BUFFALO, N.Y. – With more than 10,000 fans attending a Sabres scrimmage this week, general manager Darcy Regier required no further reminder of how much support the team still has in Buffalo.
“The first thing I thought was, ‘Wow, cool,'” Regier said, after seeing fans fill nearly the entire lower bowl of the Sabres home arena.
It’s not lost on Regier either that the turnout was also a reminder of how high the expectations remain for him and the Sabres to finally deliver a winner.
“Yeah, sure. I got it. I’m all for it. That’s the plan,” Regier added. “I’m confident. I’m excited.”
New season. Familiar faces. Same old objective for a team that’s missed the playoffs in three of the past five seasons, and not won a post-season round since reaching the Eastern Conference finals in 2007.
A year after the high-priced Sabres (39-32-11) were among the NHL’s biggest busts by missing the playoffs entirely, they have plenty of unfinished business to take care of in proving they can be contenders.
And a nine-month layoff hasn’t been long enough for players to forget the empty feelings of frustration they felt when cleaning out their lockers in early April last year.
“It wasn’t a good feeling at all at the end of last year,” defenceman Tyler Myers said. “And I think feeling that way at the end of last year is going to motivate each guy in this room that much more to not feel that way again.”
The opportunity to start putting those memories behind them begins Sunday, when the Sabres open the regular season hosting Philadelphia. That just happens to be the same Flyers team that’s ended each of the Sabres past two seasons.
The Flyers eliminated Buffalo 4-3 in the first-round of the 2011 playoffs. And then there was last year, when the Sabres were mathematically knocked from playoff contention with a 2-1 loss at Philadelphia in the last week of the regular season.
It was an up-and-down season for Buffalo. The Sabres lost 12 straight in regulation on the road during a 3-12-2 stretch spanning December and January, before closing the season going 20-8-6.
The strong finish was enough to convince management to leave the roster mostly intact. The team’s inconsistencies were blamed on a rash of injuries—Buffalo at one point was missing nine regulars—rather than a lack of chemistry.
And yet, coach Lindy Ruff acknowledged he had numerous discussions with players last off-season to clear the air and resolve any differences that might have hindered the team’s performance.
“We went through everything, the good, the bad and the ugly,” said Ruff, who returns for a 15th season, the NHL’s longest active tenured coach with one team.
“We’ve cleared the air this summer,” Ruff added, noting that the staff and players established a standard of accountability to one another. “I think that’s a good place to be. I think the true test, though, is when you get knocked down a little bit to hold that standard. That will be our true test.”
The Sabres last season were criticized for being pushovers, particularly failing to rally to goalie Ryan Miller’s defence when he sustained a concussion after being bowled over Bruins forward Milan Lucic during a 6-2 loss at Boston Nov. 12.
It’s no surprise that the few moves the Sabres made this off-season were to bulk up their lineup. They acquired gritty hard-hitting forward Steve Ott in a trade that sent underachieving centre Derek Roy to Dallas. Buffalo also signed rugged 6-foot-8 forward John Scott in free agency.
Buffalo’s set in net with Miller and backup Jhonas Enroth. They’re deep on defence.
And their offence has the potential to roll three quality lines.
Cody Hodgson, a late-season acquisition, will centre the top line made up of Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville.
Tyler Ennis is reunited with rookie Marcus Foligno and Drew Stafford. It’s a line that caught fire late last season by combining for 21 goals and 49 points during a 13-game stretch.
And the Sabres are entertaining the possibility of having 18-year-old rookie centre Mikhail Grigorenko open the season in Buffalo. The Russian-born playmaker has spent this week centring alongside Ott and Ville Leino.
For Miller, it’s time the Sabres started proving themselves.
“We came up short, and we were obviously disappointed. It was a long time to sit around,” Miller said. “We definitely have an idea of what we want to be doing, and that’s putting ourselves in the best position to win a championship.
“It’s a short-sprint season. So let’s go do it.”