BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — The Sabres picked up where they left off last spring, beating the Senators 4-1 in Thursday night’s home opener. JJ Peterka and Rasmus Dahlin scored 2:54 apart in the second period, Victor Olofsson added two empty-net goals, and Craig Anderson made 35 saves as Buffalo rallied to win its opening game for the third consecutive year and fifth time during its playoff drought. Here are four observation from the victory:
Drawing a crowd
It wasn’t a full house at KeyBank Center. But the crowd was one of the largest the Sabres have played in front of over the past few seasons, and the atmosphere in and around the downtown arena had the aura of better days from year’s past.
Rain didn’t dampen turnout for the pregame Party in the Plaza, and paid attendance was 15,534 (81% capacity). That’s better than all but two games in ’21-22 when Buffalo ranked second to last in the league with the lowest average attendance (9,997) since the team’s expansion season. Thursday night’s crowd nearly doubled that of last year’s home opener (8,467), and players felt the buzz.
“You see that crowd and you just want to basically run through a wall,” Dahlin said. “We love having them here. We’re gonna keep winning so they stay. We’re very happy about it.”
Buffalo’s biggest crowds last season came on the nights when beloved broadcaster Rick Jeanneret was the main attraction. Even when Jack Eichel made his anticipated return with the Vegas Golden Knights, paid attendance was 12,437.
Jeanneret, now serving as the team’s broadcaster emeritus, lent his familiar voice to welcoming fans and introducing the team. New captain Kyle Okposo received the loudest ovation from the crowd when he was introduced last.
But the biggest cheers came when Bills quarterback Josh Allen was shown on the video scoreboard watching from a luxury box. Allen wore Alex Tuch’s No. 89 sweater, as Tuch has donned Allen’s No. 17 jersey for games in Orchard Park this season.
The youngest lineup in the NHL is coming of age. Buffalo’s first two goals were scored by the 20-year-old Peterka and 22-year-old Dahlin, while Dylan Cozens, 21, and Peyton Krebs, 22, had primary assists.
Peterka was perhaps the most impactful skater on the ice following a shaky preseason. He generated a team-high three of the Sabres’ 10 high-danger scoring chances, according to Natural Stat Trick, and recorded his first NHL point in his third career game.
“Just pure joy,” Peterka said. “I was so excited.”
Buffalo Sabres center Peyton Krebs (19) congratulates right wing JJ Peterka (77) after Peterka’s goal against the Ottawa Senators during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Joshua Bessex)
Peterka’s excitement was enhanced by the enthusiastic crowd.
“Just special,” he said. “Incredible sports fans. Just such a good feeling that they made so much noise tonight.”
Cozens, in his 121st NHL game, set up Peterka on a give-and-go for the tying goal. Sabres coach Don Granato praised Cozens’ leadership in centering a line with Peterka and Krebs.
“I thought he played a game tonight that was a man’s game,” Granato said. “He looked like a seasoned NHL vet. Strong on pucks, strong in faceoffs. And it was very impressive. He is a guy that will lead by example.”
Of the 18 skaters in Buffalo’s lineup, 12 were selected in the first or second rounds of the past eight drafts.
Anderson, the least youthful player in the NHL at 41, belied his age with standout effort against his former team. His 35 stops and .972 save percentage matched his best performance from 31 starts last season. That included saves on a number of breakaways, and he showed savvy with a crucial poke check late in the third period.
Buffalo Sabres goaltender Craig Anderson (41) blocks a shot during the second period of the team’s NHL hockey game against the Ottawa Senators on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Joshua Bessex)
“Yeah, I blacked out,” Anderson said with a chuckle. “I wasn’t about to just let him have a freebie and I took my chances. And I don’t know, maybe next time I’ll get beat on it and I’ll look silly. But for us tonight, it worked.”
At 144 days from his 41st birthday, Anderson became the third-oldest goaltender in the NHL’s modern era to win his team’s opening game, following 42-year-olds Dominik Hasek (2007) and Johnny Bower (1967).
“To win games, you need a goalie like that,” Dahlin said. “And we trust him with everything. Almost too much. So we’re really happy to have him and he brings such a calm to our game.”
Eric Comrie, the 27-year-old signed during free agency, should make his first start for the Sabres in Saturday’s game against Florida.
Buffalo’s second-oldest player, Okposo, 34, had a secondary assist on Dahlin’s winning goal.
The Sabres and Senators gathered on the ice together during pregame with family members of the victims of the racially motivated mass shooting in Buffalo on May 14.
“It’s important tonight that we were able to have some of the family members from East Buffalo here,” Granato said. “Our guys have thought about that and went to that site. And that was big for our guys and for us to try to do something. So I thought that was nice to see Ottawa participate in that as well.”
The Sabres also showed a video tribute in memoriam of former coach Joe Crozier, who died the past week. Members of Crozier’s family, including his son Rich Crozier, the St. Joe’s varsity hockey coach, watched the game from a luxury received an ovation from the crowd when they were shown on the scoreboard.