BUFFALO – Eight hours before his Sabres debut, high-scoring winger Matt Moulson joked he wanted Lindy Ruff’s return to the First Niagara Center as the Dallas Stars’ coach to overshadow his night.
Moulson wasn’t letting on Monday morning, but the 29-year-old, having just been acquired Sunday with draft picks from the New York Islanders for star co-captain Thomas Vanek, was incredibly nervous.
“I’m not going to lie, that was probably the most nervous I’ve been for a game since my first game in the NHL,” Moulson said after scoring twice in the Sabres’ 4-3 loss to the Stars. “I had a bit of butterflies in the stomach.”
Nonetheless, Moulson impressed, scoring on his first shot early and again late in the second period.
Ultimately, though, Monday was Ruff’s night.
The Sabres honored the 53-year-old, who was dismissed Feb. 20, with a stirring video montage of highlights from his 10 years as a player and 15 years as coach.
The 18,295 fans inside the First Niagara Center roared, giving Ruff a rousing standing ovation as players at both benches tapped their sticks in appreciation.
“Oh, it was awesome,” Ruff said about the tribute. “I’ve always said the fans of Western New York, this area, have been tremendous. I watched for a little while but I thought I might get a little emotional. So I watched and somebody said I scored a crappy goal, and I said, ‘I doubt that.’ They said, ‘What do you mean, it went off your shin pad.’
“But it was … first class by the organization and something they didn’t have to do.”
Sabres goalie Ryan Miller added: “Lindy’s connection is far beyond hockey. I’m glad we took a moment. He definitely deserved it.”
More than eight months after leaving town, Ruff said he still catches himself.
At times, Ruff might refer to the Sabres as “we.”
“I’ve slipped up the odd time with that one,” Ruff said Monday afternoon.
Other times, Ruff will thumb to the Sabres’ statistics page instead of Dallas’.
Breaking old habits can be tough.
“I tried to avoid any talk about the former team,” Ruff said inside a media room with the Sabres’ podium draped in black and a green Stars background behind him. “Actually, amongst the coaches it’s a fine, a friendly fine.”
Ironically, Monday’s triumph was the Stars’ first win here since their infamous “No Goal” beat Ruff’s Sabres for the 1999 Stanley Cup.
Can Ruff still root for the Sabres?
“Not tonight I can’t,” Ruff said as the room exploded with laughter. “I can root in between games (since) they’re in the East. I root for the city and I root for the team. I want to see them do well.”
Naturally, walking into the building Monday morning was odd.
“Just strange coming and in and going to the other side,” Ruff said. “The first guy you see is James, the security guy. You get a big hug from James (McDuffie). So it was nice. But it is just an incredibly strange feeling.”
So far, Ruff’s Stars are 5-5-1, last in the Central Division. He enjoys a strong relationship with general manager Jim Nill and ownership and has adjusted to Texas.
“Living has been easy,” Ruff said. “We thought we had restaurants in Buffalo. They got restaurants there. Every second place is a restaurant, and my challenge is to try to eat at a different one every night.”
Meanwhile, the hapless Sabres, still winless at home and 2-11-1 overall, play the same game most nights, getting throttled early before making the game interesting.
They did it again Monday.
After falling behind 3-1 in the first period and getting outshot 13-8, opponents have now outscored the Sabres 19-2 during the opening 20 minutes this season and outshot them 191-101.
Goals by Vernon Fiddler, Alex Goligoski, Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn put the Stars up 4-1 just 10:55 into the second period. Steve Ott’s power-play score made it 4-2 at 12:54. Moulson scored again at 17:17.
The Sabres then battled until the end, and the fans responded, cheering them in the final minutes, a far cry from the booing they’ve done most nights.
“I thought our effort was really, really solid tonight,” Ott said. “You work hard like that most nights, you’re going to get ways to win games. We got to stick with this process. … Tonight there was probably the most positive signs I’ve seen in a long, long time.”
Moulson, who skated on the left wing with Cody Hodgson and Tyler Ennis, was a big part of that.
“In every zone he’s solid – in our zone, D-zone he was solid,” Sabres coach Ron Rolston said. “(He) plays his position, got pucks out on the wall, makes little plays through the neutral zone, gets to the net, give and go. He’s a hockey player.”