by Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette — It didn’t take long for the fans at First Niagara Center to start chanting Sunday afternoon.
Before the players even took the ice, the crowd — a sellout of 19,070 — let roar a “Let’s Go Buffalo” at playoff hockey volume.
After a labor disagreement wiped out almost four months of National Hockey League play, it was questionable what kind of support the league would receive finally starting up. But not in this region, Head Coach Lindy Ruff said following the Buffalo Sabres 5-2 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers Sunday.
“Our fans have been awesome,” Ruff said. “As soon as we got rolling, I think they were the ones that pushed us to that next level.
“We really do have a city that starves for hockey. We’ve got fans that are passionate when you win and they’re passionate when we’re losing. I don’t know if I’d want to be in a different place.”
Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller was ready to get back on the ice and play some hockey. He was excited for the season to begin. But it wasn’t just for himself. Miller, who spent the majority of December and early January negotiating to end the work stoppage, wanted to entertain the fans as well.
He said their attitudes, especially in the Buffalo Niagara market, is about the love of hockey and he felt like the crowd stepped up Sunday.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve been here for our fans,” Miller said. “For them to be patient and come back and sellout and be excited and cheer and be on our side felt good. I really didn’t worry about Buffalo fans so much. We’ve got good people here and they love hockey.”
Sunday’s contest had its moments of shakiness, especially coming off such an extended absence. The fans noticed it, as did the players.
After the puck dropped, some of the intensity from the pregame festivities died down as the two teams tried to figure each other out.
But after the team scored the first goal — by newcomer Steve Ott playing his first game for Buffalo following a July trade with the Dallas Stars — both the team and its fans settled in.
“It helped, getting the first goal,” assistant captain Drew Stafford said. “When you haven’t played in eight, nine months, it’s one of those things you get your legs under you.”
“We’re fortunate to have the people, the fans, we have behind us here,” Sabres captain Jason Pominville said. “They’re great. They’re behind us no matter what. I think we feed off the energy they bring us and it was good tonight. It was a loud building. They were just getting warmed up too, but it was nice to see them that loud and it was exciting to play in front of them.”
This wasn’t the first opportunity the team had to play in front of eager, salivating Sabres fans. The team held an intrasquad scrimmage last week after a one-week training camp began in earnest following the announcement of a new collective bargaining agreement between owners and players.
It offered everyone involved a chance to get excited about hockey again, but it never felt like the real thing. Stafford said the level of excitement to start the season this year has been high. And with Sunday’s game, the team is off and rolling, complete with its first victory.
“I think that was the most exciting thing,” Stafford said. “Not playing a game for eight, nine months and getting out there in front of the crowd. I mean, we had that intrasquad scrimmage but it really wasn’t the same, when you’re hitting your own guys. It was definitely a huge get out there, and we can’t thank the fans enough for selling out and giving us this support and hopefully we put on a good show for them (Sunday).”MORE INSIDE Complete coverage of Sunday's Sabres victory. SPORTS, 1B