Sabres coach Ted Nolan had difficulty putting his emotions into words after going 16 years between wins behind the Buffalo bench.
”It was one of those games where you didn’t ever know that this type of day would ever happen again,” Nolan said on Friday night following a 3-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs in his return to Buffalo. ”It was very emotional, so I’ll have a good cry after everybody leaves.”
Sabres captain Steve Ott had no trouble explaining the difference he saw in a team that played its most complete game of the season two days after coach Ron Rolston and general manager Darcy Regier were fired.
Ott didn’t disagree when asked whether the win and Buffalo’s performance reflected an indictment of the previous regime.
”Guys have been playing heavy for a long time. I think this was a full rejuvenation of guys’ careers,” Ott told The Associated Press. ”It’s game on. It’s time to start fresh. It’s like you’re a rookie again.”
Ott led the way with a goal and assist in helping Buffalo (5-15-1) win its second consecutive game for the first time since closing last season with two victories. The Sabres also won their second straight at home after opening the season 0-8-1.
Marcus Foligno scored the go-ahead goal, Ryan Miller stopped 32 shots, and defenseman Christian Ehrhoff made two key plays to secure the win in the final minute.
With Miller looking the other way, Ehrhoff got down to block James van Riemsdyk’s shot directed at an open left side of the net. Seconds later, Ehrhoff got to a loose puck and fired it the length of the ice into the empty net.
”It’s a new start,” Ehrhoff said. ”A lot of guys have been down, and confidence hasn’t been high. When there’s a big change like that, it’s a fresh start for everybody.”
What a difference two days made for a team that got off to its worst start ever.
Nolan was back after he previously spent two seasons coaching the Sabres before leaving over a contract dispute in 1997, after he was named NHL coach of the year. This shake-up also featured the return of former Sabres captain Pat LaFontaine, who made his debut in a newly created role as president of hockey operations.
Trevor Smith scored for the Maple Leafs (11-7-1) who, by comparison, continued a troubling trend. They dropped to 0-2-1 in their past three – their longest losing streak since going 0-3-2 from March 7-16. Toronto has gone 0-3-1 in its past four road games.
The Maple Leafs offense sputtered again. They have scored just four goals in regulation in five games.
Van Riemsdyk was left shaking his head after being robbed by Ehrhoff.
”That was a heck of a play by him,” van Riemsdyk said. ”We’re not getting those bounces right now, but we’ve got to keep pushing forward.”
It doesn’t help that the Leafs are down three centers after Nazem Kadri began serving a three-game suspension for a hit to the head of Minnesota goalie Niklas Backstrom in a 2-1 shootout loss on Wednesday. With centers Dave Bolland (ankle) and Tyler Bozak (hamstring) on the injured list, Toronto was forced to recall Smith from the minors.
Smith opened the scoring 6:25 in with a shot that deflected in off Ehrhoff’s knee.
After giving up the first goal for the 19th time this season, the Sabres scored three.
Ott netted a power-play goal midway through the second by converting a rebound at the right post after goalie Jonathan Bernier got a piece of Tyler Myers’ blast from the left point.
Ott then had a hand in Foligno’s go-ahead goal 5:53 later. Drew Stafford, from his blue line, created a 2-on-1 break by sending a cross-ice pass that hit Ott in stride up the left wing. Driving to the net, Ott slipped the puck through the middle, and Foligno slapped it in before crashing into the net.
LaFontaine received a huge ovation when the Sabres introduced him by first shining a spotlight on his No. 16 that hangs from the rafters. Nolan had fans standing and cheering when he first stepped behind the bench.
This was a major switch for a Sabres fan base that had spent much of the season’s first two months chanting ”Fire Darcy!”
”It was really fun for me to look up once in a while and see how much fans enjoyed this game,” Nolan said. ”Hopefully, it’s a sign of good things to come.”
NOTES: The Leafs were outshot 33-27, the 16th straight time they have failed to have the edge. … The Sabres led after two periods for only the third time this season. … The teams will meet again at Toronto on Saturday.