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Great memories serve as the backdrop for a solid Sabres comeback

Mike Harrington

You sure hope Better Days are coming back. An exciting finish like what we saw Thursday night can bring you back to, oh, 13 or 14 years ago.

There were all kinds of warm fuzzies in KeyBank Center. Remember the spring of 2007, when the Goo Goo Dolls' hit became an anthem for a city and a team?

We relived it all on 2000s Night, as the Sabres hit their pregame celebration out of the park with spectacular video presentations -- and even avoided any jersey snafus by providing 50th anniversary sweaters to the alumni that were the first hockey loves of the under-30s in the crowd.

Former owner Tom Golisano got a standing ovation -- which would have been unimaginable after Daniel Briere and Chris Drury walked out the door -- and the Pegulas made the classy gesture of presenting Golisano, Larry Quinn and Dan DiPofi with gold pucks in honor of their service.

(Bottom line: Say what you want about both of them, but we're not in the building Thursday night without Golisano and Gary Bettman and what they did in 2002 and 2003 to rescue this franchise from the Rigas bankruptcy era.)

"It's always cool when there's the pregame ceremonies," captain Jack Eichel said after the 4-3 overtime thriller over Columbus. "Obviously, there's sort of a relationship with a few of those guys that were out there. Whenever the Pegulas are in the building and you have a big ceremony like that, I think the energy is a little bit better and I think it brings out the best of us."

It didn't happen right away. The Sabres were in a 2-0 hole and had just 14 shots on goal in the first 38 minutes. But Eichel sent a sizzler past poor Matiss Kivlenieks, who must have heard the puck whoosh by his ear, and that got Buffalo back in the game with 73 seconds left in the second period.

"We needed a little bit of momentum going into the third period there," Eichel said. "I thought we had been getting chances and not capitalizing. It was good to get that one. I thought it got the crowd going a little bit, got the bench up and drove some confidence into the room."

The Sabres hit the turbo button in the third as Victor Olofsson tied the game on a power play, and Evan Rodrigues went coast to coast and capitalized on Jeff Skinner's strong net drive for the go-ahead goal with 4:26 left.

As much of a downer as it was to see the Blue Jackets tie it with the extra attacker on the ice, the Sabres were undaunted. The winning goal was another example of what coach Ralph Krueger loves to call Eichel's "genius."

Most players simply drive the net when they get the corner. Eichel fooled the Jackets badly, instead pulling the puck back to Olofsson. Two goals for the rookie to get to 18 on the season after six weeks out of the lineup was a solid return.

How nice is it to have Olofsson back in the lineup?

Said a smiling Eichel: "Yeah, It's pretty good, huh?"

Responded another reporter: "Makes a little bit of a difference."

Eichel: "Yeah, it does. Doesn't it?"

The alums had to be impressed. Paul Gaustad was marveling before the game about Eichel, and Brian Campbell's second intermission chat with the media came shortly after the captain's goal.

"Watching him play more this year, I think he's really elevated his game to a complete and utterly different level," said Campbell. "I think he's a top-5 player maybe now in the league, definitely now in the top 10. You can just see how much drive he has, how much he's taking care of himself and being prepared each and every game.

"That reach, the shot, the underrated speed. He's that good. He's in the (Connor) McDavid, the (Nathan) MacKinnon conversations I think. He's getting into that conversation where I don't think in previous years you could say that about him."

The Sabres, of course, remain playoff longshots but got some help Thursday as both Toronto and Florida lost in regulation. Buffalo is eight points back of the Leafs, who play Saturday in Ottawa and are here Sunday. Regulation win required in that one.

The Sabres haven't been to the playoffs since the seven-game loss to Philadelphia in 2011 that took place two months after Golisano sold the team to Pegula. Golisano, not a hockey fan at all when he bought the team in '03, quickly became enamored with the game for life and understands what today's fans are going through.

"I'm a little disappointed but I feel bad for Terry because I know how much it means to him," the former owner said before the game. "And obviously to the coaches and the players. So I'm rooting for him. I wish they could do better but they probably eventually will.

"I think he gets a bum rap about not being a hockey guy," Quinn said of his former partner. "I maybe watch 2-3 games live a year and occasionally on TV. He watches every single Sabres game still. So he's very much into it."

The folks in this town certainly are as well. They're just waiting for the kind of springs we saw in the 2000s. The sight of players like Briere, Campbell, Gaustad, Jason Pominville, J.P. Dumont, Tim Connolly and others on the ice before the game brought you back to an amazing time. Will the Sabres ever get there again under the Pegulas? The task is large.

Like Quinn said, the franchise was almost gone in 2003 and was in the Eastern Conference final by 2006. There's no other choice but to keep hoping. It's happened here once before.

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