"Battle of the Basement: Part 1" Complete; Sabres Players Upset for Good Reason

The “Battle of the Basement: Part 1” is complete as the Buffalo Sabres fell to the Arizona Coyotes by a score of 4-3 in overtime Thursday night at the First Niagara Center. An exchange of six regulation goals, with both teams answering back when trailing, was quite uncharacteristic for the two teams that sit next to each other at the bottom of the NHL standings. Did the atmosphere contribute to the eventful play? Or was it simply the fact that these players were going out there and giving it their all for their fans? Nobody will ever really know, but one thing is for certain; at times, that was some very entertaining hockey to watch. Up until the past three games or so, try and remember the last time you were that emotionally engaged with a game. Hold on to that thought as I quickly run through a recap of tonight’s loss.

1st Period
Coyotes forward Jordan Szwarz struck first for Arizona 7:55 into the first period. Getting a feed from Kyle Chipchura as he broke into the slot, Szwarz fired a wrister over the left shoulder of Sabres goaltender Matt Hackett to score his first of the season, third in his career. In every metaphorical way, in reference to the crowd, this goal represented the one outgoing kid at the middle school dance that showed no shame in breaking it down as the first kid on the dance floor. Leading up to this goal, the crowd was morgue-like silent—besides the guy that let out a big “Let’s go Coyotes” at the conclusion of the National Anthem. As the red light gave Matt Hackett a sunburn, the whole crowd, Sabres fans included, erupted with a loud roar. This goal truly broke the levee in regards to moral behavior from the fans, and “anything goes” in regards to the “tank” reared quite an ugly head for the rest of the game.

Fan behavior aside, Tyler Ennis was able to tie the game up late in the period from a sweet feed from Matt Moulson. Upon receiving quite the saucer pass from Moulson, Ennis deked Arizona goaltender Mike Smith and slid it past him for his 19th goal of the season and 3rd goal in the last 3 games that he has faced the Coyotes.

2nd Period
After tying it up, the Sabres were able to take the lead 8:37 into the second period on a Rasmus Ristolainen power play goal. Working the puck high to low, Ennis fed Ristolainen for a major clapper that beat Smith from high in the slot. It was Ristolainen’s sixth goal of the season and 14th point of the year.

The Coyotes would score the next two goals in the period to take a 3-2 lead heading into the third. Oliver Ekman-Larsson answered the Ristolainen less than three minutes later to tie it up. With traffic in front of the Sabres net, OEL delivered a wrister that slipped by Hackett and beat him high to the glove side. It was Ekman-Larsson’s 21st goal of the season. Martin Erat was credited with his 21st assist on the play as well.

David Moss scored the third Coyotes goal to give his team the lead 14:20 into the second. Moss deflected a shot off the stick of Sam Gagner from the blue line to beat Hackett. It was Moss’ third goal in two games and his fourth of the season.

3rd Period
Three goals wouldn’t be enough to beat the Sabres tonight. Following a turnover from Arizona captain Shane Doan, Sabres captain Brian Gionta capitalized on the opportunity and clapped one home for his 10th goal of the season and third in two games. Gionta’s late third period goal, which was strongly booed, would force a fan-disapproved overtime period.

 Sabres captain Brian Gionta battles for position in front of the goal with Arizona defender John Moore. Gionta scored his 3rd goal in two games.  Photo: Gary Wiepert/AP 

Sabres captain Brian Gionta battles for position in front of the goal with Arizona defender John Moore. Gionta scored his 3rd goal in two games.

Photo: Gary Wiepert/AP 

As much as fans hated the thought of giving up a point to Arizona, the overtime period was short-lived. Just 0:59 into the period, Sam Gagner capitalized on a power play that carried over from late in the third. Working the puck around the perimeter, the Coyotes set one up for Gagner to bang home for the game winner, his 13th of the season.

