The seats inside KeyBank Center were empty when Ralph Krueger arrived in Buffalo for his first official day of work in June. The Sabres' new coach delivered an impassioned speech to team employees and spoke glowingly of the passionate fan base during his introductory news conference with the media.
Krueger expressed excitement for the challenge ahead and the privilege of coaching a franchise that was held in high regard by friends and former colleagues, including Miroslav Satan and Uwe Krupp. Yet, Krueger wasn't interested in focusing on the past, specifically why the Sabres' playoff drought reached a National Hockey League-worst eight seasons.
"Now we need to get the grit and bite into the group on the ice to stoke the fire that’s here," Krueger said during the June 5 press conference. "Why not, in the 50th year of the organization, get that going?"
Almost four months later, his vision for the Sabres was finally illustrated to the public during a 3-1 season-opening win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night. Naturally, there is palpable excitement and confidence surrounding the Sabres entering their home opener Saturday against the New Jersey Devils.
The Sabres seem to have established an identity in less than one month under Krueger.
"Every practice, everything we’ve done, is toward that," forward Marcus Johansson said of the win Thursday. "It’s only been preseason games, but you’re still trying to build towards that first game. I think we got the game to the point we wanted it and kind of looked like we frustrated them a little bit."
The Sabres were back on the ice Friday at noon, less than 15 hours following their brilliant performance against the recent back-to-back Stanley Cup champions. They made the Penguins appear slow and disconnected. Sidney Crosby had only one shot on goal and Pittsburgh managed only seven shots in seven power-play opportunities.
The Penguins couldn't solve the Sabres' new defensive-zone structure. Meanwhile, Buffalo earned a number of odd-man rushes, and outstanding breakout passes led to two breakaways. Conor Sheary scored two goals and Rasmus Dahlin pushed the lead to 3-1 by finishing with what Krueger called "world-class" hands.
All six of Krueger's defensemen played well, including Henri Jokiharju, the 20-year-old acquired from Chicago for Alexander Nylander. Jokiharju's outlet pass sprung Zemgus Girgensons for a breakaway. Casey Mittelstadt had one of his best defensive games as a professional.
"We have some nuances in there that we’ll keep secret, but the general concept has to do with pressure and taking away that space and that time they’d like to have," Krueger said of his team's defense at 5 on 5. "How we get there we’ll keep to ourselves, but more than anything it’s about that. They just couldn’t find a way to open our defensive structure, which is the core, really, of our game and our offense grows out of that."
There is little time to savor the win. Krueger planned to meet with his staff following practice Friday to gauge his players' energy levels. They also had the opportunity to watch their next opponent live since the Devils hosted Winnipeg for Jack Hughes' first regular-season game Friday night.
Like the Sabres, New Jersey has undergone significant changes since last season. The Devils drafted Hughes first overall, acquired defenseman P.K. Subban from Nashville, signed veteran power forward Wayne Simmonds and traded for former Vegas winger Nikita Gusev.
"More than anything, you all know it’s primarily here about us and what we want to do," Krueger said. "Our game at home should be felt the same way it was felt in Pittsburgh on the road, and we will look for their nuances. We understand the additions of Hughes and Subban and what that does to the mix there with [Travis] Zajac, [Taylor] Hall and so on. I think that they’re a very dangerous team and it will be an excellent hockey game for sure here tomorrow night."
There will be a significant buzz inside KeyBank Center for the first home game of the Sabres' 50th season. Former captains are returning for the occasion. The team will wear its new alternate jerseys to commemorate the franchise's anniversary.
This is also the first opportunity for Krueger and the new Sabres to witness the home crowd during a regular-season game in Buffalo.
"That’s the most fun," Johansson said. "Yeah, preseason game it’s always fun to play at home, but home opener, playing a regular season game, it’s always different. Gets the crowd into it a little bit more and us too. I’m looking forward to it."
Krueger opted to not make any changes to his forward lines and defense pairings during practice Friday. Forward Evan Rodrigues and defenseman John Gilmour were extras, meaning they will likely be scratched for a second consecutive game.
Additionally, Krueger and his staff had yet to decide which goalie will start against the Devils. Carter Hutton stopped 28 of 29 shots in the win over Pittsburgh and received the start because of his experience, Krueger explained.
"It was a decision out of the coaching room where certainly the experience and the leadership that we felt we needed yesterday was better served with Hutton," Krueger said. "We thought Linus had a great camp. He’s shown a lot of good minutes and we feel confident with both."
Don't expect the Sabres to hold many morning skates on game days under Krueger. The Sabres' chaotic schedule -- including 12 games in 23 days this month -- will likely make him more cautious with his player's energy levels between games. Also, Krueger expressed confidence in his players' ability to prepare themselves off the ice. He's not alone in preferring rest prior to a game.
More coaches around the National Hockey League have opted for off-ice workouts over skates in recent years.
"We’re outstanding in our activation off-ice," Krueger said. "We loved the way guys have come in strong to every practice since the beginning of training camp, so we activate immediately on the ice. What they’re doing off the ice is getting their bodies ready. Our soft-tissue injuries have been extremely low because of the work the guys are able to do and how they understand how to get themselves ready. I don’t find that hitting the ice on game days is the norm anymore. For us, it definitely will not be."
Dennis Gilbert, a 22-year-old defenseman who is a Buffalo native and attended St. Joe's, was recalled from Rockford in time to play for the Chicago Blackhawks in their game against the Philadelphia Flyers in Prague, Czech Republic, on Friday.
Gilbert signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Blackhawks last May after completing his junior season at Notre Dame, where he had four goals and 10 points in 39 games for the Fighting Irish, who lost in the NCAA title game. He was a third-round draft pick in 2015 and had five goals among 14 points in 63 games last season for Rockford of the American Hockey League.
Story topics: Buffalo Sabres