Loyal Buffalo Sabres fans and select members of the media alike have complained all season long that the atmosphere inside First Niagara Center is as tepid and surly as it gets in the NHL.
It won’t be that way tonight.
The Sabres host the Toronto Maple Leafs this evening for the first in a home and away series with their cross-border rival, and their first meeting this regular season since the infamous preseason brawl inside the Air Canada Centre that saw all men on the ice—even goaltenders Ryan Miller and Johanthan Bernier—get in on the action.
If that wasn’t intriguing enough, tonight’s also the first game for the Sabres under a new regime, now headed by the recently-appointed President of Hockey Operations Pat LaFontaine. Ted Nolan will be behind the bench as an NHL coach for the first time in five years, and for the first time as a Buffalo Sabres coach in nearly 16.
Nolan didn’t waste time jumping into his new position, which was officially announced Wednesday morning at a press conference inside the First Niagara Center pavilion. He promptly went to meet with all of the players in the locker room, and led the team in its regular practice that day.
“The only thing I ask is that you compete,” Nolan said. “What we’re going to ask these guys to do is compete for the time you’re on the ice.”
This charge couldn’t come at a better time. The Toronto Maple Leafs are an entirely different team from what Buffalo has faced—and has had so much success against—in recent years. Toronto enters tonight’s contest third in their division and the Eastern conference as a whole with an 11-6-1 record.
The Leafs have been a force on either side of the special teams department; their penalty kill is running at nearly an 85% success rate, while their power play has produced 14 goals on 63 opportunities so far this year. Their goaltending—once a considered the team’s greatest downfall—has been stellar after 18 games, with netminders James Remier and Bernier sporting a 2.30 and .205 goals against average, respectively.
Even if Miller is indeed superior to both Toronto netminders, the Sabres would be putting themselves in a highly risky situation to expect him to win the game all on his own. Miller enters tonight’s game following perhaps his most outstanding performance in net this season, where he stopped 43 shots and two shootout attempts Tuesday night in a 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings.
Puck drop is scheduled for 7:00 PM EST this evening. Fans catch the action on MSG or listen in through WGR 550.