BUFFALO — The game is still the same.
While almost everything else has changed, on the ice, hockey is hockey for the Buffalo Sabres.
Terry Pegula has been an agent of change for the franchise since purchasing the team in February, but this season will see the full effect of his ownership.
Buffalo has gone 4-1 in the preseason, winning both its home games in front of sellout crowds producing noise worthy of a regular-season game.
Getting to opening night, however, has a much different feel this fall. Next week the Sabres will ship off to Europe to open the regular season, leaving behind an arena, nee, center full of Pegula-funded construction projects including a brand new locker room.
“Everyone’s pretty anxious, we heard it’s going to be really nice,” Sabres forward Tyler Ennis said after Saturday’s 3-2 win over Toronto.
Ennis spoke in the small dressing room used by the Bandits lacrosse team. Construction has made for a bit of chaos the last few weeks, but he said the new digs and other changes are exciting.
“There’s been some really good changes happening. There’s a great buzz around the city and in the room and everyone’s pumped,” Ennis said. “Everyone can feel it and we’re excited to get going.”
Constructing the team has been a different experience for GM Darcy Regier as well. A summer full of long-term contracts and extensions have the team working against the real salary cap, forcing winger Ales Kotalik and defenseman Shaone Morrisonn to the farm in Rochester and eating $5 million in combined salary.
In years past, those heavy contracts forced them to play. Now, with money no object, they can’t even get in during preseason.
“The difficulty with the cap, being over the cap is that had either of these players played a game and been injured ... in order for us to get under the cap we would have had to waive or trade other players so it made it very difficult,” Regier said in a meeting with reporters before Saturday’s game.
Speaking in front of a photo of Kotalik walking out of the Ralph Wilson Stadium tunnel before the Winter Classic, Regier said both are “obviously” NHL-worthy players.
Worthy for the league, perhaps, but no longer good enough for the Sabres.
All this different is supposed to be better, and better means wins. No matter where the Sabres put on their uniforms, the winning is now expected to come when they take the ice. Even in the preseason.
“Every night we go out there, the last thing coach says is ‘Let’s go win a hockey game,’” forward Luke Adam said. “You never go into any hockey game whether it’s shinny in the summer time, an exhibition game or the Stanley Cup Finals coming out to lose.”
Lucky for them, winning is all that’s left to do for the Sabres. The rest has been taken care of.