meant a lot to get Krueger a win after being out of the NHL for this long, the smile he broke into before his answer meant more than his actual words.
"You could tell he was excited," said Sheary, who burned his old team with two goals. "I saw him before camp and he was ready to get going. He had all his plans. I think we were all happy to get him one, because he's a fun coach to play for."
Krueger's club outshot the Penguins, 41-29, and made them look old and slow. Just as Pittsburgh looked during the disturbing first-round sweep it endured at the hands of the New York Islanders in the spring.
The Penguins spent the morning babbling about urgency and motivation, about starting their season strong in front of the home fans after their playoff dud.
It was empty talk.
The shots on goal at one point were 13-3 in favor of the Sabres. Buffalo had 17 of the first 22 shot attempts in the game. The Sabres expected the Penguins to come out flying in the season opener, especially at home. The thought process was simply to hold the fort. It turned out the Penguins were the one trying to man their gates.
Hutton made a big save early on Evgeni Malkin streaking down the slot but other than that, the Sabres were in control. Still, you can't emphasize enough how big that stop was.
"One shot right in the slot in the second minute. You often forget those when
the game is said and done," Krueger said. "It could have been a different story but 'Huts' really is a leader for us in the room and also led the way on the ice for us with that early save."
There was speed. The breakout passes worked. Henri Jokiharju sent one to Zemgus Girgensons across three lines in the first period that was simply sublime.
The Sabres looked confident, like they believed Krueger when he said if they played to their instincts and not like robots that good things would happen. And they completely frustrated the Penguins at times with their puck pressure, causing 17 turnovers while making just six of their own.
"We've been working on a very high-pressure system, so you need to be in
excellent shape, which all these guys came into training camp in," Krueger said. "We need to keep our feet moving and skating all the time. It's a lot to ask, day in and day out. These guys are committed to do that. They took away the room and space Pittsburgh likes to play in."
"Our D-men did a great job staying up on their guys and staying tight," added winger Jeff Skinner. "It's hard to make plays when they're up in your face and our guys did that and caused trouble for them. Then we had high forwards tracking back hard. It's a combination of things and it starts with forecheck pressure."
All those things simultaneously working in concert is a sign of belief in what the coach is preaching. The buy-in seems strong for Krueger right now, especially when you consider this is largely a group not known for believing in its coaches the last few years.
"We have a full buy-in in the room. You could just feel it from Day One," Krueger said. "All the meetings we had. All the practices we had. Everybody has been battling."
Krueger has taken each step of the way in small increments. There was his hiring, the draft, watching development camp. Then he finally got to see players on the ice in games at the Prospects Challenge. It started to get real at training camp and with exhibition games. The days were long at camp, with each practice group on the ice for 75 minutes a day at the start.
"It's funny, because of the intensity of the process, I've really been able to keep the picture small and working to the day," Krueger said. "We have a clear plan here that we've been pursuing and we continue to pursue.
"Spending May, June, July, August, really preparing and solidifying the plan has helped a lot to be in the moment now and to keep the picture small. We were very confident about the plan that we're implementing here."
Coaches all have buzzwords and the loquacious Krueger is no different. One of his favorites is "synergy" or "synergies."
Well, here's some for you: The Sabres had gone 18 games without a regulation win against the Penguins, since a 4-2 win here on April 23, 2013 -- four days before Krueger coached his last game in Edmonton.
Buffalo had not opened a season here since its very first game, a 2-1 win at Civic Arena — the old, demolished "Igloo" across the street — on Oct. 10, 1970.
Win the opener in Pittsburgh in the first season, win it again in the 50th anniversary season. Nice connection for the past to the present.
Krueger said the five months have flown by but that he feels at home. He has talked a lot about relishing the chance to be part of this club's history. This was his first chance to add to it. It was a super start.
"The guys never left the foot off the gas. We stayed on our toes right through to the finish line," he said. "I said I was going to have fun with this ride in the National Hockey League and these guys help that fun part with games like tonight."