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COMMENTARY

Everything old and new was golden for Sabres in home opener

Mike Harrington

We walk by the picture every night when we exit the elevator to enter the press box. A classic old black and white that's an iconic moment in Sabres history.

It's the first ceremonial faceoff at Memorial Auditorium, from Oct. 15, 1970. Seymour Knox III in the middle dropping the puck between Floyd Smith and Montreal legend Jean Beliveau. A young Rick Azar watching from behind while serving as the night's emcee.

Smith is 84 now, still living in the Southtowns. Still proudly reflecting on his time in the Sabres' infant years to their ascendancy when he was the coach of the 1975 Stanley Cup finalists. And still smiling when he's asked about that one moment in time with Beliveau.

What does he remember about that faceoff?

"I won it," a beaming Smith said as reporters laughed a couple of hours before Saturday night's home opener in KeyBank Center. "He let me win it. It was neat. You don't think as much about it then as you do now, how important it was. Mr. Knox and Norty Knox were there too. It was something."

The iconic Floyd Smith-Jean Beliveau picture that hangs in the Sabres press box from the home opener in 1970.

Saturday night was something from start to finish. This entire season is going to be about connecting the Sabres' often-glorious and often-tumultuous past to its present. And they hit it out of the park in every way in the home opener.

The 7-2 destruction of the New Jersey Devils was preceded by a Blue and Gold carpet ceremony outside featuring 15 of the team's former captains. The legends came inside to be introduced before the game -- and Smith got to drop the puck for the faceoff this time, between Jack Eichel and New Jersey defenseman Andy Greene.

If you're old enough to remember Memorial Auditorium, you remember what the roar sounded like on so many nights when we were all down the street. And most of you remember the roar in this building from 2006 and 2007.

Old sure met new Saturday night. It was 5-1 through two periods and this baby was history. The Sabres had three power-play goals. They have 10 goals and 77 shots on goal while starting 2-0 for the first time since 2013. This isn't the French Connection or the Scary Goods but there were times they made you wonder.

Brian Campbell was in the building as part of the pregame ceremony. Where was R.J. Umberger? It was shades of 2006 on one shift in the second period as Rasmus Ristolainen leveled Miles Wood and then defense partner Jake McCabe absolutely destroyed Taylor Hall a few seconds later.

New Jersey winger Wayne Simmonds then decided to play tough guy and go after McCabe. Whatever. By then, the building was up for grabs and the crowd was roaring like it did during that double-overtime thriller over the Philadelphia Flyers 13 1/2 years ago.

"He was coming to hit me so I was bracing for that and trying to do a little 'Risto' like he did right before that," McCabe said. "Playing with a lot of energy and a lot of passion, we were having a blast out there. Line after line, play after play."

Did McCabe notice the crowd at that point? How could he not?

"Yeah man, you just get goosebumps. That’s all I can really say to describe the feeling," he said. "You get goosebumps, you’re smiling, you’re happy – that’s what hockey’s all about right there. That’s why we play the game."

Jake McCabe levels Devils winger Taylor Hall (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News).

Now, the appropriate disclaimer: This feels different for sure but don't christen anything yet. We all saw how things went last season after November. The last time the Sabres started a season 2-0, Lindy Ruff got fired less than a month later.

"We've got a long way to go. It's game two. We've got 80 left," cautioned Kyle Okposo. "Let's not plan the parade right now. We're just going to keep continuing to grow as a team."

Still, perhaps other than being asked to pay the shameful price of $8.75 for one slice of pizza at the concession stands, I can't imagine a fan having one iota of complaint about what they saw downtown Saturday night.

Sabretooth rappelled from the roof to start the pregame festivities, just like he used to do. Rick Jeanneret opened his 49th season at home by getting a standing ovation when he was introduced to start narrating the ceremony.

"Now you know why I love my job," intoned Jeanneret, still as popular as ever as he nears 80.

Fifteen captains on hand were greeted warmly. There were chants of "Luuuuuuce" for Don Luce and "Stuuuuuu" for Stu Barnes. Jason Pominville got a huge roar and Gilbert Perreault got the biggest ovation of all, as he should nearly 32 years after his retirement.

Every former captain was invited. Some, like Ruff and Chris Drury, are working and were unavailable. Mike Ramsey was bummed at FanFest when he told us he had a wedding to attend and could not make it. Alexander Mogilny sent regards from Russia. And for the many of you asking, deposed team president Pat LaFontaine was invited.

I'm told LaFontaine quickly and politely declined. It's worth noting one of the beautiful giant banners hanging in the pavilion is a shot of LaFontaine scoring the goal that closed Memorial Auditorium. And during a timeout in the third period, there was a video with comments from Jay McKee and Brad May about their former captain. That should end the narrative the organization is going to ignore him this year.

(An aside here: Danny Gare's pregame imitation of Jeanneret in the radio booth spreading his arms and telling everyone to be quiet while he started the "La-La-La-La-LaFontaine" call was hilarious.)

The team's snazzy Golden Season anniversary jerseys were worn by the captains and the 50 season ticket-holders brought on the ice for them to walk through. The current players love the look, including the white gloves.

The "Earl of Bud" was brought back to dance like it was the 90s at the Aud and Pilot Field. The pregame video compilation was wonderful and most timeouts stuck to hockey too instead of getting lost in sponsored silliness.

The current team played a golden game too. Relentless on the attack. Overpowering on the power play. Physical. The clutch goaltending needed in a couple spots from Carter Hutton. So far, it's a lovefest: In Ralph Krueger They Trust.

The fans counted for more goals like they were still in the Aud. By the third period, they were starting the "Let's Go Buffalo" that's part of the Bills "Shout" song.

It was quite a night. How happy everyone will be if the alumni get to see many more like it this season.

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