By Pat Murray
BUFFALO — For National Hockey League fans, 2005 was the worst of times and the best of times.
The year started off on a sour note, with the league in the midst of a lockout that wiped out all of the 2004-05 season, including the Stanley Cup playoffs. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the cancellation of the season Feb. 16. It was the first time a major professional sports league in North America canceled an entire season.
Teams were forced to lay off front-office personnel. Restaurants and other businesses near arenas lost the business that 41 hockey nights would bring.
But things are brighter not only for the NHL, but for the Buffalo Sabres as well, as the year comes to a close. The game is back and the product on the ice is better than it’s been in a long time. Scoring is up, the pace of the game is faster and there’s less thuggery. On the local front, the Sabres are among the best teams in the NHL, taking advantage of the new rules that have reduced clutching and grabbing.
The fans have noticed, as well. Attendance in most cities is up from the 2003-04 season. While the Sabres struggled at the gate at the beginning of the season — the result of fan resentment, apathy and the normal lower attendance figures during football season — the box office has been bustling as of late.
“I’m sure it’s tough if you’re a fan and a working family to watch athletes sit out for a whole year. I’m sure there were a lot of disappointed people,” Sabres forward Mike Grier said. “We’re doing our best to get the fans back by working as hard as we can and showing them that we care by taking time out for them. Fortunately, we’ve been able to win some games along the way and that always helps.”
The Sabres hit Christmas tied for third place in the overall standings, just two points behind Ottawa and Detroit. The Sabres have earned at least one point in 18 of their last 20 games. The team’s success has Western New York talking more about the Sabres and less about the Bills.
“The players appreciate the support they’re getting,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “The fans appreciate how hard the team has been working. It’s really been a case where it’s a team total effort. The fans are excited to see the brand of hockey we’ve been playing.”
The Sabres don’t have any bona-fide superstar on the roster, but have a number of hard-working, gritty players who are a perfect fit for a blue-collar town. Ales Kotalik and Tim Connolly were tied for the team lead in scoring on Christmas with 26 points apiece, a number that was nowhere near the NHL leaders in the offensive-minded NHL. Jaromir Jagr led the NHL with 54 points. Tampa Bay’s Vincent Lecavalier was 30th with 35 points, nine points ahead of Buffalo’s leading scorers.
The Sabres have received strong goaltending from Martin Biron and Ryan Miller. Biron won 13 straight starts earlier this season, while Miller has won three straight starts after returning from a broken thumb.
“We’re finding ways to win,” Ruff said. “It may be special teams, it may be great goaltending, it may be strong defensive play. It’s been a little bit of each.”
The NHL modified its rules to make the game more exciting. It eliminated the red line when it came to the two-line pass. It clamped down on obstruction, making the game more wide open. It reduced the size of the equipment worn by goaltenders, giving players more room to shoot at.
Unlike Father’s Day, there are no more ugly ties in the NHL. Any game tied after regulation and the five-minute overtime is decided by a penalty-shot shootout that has fans on the edge of their seats. Teams get one point for a loss in overtime or a shootout.
The Sabres have enjoyed success in shootouts so far, winning three of the four they’ve been involved in.
“The fans love the shootout,” Grier said. “The game is a little bit faster and a bit more eye-catching to someone who wasn’t normally a hockey fan. Hopefully, we can keep bringing fans back.”
As long as the product on the ice is entertaining, that’s a goal the Sabres, and the rest of the NHL, should achieve.