Recently, Die By the Blade asked readers which stories they’d like to see as we continue to wait for October. Swontfan wrote: “Another possibility is recap of best 5-10 games from 2021-22 season.” I’ll rank my favorite top five, and DBTB’s readers will, of course, have their own opinions.
1) RJ Night: KeyBank Center, Apr. 1, 2022
RJ Night was the evening to celebrate and commemorate legendary Sabres broadcaster Rick Jeanneret. During a season when the home team was lucky to sell more than 8,000 tickets per game, more than 19,000 fans poured into downtown Buffalo to cheer on their hero, RJ and by extension, the Buffalo Sabres.
The whole night was magical, from the pregame opening ceremony, when Jeanneret, overcome with emotion, told the crowd “I only have three words: I love you”, to the three intense periods, to Jeanneret’s postgame escort onto the ice:
The Sabres sensed that they couldn’t let down the sellout crowd by losing to the Nashville Predators. Tage Thompson scored two goals in the first period, but as the game went on the Preds whittled away Buffalo’s lead. At one point the game was tied, but fortunately, Victor Oloffson scored the game-winning goal on a power play to give the Sabres a 4-3 victory.
2) 2022 NHL Heritage Classic: Hamilton, ON, March 13, 2022
The Buffalo Sabres haven’t traditionally played well at outdoor games. The Winter Classic in 2008, especially, comes to mind. So it was a pleasant surprise to see the Sabres beat their rivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs, at an outdoor rink on a cold late winter day that felt more like January than mid-March.
The matchup was supposed to be a Sabres home game, but you wouldn’t know it watching the coverage. The majority of the fans sported blue and white Leafs jerseys. Brampton Ontario’s own Alessia Cara led the crowd in a chant of Go, Leafs Go! The announcers, with Wayne Gretzky being the exception, had a hard time hiding their pro-Toronto bias.
It was nice to see Buffalo go to work and silence the hostile crowd. The Sabres trailed 2-1 in the second period when Vinnie Hinostroza tied it 2-2 and Peyton Krebs got the lead three minutes later. Tage Thompson scored an empty netter late in the third to seal the 5-2 win. The best part of the action, however, was when Dylan Cozens hit Auston Matthews after the Leafs’ forward cross-checked Rasmus Dahlin across the neck:
Buffalo beat Toronto both on the scoreboard and on the ice.
3) RJ’s Last Hurrah: KeyBank Center, Apr. 29, 2022
After a scoreless first period, Dominik Kubalik put the Hawks on the board 8:47 into the second. The third period would be busy, with Tage Thompson answering back, Dylan Strome taking the lead for Chicago once more and new d-man Owen Power tying the score to force an overtime.
The Sabres and RJ saved the best for last. 2:07 into OT, Casey Mittelstadt got the game-winning goal and Jeanneret made the most of it. The legendary announcer launched into a comment that combined paraphrasing Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s poetry, rhyming verse and RJ’s famous elongated words: “Casey, Casey at the bat, Casey Mittelstadt hammers it home and Buffalo wins it in ooovvveerrtiimmee!”
After the game, nobody left and RJ came down to the ice a second time that season, to shake hands with a line of waiting people, including employees and support staff. A classic ending from a true class act.
4) Sabres Win Against the Wild in Minnesota, Dec. 16, 2021
One of Buffalo’s best road games this past season came in Minnesota in December. The Wild were a tough team to beat on home ice and the Sabres were playing rookie goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. UPL showed why the team should make another deal with him. The Finnish goalie stopped 30 out of 32 shots, including a shootout, something the Sabres often lose.
UPL had some help from a defense and offense that were normally lackluster that December. Dylan Cozens and Mark Pysyk each scored once to keep Buffalo in the game and Tage Thompson got the SO winner. The Sabres didn’t hang back but kept up the pressure, outshooting Minnesota 40-32. The game was a rare treat for Sabres fans that winter. Hopefully it’s the kind of performance Buffalo will repeat far more often this upcoming season.
5) Jack Comes Back and Gets Beat, KeyBank Center, Mar. 10, 2022
Jack Eichel was the Sabres’ big hope in the 2015 NHL Draft. Hockey scouts considered him a generational talent, along with Connor McDavid. Edmonton drafted McDavid, while Buffalo took Eichel.
Things didn’t quite work out the way the fans and managers thought. After No. 15 acted like he didn’t want to be in Buffalo anymore, fans soured on the team’s captain. When the Sabres finally traded Eichel to Vegas for Alex Tuch and Peyton Krebs, many Sabres supporters felt it was good riddance.
Jack Eichel came back to Buffalo wearing a Golden Knights uniform on Mar. 10, 2022. Fans weren’t happy to see him and they booed him every time he touched the puck. What made it more humiliating for the former captain and all the sweeter for the home crowd was what happened at the end of the third period. With Vegas trailing the Sabres 2-1, the Knights pulled their goalie. Alex Tuch, one of the players Vegas traded for Eichel, neatly stole the puck from him and skated gleefully down the ice to score an empty netter and seal a 3-1 win:
Those are my top five. What are yours?