So That’s What Playoff Hockey Feels Like

I recently attended my first NHL playoff game in 11 years.

April 20, 2011.

That was the last time I attended a Stanley Cup Playoff game. It was a 1-0 win for the Buffalo Sabres over the Philadelphia Flyers that night, in front of a sold-out crowd at HSBC Arena that included 20-year-old Melissa and 18,689 others. With the win, the Sabres tied the series thanks to a goal from Jason Pominville. Ryan Miller had a 32-save shutout.

It’s been over 11 years since I got to experience in-person NHL playoff hockey. That year, 2011, was the last time the Sabres made the playoffs. They haven’t won a series since 2006-07. Safe to say: it’s been a while.

Last week, my personal NHL playoff drought ended. I spent the week down in North Carolina visiting family, and while there, was afforded the opportunity to take in game five of the Carolina Hurricanes - New York Rangers series.

It was everything I could’ve hoped for and so much more. More than anything, it reminded me of just how incredible the playoff atmosphere is and how intense the on-ice action is. More than once throughout the night, I thought to myself: Wow, I can’t wait until the Sabres are back in the playoffs and we get to feel this in Buffalo.

Highlights of the game experience itself? There are many. Overall, the Hurricanes put on a great show. Their hype videos, both pregame and in-game, are incredibly well-put together. They’ve got a video for every media timeout. It feels like an organic way to engage the crowd and keep people pumped up.

The hurricane siren sounder is a nice local touch. For the game I went to, US soccer legend Clint Dempsey was on the pregame siren duty - and we were sitting right below it all. It’s just a special touch that adds to the overall experience, and made me wonder what kinds of  similar things the Sabres could implement in a playoff atmosphere.

Just imagine Alex Tuch skating out onto the ice for the first playoff game in Buffalo in 12 years. I’ve got chills just thinking about it. Imagine Rasmus Dahlin skating past center ice during a stoppage in play and taking a beat to look around at the uproarious crowd. Imagine Peyton Krebs, building off his experience with playoffs in Rochester and the insanity of that atmosphere, and it getting even better in Buffalo.

(Full disclosure: I also got the chance to attend the Canes’ pregame production meeting, which gave me an incredible inside look at how they run things & an increased appreciation for the game presentation crew! Eight cameras?!)

Of course, it helped bolster the atmosphere even more that the Hurricanes won that game. The Stanley Cup graphic with the updated warning flags - with one more filled in - projected onto the ice after the game was awesome.

Being reminded of what NHL playoff hockey felt like made me want it more than ever back in Buffalo. Everyone in the house on the edge of their seats, inhaling & exhaling with each whistle. Hanging onto every play. Booing the refs for questionable calls. Cheering for penalties against the opponent. Everyone was so into it. It reminded me of the RJ Night game, which is probably the closest KeyBank Center has felt to a playoff game in years.

Boy, will it be nice to experience the magic - that’s what it feels like, magic - of the Stanley Cup Playoffs back in Buffalo again soon. Fans have been waiting for years. Some have come, some have gone. Media has been waiting, too. And the players? The coaches? They’re just as eager to extend their seasons and have the chance to play for the ultimate prize. Alex Tuch was 14 the last time the Sabres made the playoffs, for goodness’ sake.

Here’s to hoping that 2023 will be the year it all happens - and here’s to hoping that KeyBank Center can handle the first Sabres’ playoff game in 12 years. The roof might just blow.