BY Ryan Nagelhout
At some point on Friday night you realized the enormity of the moment.
Maybe it was when the black carpet on the HSBC Arena ice was covered with former Sabres in white jerseys, a sea of alumni back to celebrate the team’s 40th anniversary before puck drop.
For others it was the last minute of play in regulation, with Tyler Myers understanding the significance of a point and staying put in the defensive zone as the crowd rose to its feet to celebrate a playoff berth.
The Sabres’ stunning turnaround from Eastern Conference bottom dweller to playoff team starts squarely with the ownership of Terry Pegula. Everything changed in February when Pegula and Ted Black took over, and the emotional change with the entire franchise is impossible to overstate.
A perfect example of that change was the way the alumni have embraced the franchise in the short time Pegula has taken over. After a lackluster “40th anniversary celebration” earlier in the year while still owned by Tom Golisano, Pegula literally threw out the red carpet for over 75 former Sabres players and held a get together the night before Friday’s game.
"It was just more conversations about where the current team’s at, the excitement there is and how excited these guys were,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “Whether they played three games, five games, 10. Some of the guys that came back to the event (talked) about how thankful they were to be invited back.”
Former Sabres great Pat LaFontaine said he sees a lot of similarities between Pegula and the team’s original owner, Seymour H. Knox III.
“There’s a lot of similarities to Seymour,” LaFontaine said. “Seymour loved this team, he loved Buffalo. It was like his family, part of his extended family.”
LaFontaine was one of a dozen alumni who flooded the locker room after Buffalo’s 4-3 overtime win over Philadelphia on Friday. Wearing a white Sabres jersey with a patch on the right shoulder in honor of the late Richard Martin, he said that sense of family makes the Sabres a dangerous opponent in the postseason.
“You need that in the playoffs,” he said. “You never know what’s going to happen and you never want to face a team that’s got momentum and excitement. If you look back since Feb. 27, this is the best team in hockey. I don’t think that’s by coincidence.”
All that good will has translated into an extended season for the Sabres, but goaltender Ryan Miller says the team has much to prove when the playoffs start next week.
“A lot of people wrote us off,” says Miller, who will lead the Sabres against the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. “We talked about doing something special and we’re only part of the way done. I think what we need to understand is this isn’t the goal. It’s a stop along the way. It’s a milestone.
“It’s honestly not a cliché, we’re on the right path.”
Contact sports reporter Ryan Nagelhout at 282-2311, ext. 2264.