BUFFALO – The cheers started before Friday’s season finale. First, fans applauded Ryan Miller’s name in the starting lineup. Minutes later, as the Sabres honored the goalie as their MVP prior to his 500th NHL game, Miller received a loud ovation.
Some fans ever stood up.
It was a far cry from last Friday, when Miller sarcastically saluted the crowd in between two Bronx cheers.
That ugly outing felt like the end of Miller’s 10-year Sabres career. But the 32-year-old, never one to turn down a challenge, wanted Friday’s start badly.
Clearly, the sellout crowd of 19,070 fans inside the First Niagara Center wanted to watch Miller, who could be traded this offseason, at least one last time.
They cheered him throughout, including after his shootout save on the New York Islanders’ John Tavares secured the Sabres’ 2-1 victory. They roared again when Miller was announced as the game’s first star.
The offseason has officially started for the Sabres, who missed the playoffs for the second straight season.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Miller, who became the 62nd goalie to play 500 games. “I just tried to take a moment to enjoy everything and take a moment to enjoy a milestone. With the position we were in, not being able to make the playoffs, it was just something I need to take my mind to a little bit different place and just try to enjoy the guys and just try to look around the crowd and appreciate all the signs everyone had up.”
Time will tell if Miller’s distinguished run here is over.
At least one long NHL career ended Friday night, though.
Following the game, forward Jochen Hecht, the Sabres’ longest-tenured player at 10 seasons, announced he was retiring from the NHL to return home and play in Germany, a move he believes is best for his family.
“There’s going to be more,” Hecht said, “but not in the NHL.”
Hecht then started breaking down.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Hecht, who was sporting a fur coat for being “Player of the Game.” “I’ve got some great memories. I lived here and loved this place for 10 years or 11 years, and Buffalo became my second home to me.”
Hecht broke into the NHL with St. Louis in 1998-99 and played 833 games. Ironically, his first was in Buffalo.
“It was kind of full circle,” he said.
What was his favorite memory?
The Sabres’ Game 7 loss to Carolina in the 2006 Eastern Conference final ranks No. 1.
“After 14 years in this league, now I know that you don’t get a lot of chances,” said Hecht, who also got a chance in the shootout. “This was the biggest one for me.”
Miller said Hecht can return to Germany a “hockey hero.”
“But we’re going to miss him over here in North America,” he said.
Seeing so many teammate leave recently isn’t easy, Miller said.
“Everything comes to an end,” Miller said. “It’s not always clean and easy. Most of the time it’s a little bit dirty and it’s not any fun. It’s hard to kind of watch these guys leave the team one by one.”
No one knows what’s next.
Will the Sabres tweak or rebuild fully after trading several high-profile veterans prior to the trade deadline?
Miller has seen progress recently.
“It’s too bad the season is so short,” he said. “I’m not going to say we wouldn’t have made the playoffs otherwise and make an excuse. It is too bad it is a little short because you could start to see some of the feelings and attitudes you need to win hockey games as a group.”
It’s unclear if slick winger Thomas Vanek, the Sabres’ leading scorer with 20 goals and 41 points, will be back. The Austrian, like Miller, has one year left on his contract.
“I really don’t know,” Vanek, who scored in the shootout, said about his future. “I haven’t talked to anyone.”
Vanek said there are “different ways to rebuild.”
“You see Montreal they were down last year and they’re right back in it,” he said.
Meanwhile, interim Sabres coach Ron Rolston said there’s no timetable on his future.
“They have until June basically,” he said.
Brian Flynn scored for the Sabres. Keith Aucoin tallied for the Isles.
The Sabres are sending Flynn, Mikhail Grigorenko and Mark Pysyk to Rochester. The Americans begin their first-round AHL playoff series this afternoon in Toronto.
Prior to the game, the Sabres named forward Marcus Foligno their top rookie. Defenseman Mike Weber was named “Unsung Hero.”