BUFFALO – In his first season as coach, Dan Bylsma has experienced so much excitement surrounding the Sabres he wonders how crazy it would feel if his team becomes a contender again.
The Sabres, of course, will miss the playoffs for the fifth straight season. Still, to a rabid fan base yearning for postseason hockey, the progress the Sabres have made this season – they’ve improved 25 points with newcomers Jack Eichel, Ryan O’Reilly and others – offers strong hope for the future.
Fans around town and on the road tell Bylsma “how excited they are about how the team is playing and winning hockey games,” he said Friday prior to the Sabres’ 4-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the home finale.
“I don’t know what it would be like if when we put together a winning season and head into the playoffs,” Bylsma said. “I can only imagine what their response would be.”
Bylsma felt passion on his first day as coach in May, when a construction worker across the street at HarborCenter screamed to Bylsma, who was on a balcony outside the First Niagara Center.
That turned out to be a harbinger for this season.
“I think I’ve seen that all year long,” Bylsma said. “I’ve been amazed at the fans, their passion for the Sabres and their excitement about really the team they see on the ice, the work and the resiliency and the effort they’ve seen in this group all year long.
“I’d like it to be better, but I have seen the passion and the excitement they’ve had for how these guys are playing.”
Bylsma knows the passion isn’t limited to hockey. While the Sabres haven’t won a postseason series since 2007, the Buffalo Bills haven’t even made the NFL playoffs since 1999.
“They are starving for success,” Bylsma said about the fans. “They’re … starving for a winner. I feel that every conversation I have with a fan. Every time I’m out with fans they’re starving for that. I look forward to that time when we can give it to them.”
Prior to the game, O’Reilly (21 goals, team-high 59 points) was named team MVP. Eichel (team-high 24 goals, 55 points) was named rookie of the year. Goalie Chad Johnson (21 wins, 2.36 goals-against average, .920 save percentage) was named unsung hero. Winger Marcus Foligno was named man of the year for his community involvement.
To make room for rookie wingers Evan Rodrigues, 22, and Cole Schneider, 25, who were recalled from the AHL on Thursday, the Sabres scratched rookie Hudson Fasching, 20, and Cal O’Reilly. Fasching will likely play in tonight’s season finale on the road against the New York Islanders, Bylsma said.
Fasching hasn’t recorded a point since scoring minutes into his NHL debut March 26.
“Hudson’s got a real good grasp of his game and the success he’s having, where he needs to be better,” Bylsma said. “I’ve talked to him a few times about his game.”
The Sabres also inserted defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo for rookie defenseman Casey Nelson, 23, who also debuted March 26.
“In the last couple (he) has fought the puck a little bit and fought the speed a little bit … and (I) want to give him a step back,” Bylsma said about Nelson.
Colaiacovo had been scratched six straight games.
With rookie goalie Jason Kasdorf ready to play Friday, the Sabres sent Nathan Lieuwen, who backed up Johnson nine games recently, to the Rochester Americans.
Update: The Sabres recalled goalie Linus Ullmark from Rochester this afternoon.
Sabres winger Tyler Ennis, who started practicing Thursday after a concussion sidelined him more than three months, has been wearing a tinted visor that will help him deal with the bright lights in the rink.
Will he have to keep sporting it?
“I’m not sure,” Ennis said. “We’ll see. It definitely feels good. I like it.”
Former Sabres winger Patrick Kaleta wore similar protection after he broke bones in his face last season.