Thursday night was perhaps the biggest game the Sabres have had in a few years. Buffalo hosted the Arizona Coyotes in a battle of the two worst teams in the NHL in the race to the bottom. Going into the game the vibe around the city of Buffalo was awkward to say the least. In what turned out to be a great hockey game, the fan atmosphere overshadowed the game.
Before getting into the atmosphere at First Niagara Center, the game itself was very entertaining. The two worst teams in the league turned out an action packed hockey game. The Coyotes opened the scoring on a great shot by Jordan Szwarz over the shoulder of Matt Hackett for his first goal of the season. The Sabres would come back and tie the game a few minutes later on a nice two on one goal by Tyler Ennis. The first period was a pretty even period. Arizona started out strong and Buffalo finished the period as the better team.
The second period mainly belonged to the Coyotes. However, Rasmus Ristolainen put the Sabres on top with an absolute bullet for his sixth of the season on the power play. After that, Arizona took over with two unanswered goals by Oliver Ekman-Larsson on the power play and then a nice tip by David Moss only three minutes later to put the Coyotes up 3-2 after two periods.
The third period was full of excitement. Sam Gagner had the opportunity to likely seal the deal with a wide open net while Hackett was down, but Gagner put the puck off cross bar. After chances by both teams, the Sabres were given a power play late in the third. Arizona captain Shane Doan made a great back check to break up a play, but committed the cardinal sin of hockey. Doan would blindly spin around and try to clear the puck up the middle of the ice. Unfortunately for Doan and the Coyotes, Sabres captain Brian Gionta was waiting in the high slot and picked off the Doan attempted clear. Gionta made no mistake and blew one past Mike Smith to tie the game at 3. Buffalo would push hard to get the go ahead goal in the final three minutes including a mini breakaway by Zach Bogosian that was stopped by Smith.
With only 30 seconds remaining in the third Mike Weber took what would turn out to be a costly tripping penalty. The Sabres would make it to overtime and earn at least a point. However, only 56 seconds into overtime the Coyotes would capitalize on the PP for the game winner off the stick of Sam Gagner.
The Sabres see their lead increase in the race to the bottom increase to six points with only 8 games remaining. Arizona appeared to be the better team tonight controlling play for long periods of time and trapping the Sabres in their own end. The two teams will meet again for game two in Arizona on Monday. If the Coyotes are able to pull off another victory it’ll unofficially likely be the end of race. If the standings stay status quo going into Monday and the Coyotes win in regulation, the Sabres lead will jump to 8 points with only six games remaining.
Home Ice Advantage?
The fan atmosphere in First Niagara Center was a story line heading into the matchup. The Sabres were the home team tonight, but by the fan reactions you wouldn’t have known it. There’s no question what most of the fans in Buffalo want from these final games and tonight they weren’t afraid to show it.
As you would expect, the fans cheered the home team goals for the Sabres. The oddity was the fan reaction to when Arizona scored. The Coyotes have a difficult time filling the building at home and I’m fairly confident they don’t have a great following in Buffalo if any. With all that being said, the reaction was very loud cheers when Arizona scored.
— Fake Darcy (@FakeDarcy) March 27, 2015
Fans wearing Sabres jerseys were openly cheering goals for the opposing team, especially the game winning overtime goal. This of course isn’t an ideal situation for the home team. Taking a step back this isn’t a great look for Sabres fans around the hockey world and there’s no denying that. On the other side of the coin, fans pay for the ticket and have the right to cheer however they seem fit. Fan loyalty should not be questioned in any way in Buffalo. While the Sabres have put out the worst team in the NHL for two straight seasons; fans in Buffalo have continued to sell out the building more nights than not. The atmosphere in the building just felt odd right from the pregame warm ups. Fans were conflicted in rooting for their home team or for an Arizona win. Fans at the end of the day understand what is happening and want what they believe is best for the organization going forward.
To say the least some of the Sabres players were very disappointed with the fans. I can completely understand this from a players stand point how this can be difficult for them. Players like Mike Weber and Matt Hackett voiced their displeasure with the fan reactions. While captain Brian Gionta and coach Ted Nolan took the high road when asked for their thoughts on the matter. What is happening right now with organization has nothing to do with current players, but they also shouldn’t be naïve to what is happening around them.
Weber: "It's tough to get momentum when your fans are rooting against you. That's the unfortunate part. I've never seen that before."
— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) March 27, 2015
Again, this isn’t an ideal situation, but the fans nor the players are at fault here. Once the race has been completed in a few weeks things will go back to normal. Fans will continue to support the team going forward, possibly more than they ever have before.