The biggest Sabres game of the year – and perhaps of the past decade – will take place on the far eastern end of the Empire State tomorrow when the Islanders play host to Buffalo.
To call this game merely "important" is a massive understatement.
Buffalo is currently four points behind the Islanders with four games in hand, and if the Sabres can beat Connor McDavid’s Oilers tonight, the Sabres could overtake Lane Lambert’s squad for one of the two wild card spots with a win on the island tomorrow. Even if the Sabres lose tonight, they could draw within two points of the Islanders tomorrow night with a win there, and they’d have three games in hand. It’s a huge game with tremendous playoff implications.
That got me thinking: what is the most recent, most important game that the Sabres have played?
It’s an easy choice for me: Game 6 of the 2011 Eastern Conference Quarter Finals against the Philadelphia Flyers at HSBC Arena in Buffalo. Sure, one could argue that game 7 in Philly was just as important because the Sabres still had a chance to win the series, but the Sabres had a better chance to clinch the series at home in game 6 in what turned out to be a terrific game, even if the Sabres ultimately lost it 5-4 in overtime.
There are so many excellent storylines in this game: Thomas Vanek at the height of his powers going tit-for-tat with turncoat Danny Briere in a scoring frenzy, an overtime finish, and of course, Ville Leino seals the deal for the Flyers which led Darcy Regier to sign Leino to a monster deal later that off-season. No one leaving the arena that night knew at the time – perhaps least of all, me, at 20-years-old – that it would be the last home playoff game for at least a decade. Those like me who took the long, quiet walk back to their cars knew, however, that a massive opportunity had been squandered at home.
Tomorrow will be a lower-stakes opportunity to win a contest nearly as important.
Is there a game during the drought that measures up? It feels like they were always out of it by December. In some ways, the most important game was the one that wasn’t played against the Montreal Canadiens on March 24, 2020, right as the Covid-19 pandemic began. Had that game been played, and had the Sabres won, they would have taken Montreal’s spot in the playoffs later that summer. This has always been my favorite what-if scenario about the Sabres drought teams: What if the Sabres made the play-in? What if they won a series like Montreal did? Would Eichel have mailed in his next season and exposed himself to injury? Would he ever have been traded? Is that even a better outcome? That game, of course, was cancelled as the world shut down.
Let me know what your “last, most important game” is in the comments section.
It’s not often that Connor McDavid is overshadowed, much less by a player with two measly goals on the season.
That will be the case tonight, though, as McDavid and his 122-point travelling road show hits the ice in Buffalo. There really are no superlatives big enough to encapsulate the pure, offensive wizardry of McDavid as he nears a two-point-per-game pace this season.
“Phenomenal” is one word that comes to mind.
As for the two-goal player in question, it’s Jordan Greenway who will make his Sabres debut tonight while playing on a line with Zemgus Girgensons and Kyle Okposo in place of the banged-up Tyson Jost. The Sabres, of course, gave up 2nd and 5th round draft picks to acquire Greenway from the Minnesota Wild, and after some weather-related travel delays prevented him from playing against Tampa on Saturday, he’ll be ready to go tonight.
The Sabres have really been missing a player like him, and while he’s somewhat fallen out of favor with the Wild coaching staff and the Wild fans due to his offensive downturn, many Wild fans still speak fondly of him as 1/3rd of the “Greef” line composed of Greenway, Joel Erikkson Ek and former Sabre Marcus Foligno.
Tonight he’ll get his feet wet while playing in a no-lose scenario with Girgensons and Okposo. Fans will get to see the kind of high-energy (dare I say) truculent brand of hockey without any offensive expectations due to his linemates.
Look for some up-tempo, physical play. As for the future, it’s easy to see Greenway fitting either on a heavy, playoff-style line with Alex Tuch and Dylan Cozens, or with the more defensively minded Peyton Krebs and playmaker Casey Mittelstadt in a more balanced third line. Greenway offers a tremendous amount of versatility throughout the lineup either way.
Sabres fans will get their first taste of his game tonight as it’s been pointed out that he and Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse have a bit of a history with each other when it comes to physical play.
It should be fun to watch even if McDavid does McDavid things and the Sabres lose.