DUNDAS, Ont. – The ice was small, even by NHL standards, but Jason Pominville had just enough room to get Buffalo a pre-season win.
Pominville scored midway through the third period Tuesday to lift the Sabres over the Ottawa Senators 2-1 in a game played in front of a sold-out crowd of 980 at the undersized J.L. Grightmire Arena.
Dundas, which has a population of 24,700, hosted the game as part of the city’s grand prize in this year’s Kraft Hockeyville contest.
“There wasn’t much of a neutral zone so we just tried to get it in deep and not try and get too fancy,” said veteran centre Rob Niedermayer, who opened the scoring for Buffalo.
Niedermayer tallied shorthanded midway through the first period. Swedish goalie Robin Lehner, who is 19, misplayed the puck behind the net and it landed on Niedermayer’s stick for an easy goal.
“Everything happens that much faster when you’re playing in a rink this size and there’s a lot of 1-on-1 battles and that’s good,” Niedermayer added. “That’s what you want. You want to have those things to get ready for the season.”
J.L. Grightmire Arena’s rink is smaller than NHL regulation, 10 feet shorter and five feet narrower, making it difficult to rush up the ice or manoeuvre in front of the net, so the play was tight and the puck battles tough. Line changes were also dicey as the players sat two-deep on the benches.
Still, the intimate confines allowed for hearing calls for the puck, and the ensuing loud slap on the blade.
With less than 13 seconds on the clock left in the second period, and with the Senators on the power play, Ottawa defenceman Patrick Wiercioch took a shot from the blue-line down the middle zone cleared traffic and beat Sabres goalie Ryan Miller glove-side.
“When you only score one goal, it’s tough to win games,” said Ottawa coach Cory Clouston. “We just didn’t play a full 60 minutes. It was a little bit sloppy out there at times. The conditions weren’t perfect. But that was the same for both teams.”
Pominville’s winner came at 11:14 of the third as he took a lead pass from Luke Adam up the right wing and wristed the puck past Lehner.
The Senators were missing all their big-name players while the Sabres did exactly the opposite, bringing Miller on the hour-long bus trip up the Queen Elizabeth Way along with such fan faves as Niedermayer and Thomas Vanek.
Both Lehner, who played with Sault Ste. Marie in the OHL, and Miller played the entire game.
“You just expect the plays to come a little quicker and those bad-angle shots are a little closer,” said Miller about the rink. “For me, it’s an exhibition game so I have to use it to tune up a little bit. But I was pleasantly surprised that it was really easy to slip into the moment where you get to have some fun and enjoy the moment with the kids and people of the town.
“It was a fun hockey game.”
Niedermayer, who signed with the Sabres as a free agent after a 10-goal season with New Jersey, centred a line between Drew Stafford and Nathan Gerbe. Vanek centred a line with Tim Connolly and Pominville.
The local organizing committee had 980 tickets to distribute to residents for the game, which was the hottest ticket in town. About 40 per cent were reserved for the Dundas Minor Hockey Association, McMaster Children’s Hospital, local Hockeyville volunteers, local sponsors and government officials. The other 60 per cent were decided by a public lottery for residents of Dundas and the City of Hamilton, which Dundas has been a part of since 2001.
The arena, known locally as the Market Street arena, also received $100,000 to be put towards upgrades. Plans include a second floor above the concession stand, new lighting and an outdoor sign. The community goal is to raise more than $500,000.
For this Hockeyville game, the arena received a fresh coat of paint, adjusted the benches and the lighting, thickened the ice and added a new sound system, among other touch-ups.