When the Buffalo Sabres take the ice inside KeyBank Center on Saturday night, they’ll do so to the soundtrack of a cheering crowd for only the second time since the Covid-19 pandemic suspended the NHL season last March.
Finally, three weeks later than expected, the Sabres will host paid attendance for the first time this season when the team completes a series against the New York Rangers at 7 p.m. As of Friday afternoon, 527 of the approximately 1,900 tickets were unsold.
The Sabres hosted 700 frontline workers for their game March 18 against the Boston Bruins. The two teams’ game March 20 was supposed to be the first featuring a paid crowd, but that contest was postponed when five Bruins were on the NHL’s Covid-19 protocol list.
Fans received refunds for the ticket price and although the mandatory Covid-19 tests were conducted by third-party vendor Quest Diagnostics, the Sabres tried to make fans whole by providing free tickets to a game in the 2021-22 season.
The game Saturday will be the first of four the Sabres have sold tickets for over the season’s final five weeks. The others are April 9 against Washington, April 17 against Pittsburgh and April 23 against Boston.
Proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test are mandatory for attending any game inside KeyBank Center this season.
To qualify as "fully vaccinated," fans need to have received their second dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech or Moderna Covid-19 vaccine or the single dose of the Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen Covid-19 vaccine at least 14 days prior to the date of the game.
Fans who don't meet those qualifications will need to show proof of a negative antigen test taken within six hours of puck drop, or proof of negative molecular PCR test taken within 72 hours of the game.
The fans’ return to games comes at a time when the Sabres, now 7-23-6, have shown encouraging signs under interim coach Don Granato. Buffalo snapped its franchise-record 18-game winless streak with a 6-1 win Wednesday and scored with 3.6 seconds remaining in regulation the following night to earn a point in what became a 3-2 overtime loss to the Rangers.
The Sabres are still at the bottom of the NHL with 19 points through 36 games. Since Granato took over as interim coach on March 17, Buffalo ranks 14th in the league in goals scored. Its 11-game home winless streak ended Wednesday and almost every player on the roster is performing better since former coach Ralph Krueger was fired.
The Sabres announced Friday that they are partnering with the Pittsburgh Penguins to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community when the two teams play inside KeyBank Center on Sat., April 17. The game will be televised nationally on NBC at 3 p.m., Eastern.
For the Pride game, both teams will use rainbow-colored tape on their sticks for pregame warmups and wear commemorative warmup jerseys featuring the Progress Pride Flag. The two teams will co-host a seven-day online auction from April 17 through April 24 at noon featuring pride tape sticks, commemorative warmup jerseys and pucks, and various signed items.
In Buffalo, fundraising efforts will benefit Pride Center of Western New York and Gay and Lesbian Youth Services of Western New York. The Sabres and Penguins will donate 100 tickets for the game to LGBTQ+ organizations and each fan in attendance will receive a Pride Game rally towel on their seat.
The Sabres were scrutinized last season for initially not scheduling a Pride Night amid the 50th anniversary. The team eventually planned to hold one, but it did not before the season was suspended last March because of the coronavirus pandemic.
With the Sabres not practicing Friday, winger C.J. Smith and defenseman Brandon Davidson were assigned from the taxi squad to the Rochester Americans.
This left the Sabres with only two players on the taxi squad: forward Jean-Sebastien Dea and goalie Michael Houser. In accordance with NHL rules, Buffalo will be required to add at least two players to the taxi squad before puck drop Saturday because each team must have a minimum of four on game days.