"I don't even know what to say. This is extremely frustrating for us." (Mike Weber)
The goal immediately sent the Sabres to their locker room; heads hung low in defeat, with the home crowd still cheering that their team loss. It was truly something different to watch and something that I wish to never experience again in my lifetime. Alright, I do admit my own feelings a little bit. The excitement leading up to this game was something I haven’t felt in quite some time. In no way do I condone the fan-proposed “tank”—in fact, it was embarrassing to watch this game from the press box. There is a line to draw when dealing with the situation that has presented itself and some of the stuff I saw tonight was just distasteful. Covering the logo on a Sabres jersey with a Coyotes logo, really? Booing for your team’s captain when he scored the game-tying goal late in the third?

This team, regardless of the talent, or lack thereof, goes out there every single night and tries to entertain the fans and win a hockey game. There is no such thing as losing on purpose. The players, coaches and other staff train and compete to win because it’s their job. Contracts, jobs and these players’ futures are on the line each and every game.  

But then I think of next year’s possible fantasy-like line of Evander Kane on the left wing, Conor McDavid/Jack Eichel centering, and Tyler Ennis on the right and I sort of gain an understanding of where fans are coming from.

To focus in on a different perspective, I chose to interview some of the fans prior to tonight’s game. With my anticipations running high for this game, I wanted to see if fans felt the same way so I asked them to share the last time they felt this excited about a Sabres game and their fondest Sabres memory. Here are a few of the responses I received:

Alex, from Kenmore, NY
Last time he was this excited about a Sabres game: Last year when the Chicago Blackhawks came to town and Patrick Kane scored after deking through Christian Ehrhoff’s legs.

Fondest Sabres memory: Game 6 of the 2005-06 Eastern Conference Finals.

David, from Pendleton, NY
Last time he was this excited about a Sabres game: Game 7 against the Philadelphia Flyers in 2011 Conference Quarterfinals.

Fondest Sabres memory: Being in attendance for game 5 of the 2007 Conference Semi-Finals when Chris Drury tied it up late in the third to force an overtime period that led to a Sabres win.

Angela, from Pendleton, NY
Fondest Sabres memory: The “Fog Game” during the Stanley Cup Finals between the Sabres and Flyers on May 20, 1975 at the Aud.

Dave, from Pendleton, NY
Fondest Sabres memory: The 2007 brawl between the Sabres and the Ottawa Senators. That nasty hit from Chris Neil sparked the fight of a century and something that will be talked about for years to come. He will never forget Lindy Ruff coming over the boards to yell at Bryan Murray and how Rob Ray had to cover his microphone to sensor the words being exchanged. Check out the video below (8 minutes but totally worth the watch)

Depending on how the national media saw the fans’ behavior, their actions may be talked about for a few days, for the rest of the year, or much longer than that. Buffalo is a hockey town, and the whole nation knows that. With this embarrassing story even getting coverage on ESPN (turn it on at the top of the hour, pictures and all), it somewhat discredits this title. Yes, the fans are engaging with the game, but it comes at the expense of the players. Here is what Mike Weber had to say following the game:

“I’ve always spoken extremely high of our fans. I don’t even know if disappointed is the word. They score that first one and our fans are cheering. Late penalty, they cheer. They cheer when they score to win the game. I don’t even know what to say. This is extremely frustrating for us,” he said before addressing the fans one last time. “Again, I respect our fans. I love our fans. I show up to work everyday to do whatever I can for them, and to play hard for them and my teammates…again, I’ve never seen that before. I don’t know what else to say.”

Although he didn’t say it, it’s clear that he is just flat out looking for a little bit of respect from the fans. Now I know it has been hard to be a Sabres fan. Trust me, I lived with a Penguins fan for over two years and I would get heckled every time I had the game on. In the craze of the draft lottery though, I think we have lost ourselves a little bit, Sabres fans. There are obviously better days ahead. Just think of some of the memories that the fans shared with me. They weren’t memories of cheering so loud because your team lost. Instead, they were memories of when a team was so good that the hairs would stand up on the back of your neck as they took the ice. Hold on to those memories; don’t lose them amongst the madness in the race to 30th. Let the players play, the season run its course, and above all; at least show some respect to the players that work hard to create those memories that we all have. The Sabres are on the verge of greatness and more great memories are to be made. Be patient, cheer on your team, not against them, and enjoy the sport for what it is, "Hockey Heaven."