ROCHESTER – The 42nd opening night in Buffalo Sabres history would’ve been “huge,” winger Drew Stafford said, even “amazing.” New seasons breed hope and optimism, and if the NHL lockout wasn’t in its 28th day, both would be sweeping through Buffalo right now.
The club was scheduled to host Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins tonight inside a capacity First Niagara Center.
The Sabres, healthy and stocked with offseason reinforcements, might’ve been considered a chic Eastern Conference contender again. Their dizzying late-season run up the Eastern Conference standings last year, which ultimately fell short, proved they could tear through the league.
The anticipation and a visit from hockey’s biggest superstar could’ve made the atmosphere electric tonight.
“(There would be) a lot of, as usual, the built-up excitement over the summer,” Stafford said Friday about opening night after skating with six other players at the Northtown Center in Amherst. “Obviously, the frustrations in the spring, then that leads to a breath of fresh air coming in the fall here. Everyone’s anxious and everyone’s excited to get the season going.”
If the season was proceeding, what might be happening?
Would slick 18-year-old Mikhail Grigorenko, who’s back dominating junior hockey, have made the Sabres? Would Marcus Foligno still be developing into an elite power forward? Would Cody Hodgson be morphing into a top center?
For some of those answers, look about 75 miles from Buffalo down the thruway to Rochester, where the lockout has left the Americans, like many other AHL affiliates, stacked with big leaguers.
Hockey, after all, is still being played everywhere except the NHL.
Hodgson, the Sabres’ No. 2 center on paper, pivoted Luke Adam and Corey Tropp on Friday during the Amerks’ season opener before 8,589 fans inside the Blue Cross War Memorial, an entertaining 6-5 shootout win over the Syracuse Crunch.
It’s possible all three would be playing in the NHL tonight. Adam already had two goals, four points and was the Sabres’ top center a year ago at this time.
It took one shift for the trio to make its mark Friday. Just 36 seconds into the contest, Hodgson roared in on a two-on-one break, scorched a defender and dished to Tropp for the season’s first goal.
Tropp, who left the game in the third period and was on crutches after, scored again later in the period. Foligno tallied minutes later.
With so much talent in Rochester, wild games like Friday’s could be the first of many. The Amerks blew a 4-1 lead, rallied and then got the shootout winner from old friend Mark Mancari, who made his first Amerks appearance since 2008.
The Sabres stuck in Rochester during the 2004-05 lockout – Ryan Miller, Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek and others – have often spoken about how a season together bonding and developing buoyed their careers.
“This is a league that we can thrive in and do well at,” Foligno said. “I think if we really got to take advantage of it. We can’t just lay back and pout about, ‘Oh, the NHL’s not on.’ So there’s no excuses.”
With no progress being made in collective bargaining agreement negotiations, this current group might enjoy the same unique opportunity.
“I remember when I was playing in ‘04 in the minors,” Sabres forward Cody McCormick said. “We were playing in situations that maybe we wouldn’t have been in in the NHL. So I grew as a player. It’s an opportunity to make themselves better players.”
Sabres defenseman Jordan Leopold said the youngsters “have to make the most of their opportunity.”
“The AHL’s going to be a good league because of the lockout,” he said. “It was in 2004-05. They’re going have to up their game and play and compete at a top level down there. It’ll be good for them.”
But it’s not a good situation for the other Sabres. McCormick’s happy the league and players are at least talking.
He knows the canceled opener could’ve been a memorable one.
“It’s definitely something you look forward to,” McCormick said, “and I feel bad for the 18,000 fans that would’ve been there and the people around the rink with bar owners, the restaurant owners. … The players want to play for them.”
Stafford added: “Just like every year, this time of year for the fans around here, it’s a special time. Right now, we’re missing that. It’s devastating. It’s unfortunate for everyone involved, not just the players.”
Notes: Zemgus Girgensons, the 14th overall pick in June, made his professional debut. The 18-year-old Latvian played left wing beside Phil Varone and Evan Rankin. Meanwhile, 20-year-old defenseman Mark Pysyk, the 23rd pick in 2010, scored a goal in his pro debut beside T.J. Brennan. … The Sabres unveiled a statue of the famed French Connection line – Rick Martin, Gilbert Perreault and Rene Robert – Friday outside the FNC.