Ralph Krueger has been in the Bell Centre before, as an assistant with the Edmonton Oilers and for an exhibition game while leading Team Europe during the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
But a game Thursday night in Montreal against the Canadiens will be special for the Buffalo Sabres coach, who grew up as a Habs fan in Winnipeg. It will be his first time in the building while leading an NHL team under all those retired numbers and Stanley Cup banners.
"It's very special. I have a sister 10 years older than me, and she listened to all the Montreal Canadiens games in the 60s when I was a wee baby," said Krueger, who didn't coach against East teams during the 2013 lockout season as Edmonton's head man. "It is a brand that is just burnt into my soul of loving the game and loving hockey, and it was the beginning of time. So every time you play the Montreal Canadiens, and especially in their home building, it has to be a special experience for a kid that grew up on small rinks in Manitoba."
The Sabres will play both of their games this season in Montreal in the next couple of weeks, tomorrow and March 24. Buffalo went 1-1 against the Habs in KeyBank Center.
"You were either a (Toronto) Maple Leafs fan or you were a Canadiens fan and I was a Canadiens fan growing up, so it’s a special challenge and we’re excited for it," Krueger said. "I won’t have a smile on my face as the game starts tomorrow, but you do smile and you’re allowed a minute of deep pleasure to think of a 3-, 4-year-old kid listening on the radio and now coaching a team in there. It gives me goosebumps right now. So let’s have fun with it."
The Columbus Blue Jackets announced Wednesday night that their upcoming home games starting Thursday against Pittsburgh will be played with only essential personnel on hand and will be closed to the public because of the ongoing coronavirus situation. The San Jose Sharks then announced their next three home games, beginning March 19 against Montreal, will also be played without fans in the stands.
There are no current plans for the Canadiens to do likewise Thursday for the Sabres' visit. Meanwhile, the Sabres' next home game in KeyBank Center is Friday against Boston. Pegula Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Sabres, Bills, Bandits and Rochester Amerks, issued a statement Wednesday night about the situation and also gave no indication that KeyBank or Blue Cross Arena will be closed to fans. The Amerks hosted Binghamton there on Wednesday and host Syracuse on Friday.
"With the COVID-19 situation continuing to unfold, we want to ensure our fans, staff and players that their safety is our top priority," the statement said. "We continue to monitor all information provided by federal, state and local health departments regarding COVID-19, and remain in contact with all pertinent leagues. Together, with our food service partner, Delaware North, we are taking all necessary actions advised by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to help ensure the health and safety of our guests and employees. We encourage all of our fans to take the proper precautions prescribed by the CDC. We will continue to make updates as necessary."
The Canadiens have to be shaking their head about the way this season has transpired. They entered Wednesday 10 points out of both third place in the Atlantic Division and the final Eastern Conference wild card, but could have easily been in the thick of the race were it not for a horrific record against the conference's bottom teams.
Montreal somehow went 0-4 against Detroit in a year when the Red Wings have won only 17 games and will finish with the NHL's worst record for the first time since 1986. The Habs also only went 1-1-1 against New Jersey, which is 14th in the East.
Why did it take Rasmus Dahlin into March of his second season to get called on in a shootout? Krueger couldn't speak for former coach Phil Housley, of course, but had an easy reason why Dahlin didn't take an attempt until he scored in the fourth round Monday against Washington.
"He's always been on the list. He just never made the top three and we never went that deep," Krueger said. "We were usually done one way or the other earlier. He's always been on the shorter list of players. We just never got to him. He always knew he needed to get ready."
Krueger said he's not averse to using defensemen in shootouts, and cited Rasmus Ristolainen as another candidate. Ristolainen, like Dahlin, is 1 for 1 in his career.
"They need to be in the mix," Krueger said. "It's not goal scorer-related, really. There is a need for deception and also a psychological component. I've been in many world tournaments and Olympics where there were critical penalty shot situations and you definitely look at the personality. 'Risto' is someone you'd have no problem throwing into a burning fire."