Why I Love Hockey #29 - Seeing Games in Person
I've mentioned a time or two (or three or four) that I grew up in Birmingham, AL. Birmingham, for those not in the know, has no professional sports teams. Atlanta was the closest pro sports city while I was growing up (and still is, I think) but due to my single mother's work schedule and some financial restraints, we only got over there for a game every couple of baseball seasons. So the very fact that I can just get in my car and drive fifteen minutes down the road to watch a pro sports team play still seems very much like a luxury.
Watching this particular sports team in this particular city at this particular time however is even more special. I love everything about going to Sabres games which I did tonight for the first time this season. I love fans milling around in the lobby before the game, laughing and smiling and looking forward to a couple hours of fun no matter how good or bad the previous game was. I love looking over every inch of the mural there, pointing out the different players and the best and worst pictures (best: a toss up between sneering Teppo and bleeding Mair, worst: Timmy with that stupid fu manchu). I love keeping a running tally of all the different jerseys worn - Miller and Afinogenov still way out front with Pominville, Roy, and Vanek gaining - and I love finding one that I don't see often. A little girl in a Kotalik jersey! Someone brave enough to wear a Kalinin jersey! God bless you!
I love settling in our seats and feeling a buzz start to build as the clock winds down. I love the cheesy "I Love This Town" video, especially the shot of a grinning Henrik Tallinder ("say hey!") and the intros of the starting line-ups. I love hearing Doug Allen sing the anthems, complete with finger pointing. I love watching Ryan Miller stare up intently at the flag with the image of a waving American flag superimposed on the ice around him. I love the crowd going nuts when the singing is over and hearing, "And now let's play some hockey!" I love that first spontaneous "LET'S GO BUFF-A-LO!" chant.
I love how engaged the crowd at a hockey game is. I think the speed and constant motion of the game demands it. Baseball is a slower, easy-going sport and because of that, the crowd tends to be laid back as well. There's nothing wrong with that, but there's something special about the up and down excitement of a hockey game. I love 18,000 heads going back and forth and back and forth as the puck moves down the ice. I love how united the crowd's reaction is: Everyone scooting to the edge of their seat and leaning forward when Max gets the puck and starts gaining speed, everyone gasping at the picture perfect pass Timmy fed to Al in front of the net, everyone watching the replay of a big save on the (snazzy new and improved) jumbotron and that one guy responding with, "Holy shit! I can't believe he stopped that!" I loved the crowd giving the kick ass penalty killing standing ovations, cheering every time the puck was sent flying down the ice. I loved the crowd cheering for Jason Pominville's goal and then taking it to another level when the fans put up the "1" next to "Pomminville Population" up in the 300s section. I loved walking around during the first intermission, hearing Harry Neale say, "Atlanta hasn't won yet and it looks like they won't win tonight either," and then hearing more than a few fans yell, "Shut up!"
I love how the whole world feels perfect and light after a win. I love fans whooping and hollering as they pour out of the arena. I love seeing how excited the younger fans are about being up past their regular bedtime and seeing a great game of hockey (Overheard conversation between a young son and his father: "Dad, what a great day to be a Sabres fan! We just kicked their anus holes right back to Atlanta!" "What did you just say?" "Anus holes!" "What?!" "ANUS HOLES!" "Don't say that." "... We just kicked their scrotums!") I love, love, love one car honking "Let's Go Buff-a-lo!" (honk, honk, honkhonkhonk) and cars all across downtown honking back in reply. I love that strange but undeniable camaraderie you feel with the strangers walking alongside of you and I love the overwhelming affection I always feel for the entire city of Buffalo in those moments. It's awesome.
Some quick notes about the game:
I think the Sabres were noticeably more relaxed tonight. They were focused and keyed in but they didn't seem to be pressing nearly as hard as they were in the first couple of games. Lindy clearly got on to them about doing all the little things right because there was less cutesy stuff and more work - chipping the puck into the offensive zone and chasing it down, cycling things down low, using the body a little. Tom mentioned over at Sabre Rattling how some of the current Sabres have struggled at home, often seeming to want to impress the fans with flashy play. Tonight they seemed more committed to playing simple and smart and it was effective.
What to say about the special teams? Geez louise. Three power play goals and perfect on the penalty kill? I'll take that any night. I can't even remember the last time I was actually excited about getting a penalty call. I won't pretend to understand all the different power play set-ups and structures but the puck movement just seemed much quicker than last season and things cycled to everyone and not just back and forth between a couple of players. The unit of Connolly, Gaustad, Kotalik, Campbell, and Spacek was particularly impressive. I've already heard some grumbling that Atlanta isn't a very good test because they're not a good team but a little confidence boost can't be a bad thing especially considering how much we struggled on special teams last season.
Speaking of Connolly, holy crap, Timmy looked great. Even when he didn't have the puck he was going hard, hustling all over the ice. If he stays healthy - and I know that's a pretty big if - I think he's going to be more than a fair trade-off for Briere. He's every bit as good a playmaker as Danny was - if not better - and he'll score his share of goals. He's also a much better two-way player who doesn't leave all the defensive responsibility to his linemates.
I know all the "Do it for Matt Man" stuff comes across as cheesy to some people, but I was really glad to see Ryan get the shut-out, particularly tonight. I'm not sure if the Three Stars were shown on the TV broadcast or not but when Ryan skated out, turned his helmet so the "Matt Man" on the back was facing the crowd, and then lifted it over his head, I admit I got a little misty-eyed. Matt was obviously very special to Ryan and the rest of the Miller family.
That's all I got for tonight. I have a couple of non-game related points to make but they can wait until tomorrow. Gotta get to bed!