BUFFALO – It felt like the glory days of the First Niagara Center again, 2006 and 2007 or even the late 1990s. Sabres fans sensed something special was happening, an improbable comeback was in the works.
The crowd grew louder and louder Saturday as the Sabres roared back from a 3-0 third-period deficit against the New York Islanders in just 5:12. When Chris Stewart’s nifty goal tied it, the 19,070 fans erupted.
The building hadn’t been so loud or raucous in years.
“It felt like a playoff game,” winger Tyler Ennis said about the Sabres’ exciting 4-3 shootout win. “We were saying a lot of us had chills. We’re all pumped up. It really makes you want to get back to the playoffs and get that feeling and get that emotion back.”
Believe it or not, the FNC has quickly become one of the NHL’s toughest arenas for visitors. The rebuilding Sabres have won nine of their last 11 home games entering tonight’s tilt against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“I don’t think a lot of teams like coming to Buffalo,” Ennis said Tuesday following practice inside HarborCenter. “I think … it’s not fun to play against us at home, and the crowd is a big part of that.”
The Sabres have been wildly entertaining racking up their victories. They have scored 30 goals in their nine wins, 3.3 a game. They have trailed or been tied in the third period in six of those triumphs.
“You get some people who aren’t liking that we’re winning, but I don’t give a crap,” Sabres winger Patrick Kaleta said. “We’re in this to win. Everyone in the locker room is here to put up Ws on the board and make a push for the playoffs, and that’s our goal.”
The Sabres are never out of games, and the crowd knows it. Players are starting to feed off of the energy inside the arena.
Kaleta was so “pumped up” when Stewart scored Saturday, he raced down the ice from the bench.
“Honestly, when you ask me, I think Buffalo has the best fan base in the entire world,” said Kaleta, a native of nearby Angola. “I wouldn’t expect anything less.”
The Sabres are 10-8-2 overall at home this season. They went 13-21-7 at home last year. The building has been packed most nights.
Clearly, the Sabres appreciate their fans’ support. They usually just boo when they’re upset.
Other teams have endured some ugly moments inside their buildings in recent years. Angry Edmonton fans have a penchant for throwing Oilers jerseys on the ice at Rexall Place. Frustrated Toronto fans have tossed Maple Leafs jerseys and waffles – yes, waffles – on the ice at the Air Canada Centre.
“It’s such a great place to play,” Ennis said about Buffalo. “We were talking how when things aren’t going well in other cities, you see jerseys thrown on the ice, and it’s never been like that here. It was such a loud game against the Islanders, and it really gave us a boost, and we’re thankful for the loud cheers.”
Nolan understands what a special place Buffalo can be. His last full season here, 1996-97, the Sabres won the Northeast Division before beating Ottawa in the opening round of the playoffs.
“I’ve always believed if you could give this town something to cheer about, they’re going to cheer loud and proud,” Nolan said. “The way we played (Saturday), especially in that comeback, that’s all we’re looking for here is just a solid effort and entertainment. They certainly got the effort and the entertainment.”
How have the Sabres, who lost their first five home contests in October, improved so quickly?
“I think we’ve been playing a lot simpler,” Ennis said. “I think we’ve been cleaning up our D-zone, and I think the crowd’s helped us a lot. I think the crowd helped big time last game.”
Nolan believes the crowd and the speedy maturation of some of the Sabres’ prospects has ignited the team.
“I think maybe the fans have a big influence on that, the comfort of home,” Nolan said. “We’re getting a little bit more comfortable with one another. The young guys are really emerging. … We got some good, young prospects really starting to come into their own. The team’s feeling better about themselves, so I think that adds to the entertainment value.”