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#Hockeyisback – Sabres open their season twice

Filed under: Puck Stop, Sports

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TORONTO – Two days. Two season openers. Two wins for the Buffalo Sabres.

Hockey was back, and for all the hand wringing and consternation during the lockout that there would be widespread fan outrage and apathy once play resumed, none of that was evident these past two days either in Buffalo or Toronto.

The Sabres and the Leafs rolled out their respective red carpets for the returning fans, with apologies, freebies, discounts, warm welcomes and promises that the player/management relationship with the fans will be repaired.

There were no “Thank You Fans” messages painted on the ice surfaces, but at Sunday’s opener at First Niagara Center against the Philadelphia Flyers, early arriving fans were shocked to find the players out in the pavilion, greeting guests as they came through the turnstiles and signing autographs. Team owner Terry Pegula and president Ted Black were posing for pictures. Over at the Sabres Store it was still long lines as the final day of the “50% off sale” unfolded, and more than a few items were picked clean for fans who waited until the last minute. Concession lines were long as the team offered discounts on the most popular food and beverage items.

Over at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto last night, the fan gesture was even more robust. The Toronto Maple Leafs opened their regular season against the Sabres, and every one of the fans in attendance received a snazzy blue and white Leafs scarf. Ticketed guests were also treated to free soda fountain beverages and hot dogs throughout the night.

Both games featured packed houses, with not a ticket to be found anywhere, and resale sites such as StubHub had ticket prices for both of the games listed well into three figures.

On the ice? All Buffalo. All good news. Two wins and four points to open the season.

On Sunday, Thomas Vanek was the hero, participating in all the goals as the Sabres beat the Philadelphia Flyers 5-2, with the game winner coming towards the end of the 3rd period. All eyes were on rookie Mikhail Grigorenko, who didn’t figure in the scoring, but newcomer Steve Ott, who lined up with Grigs and scored his own goal on the team’s first shot of the game, had this to say: “I feel bigger with him out there. That kid’s a beast already.”

Then last night on Toronto, it was Cody Hodgson and Jason Pominville doing the honors for the Sabres as they escaped with a 2-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre. Buffalo managed to kill off an extended 5 on 3 short handed situation in the first period, then played almost a perfect defensive game as they clogged the Leafs attack consistently. First star Ryan Miller was sensational in net and allowed hardly any rebounds. Defenseman Jordan Leopold said that killing that penalty was a real momentum changer. “The guys were on the bench just pumping each other up, Ryan (Miller) was making save after save, and once we were back five on five after all that time it was almost surreal that were still leading 1-0,” said Leopold.

But the Leafs were not finished, as they pulled their goaltender with 2:46 to go. Buffalo has already exposed a weakness after two games in the inability to win face-offs, and Toronto continually kept the pressure on in the Buffalo end. Nazim Kadry’s open net goal brought the Leafs to within one, and then Jason Pominville missed a golden chance to seal the game when he missed a wide open net on a break. Buffalo was then assessed a penalty with 7.2 seconds to go, and the game ended with a flurry of activity around the Sabres’ net.

Rememeber too that opponents’ goals were waived off in both games in the final minutes of play. Philadelphia’s would have brought them to within one, and then Joffrey Lupul’s glove swat into the net was called off, when it had appeared for a moment that the Leafs might have tied the game. “I couldn’t understand how it went in,” Miller said. “Actually, I was just kind of planning for it to be a goal and have to reset my mindset to go into overtime and pull out a win here.”

The Sabres have to be happy to get the win in Toronto, especially after going 0-3 last season in their building, including that deflating 4-3 loss the last weekend of the season which pretty much doomed their playoff hopes. “Yes these four points are huge. We have to scrape for every point we can get in this shortened season,” said Leopold.

The Sabres continue with a home and home against the Carolina Hurricanes, with the first game at the PNC Arena in Raleigh on Thursday, before coming home on Friday. Remember that Friday night game times have been moved up to 7:05 PM this season.