For those who haven’t followed me personally around the internet, you may not be familiar with an annual tradition of mine. I have every sports team in North America in all of the sports – I don’t discriminate – in a file, and every year, I randomly select a pair of those teams, and further randomly select a game off their schedule. Since I select by team, the choices are weighted towards college programs, but this year, for the first time, I picked an NHL franchise, the Toronto Maple Leafs. I drew the game last night in Buffalo against the Sabres.
I’ve been to “Buffalo” before. I have relatives in the suburbs, I’ve been to Niagara Falls, and actually, I’ve drawn the Bills as one of the teams in this annual tradition of mine, but I’ve never been to Buffalo, the city. Part of this tradition of mine is seeing a game between teams I wouldn’t otherwise see, but also getting the opportunity to visit a place that I wouldn’t otherwise visit, and experience it in a way that I wouldn’t just by passing through. Downtown Buffalo was unlike any city I’ve been to, and is more full of optimism than a city with it’s sports history would suggest.
The main pedestrian avenue is Main Street, which straddles the Buffalo light rail line through the heart of the city. Downtown Buffalo has a much larger footprint than one would think, given its population, which would suggest a lot of commuter traffic and difficult walkability. Perhaps because it was warmer than 60 degrees and the sun was shining, car traffic was light, and foot traffic was much heavier than I ever would have guessed. There was a high number of people wearing their full suit, suggesting to me that they were actually on their way to or from somewhere, and not just out enjoying the unseasonable warmth.
At one end of the Main Street pedestrian walkway was the Harbor Center and within that complex is KeyBank Center, home of the Sabres. It’s nestled within interstates and state highways, all elevated to bypass the urban center, and the building itself isn’t exactly there to look good.
When you get inside the facility, however, you get the impression of how grandiose the whole place is. It seemed to me that KeyBank could easily fit the XCel Energy Center within its dome. l don’t think that it seated that many more people, I just think the architecture built towards the heavens, or at least so the top of the facility would peak over I-90.
Inside, despite all the flags dedicated to Sabres stars, the Sabres team shop and all the blue and gold across the arena, it was like I was in Toronto. For every Eichel, there were two Phil Kessels. Yeah, not even Auston Matthews, Phil Kessel outpaced the Eichels. Everywhere I went, every level, every stand, store or concession, I was surrounded by Leafs fans. When I got to my seat, I sat in front of a row of Leafs fans, with a crew of Leafs fans to my right and a group of French Canadians to my left, there to cheer against Toronto as much to cheer for the Sabres. It was all about the Maple Leafs.
The crew to my right was far and away the noisiest. There were about 5 people, kids, really, that crossed the border just for the game. They were as knowledgeable about hockey as any nearby fan at any event I’ve been to. They also didn’t shut up. I consider myself fortunate that, as they were lamenting, the legal age in the States is 21, rather than 18. Still, they were a good barometer for the mood of Toronto fans across the arena. Hint: It was good. They were also my first real interaction with real Canadian hockey fans in the wild. The accent is real!
After a pretty cool intro video which was based on the history of hockey video games (“Oh, pitter-patter!,” said the kid next to me as the lights cut out), starting with some original Nintendo Ice Hockey animated players projecting onto the ice, things went to hell early for the Sabres. They were unable to maintain puck posession, and it got increasingly worse. Suddenly, about 5 minutes into the game, the Leafs went from 0-0 to 3-0 in the span of less than a minute. Two of the goals were awful in-zone turnovers, and the third was a snap shot off the draw. Robin Lehner was pulled, but the game was pretty much already over.
Leo Komarov, Auston Matthews and James van Riemsdyk accounted for the three goals, but from that point forward, the star of the game was back up goalie Anders Nilsson. The Maple Leafs didn’t let up the pressure, peppering Nilsson with 40 more shots, of which Nilsson stopped 39. The Sabres ended up with 22 shots for the entire game, and only two of them came in the first period. When Buffalo did score, it came on breakaways from Ryan O’Reilly in the 2nd and Eichel with a minute remaining, but never threatening within the natural course of action.
The Sabres did a heck of a job rendering themselves unlikable throughout the game as well. The Sabres took several penalties, but only one, an Eichel boarding call in the third, was a “mistake” born from a slip up on the ice. Evander Kane took a slashing penalty at the end of the first that bordered on assault. Later, he tried to pick a fight with Nazem Kadri, and was ejected. After Kadri scored the fourth and final goal of the game for Toronto, Rasmus Ristolainen took exception to something and earned himself a 10 minute misconduct as well. Nobody thought Buffalo was being wronged. If anything, any sympathy for their plight evaporated.
Alexander Nylander, the younger brother of William, made his NHL debut, despite not excelling in Rochester. He played as a linemate of Kane and O’Reilly, and was notable because he was the smallest, most tentative member of the line. While William notched an assist, he definitely blended into his team better. This is a good thing for a playoff squad that dominated their game. One player that did stand out was Mitch Marner. He was the one player that I noticed every time he was on the ice. He also earned an assist on Kadri’s third period goal. He worked hard and deserved it.
At the end of the game, leaving KeyBank Center, there was loud chanting that rattled the glass on the exterior of the Buffalo Sabres home arena.
“Go, Leafs, Go. Go, Leafs, Go”