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It was a weird day and night – and not just because Sabres finally won

Mike Harrington

When it comes to pro sports, everything is weird right now.

Of course, when it comes to the Buffalo Sabres, it's been that way for a good, long time.

Monday started with lots of rumors about what kind of impact the coronavirus would have. NHL teams had started closing their dressing rooms to the media over the weekend. The rumors were flying about the NBA doing likewise and maybe even playing in empty arenas – something LeBron James immediately spoke out against. Baseball clubhouses are overflowing with players and team officials at spring training in Florida and Arizona, and the media horde in MLB just keeps getting bigger and bigger.

The Sabres and Washington Capitals were trying to get ready for a game with all this as a backdrop. In the morning, before any official edicts were issued, players were interviewed outside the dressing room hallway. Asked what information they've been given by the team and its medical staff, defenseman Jake McCabe looked at me and said, "Stay away from you guys."

He was kidding. I think.

That said, close media contact is one thing these leagues are trying to get away from for now. A picture went across Twitter of Dallas' Joe Pavelski talking behind a microphone with a large table between him and reporters. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reportedly wants a six-foot distance between people. The Stars made sure of that. You saw Auston Matthews at a podium in Toronto and he said, "This is different."

Teams were being proactive in these cases. Shortly before faceoff, the official word came down in a joint statement that the NHL, NBA, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer have closed their dressing rooms to the media. Talk about a bombshell. Contact is a concern. There are a lot of close quarters in these scrums between players and reporters.

Still, this is a fluid situation and teams are going to need a lot more direction from their leagues than they've been getting. There will be things they haven't thought of, like the Sabres still allowing fans to fist-bump players on the Gold Carpet line coming out of the dressing room at the start of periods. Can't imagine that's going to be allowed to continue.

(Now if we could only get the team to decide DJ Milk is a health hazard to the ears of everyone in the building. I realize that might be asking too much).

Teams have to provide interview rooms now. It's sterile. The intimacy is gone. There's not going to be conversations anymore. Talk about stilted. But this is the new reality, at least for now, when you're talking about a public health crisis that seems to be getting bigger by the minute. The Sabres used their normal press conference room for player interviews prior to Ralph Krueger's nightly appearance. The Capitals pulled Dmitry Orlov, Braden Holtby and Alex Ovechkin out of their locker room to chat in the nearby hallway.

Jeff Skinner, with a goat head cap on his head, was the first Sabres player to enter the new postgame setup. He took a look at the table in the front, the reporters all piled in the room, and smiled when he walked in. Strange scene indeed.

As for the game? That was weird, too.

The Sabres beat the Capitals, 3-2, in a seven-round shootout after the Caps were oddly in absentia for the first 40 minutes before roaring back in the third period to wipe out a 2-0 deficit.

It should have been a win in regulation for the Sabres, as they got completely hosed when Brandon Montour scored with 2:48 left to go but the goal was wiped out on a ticky-tack goalie interference call on Skinner.

After seeing Jonas Johansson get destroyed by Nick Bjugstad in last week's loss to Pittsburgh and not get an interference call, do the Sabres have any idea what the rule is anymore? That was the first question Skinner got from me. Welcome to your new reality.

"That's a tough one. I'm going to get in trouble for that one," Skinner said. "Obviously it's tight in there and there's not a lot of space. ... I did my best to get out of the way."

Added captain Jack Eichel: "It's a tough situation with a tie game late. ... Who knows what goalie interference is these days? It would have been nice to win it there. We made it a little harder on ourselves, but at the end of the day we win, so it feels good."

Sabres coach Ralph Krueger was as disgusted as we've seen him at any point this year and he was darn well within reason. He labeled it a "soft, questionable call." He said the NHL should be doing things like the NBA and NFL, where reviews are automatic without challenges in the late stages of games.

"It should be called a goal and they can go and review it. ... We just don't know what to call or not call," Krueger said.

Krueger couldn't risk a challenge in that spot either. If you get turned down, it's a delay of game penalty and you're shorthanded in a tie game in the final three minutes. Can't put your team in that spot. No coach would.

"There's no way you can challenge that anymore," Krueger said. "You just feel no confidence in the calls. We've been declined twice on calls and there just needs to be more clarity."

Still, the Sabres persevered. The six-game losing streak is over. Eichel's seven-game pointless streak is over. Linus Ullmark's five-week stint on the injured list is over and what a job he did in the shootout to stop Ovechkin with the game on the line and make five other saves.

"We knew to get this win wasn't going to be easy," Krueger said. "We didn't think it would be this hard."

Everything is getting harder by the minute in this situation. It was close to 11 p.m. EST when Santa Clara County banned public events with more than 1,000 people on hand for the next three weeks. That could mean the San Jose Sharks might play three home games with no fans in SAP Center or take the upcoming games against Montreal, Boston and Arizona somewhere else.

There's no real way to tell where all this is going. NBA or Stanley Cup playoff games in empty arenas or alternate sites? What's going to happen with March Madness, where virtually everyone involved travels to get to? Will MLB keep spring training going and open its season on time? Japan baseball decided Monday to put its opening on hold.

We'll see what future days bring. Monday was strange enough. The Sabres were obviously happy to end their losing streak but there were so many other things swirling around that the reaction seemed muted. An odd day indeed.

Linus Ullmark returns to lineup, stands tall to help Sabres snap skid

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