A hockey season doesn’t begin in January and end in December. As we celebrate the beginning of a new calendar year, a hockey season is just reaching the halfway point.
But for the Buffalo Sabres, 2014 began with a drastic change, and it was a year of exciting moments, both good and bad. I’ve compiled (with your help) what I believe to be the 14 biggest moments of the year, in honor of the year 2014 coming to a close. There may be moments I’ve forgotten, and I invite you to discuss my choices and refresh my memory with any that I’ve forgotten.
1. The hiring of general manager Tim Murray
After former GM Darcy Regier was fired on November 28, Murray was brought in to take his place on January 9. Murray had experience of working in the Anaheim Ducks’ front office, and he wasted no time making big moves for the Sabres. Many of them made this list.
2. Ryan Miller and Steve Ott traded
Less than two months later, as the trade deadline approached, Murray traded away fan favorite and captain Steve Ott and longtime Sabre Ryan Miller. It was known that Miller did not want to return when the season ended, and so Murray made the smart move, trading away Miller and Ott on February 28 in order to get something in return.
Fans and teammates prepared themselves for the loss of Miller, but when it actually happened there were a few years shed. Ott came as more of a shock.
3. Ryan Vinz’s moment
The Miller and Ott trade came about an hour before game time. Jhonas Enroth was thrust into the starting role, but the Sabres needed to dress a backup goaltender. Enter Buffalonian Ryan Vinz. The director of hockey technology at the HarborCenter, who tried to walk onto his college hockey team but didn’t make it, was given the chance to dress for the game and sit on the bench with the rest of the team. The Sabres won, and coach Ted Nolan encouraged Vinz to join the celebration on the ice.
“Who woulda thought staying late at work on a Friday night would turn into one of the best nights of my life,” Vinz tweeted after the game.
4. The first annual Sabres UnPucked
On March 1, the day after Ott and Miller were traded, the Sabres held the first annual UnPucked. It was a night of food, drinks, and music with Sabres players and musical guests. Fans were treated to Sabres players guest bartending, photo opportunities, and, of course, music.
Drew Stafford played the guitar and drums, Ville Leino played guitar, and Zenon Konopka rocked the tambourine. Most players gave singing a try as well. Whether that was a treat or not would have to be decided by the listener.
The second annual UnPucked will be held February 12, again at First Niagara Center.
5. Dominik Hasek inducted into the Sabres Hall of Fame
On March 29, Hasek returned to Buffalo to be honored with an induction into the Sabres Hall of Fame. Hasek’s career accomplishments included six Vezina Trophies, two Hart Trophies, and an Olympic gold medal, and he is consisted by many to be the greatest NHL goalie of all time.
To have him return to Buffalo, where it all started, was a way to relive history and a highlight of 2014 for the Sabres.
6. The buyout of Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff
Signing Ville Leino seemed like a good idea at the time. By the end of the 2014 season, in which Leino contributed 15 assists and zero goals aside from a shootout winner on April Fools Day (really), Leino was clearly not a fit. On June 17, the Sabres bought out what was left of Leino’s contract. He’s now playing in the KHL.
Later in the month, the Sabres bought out Ehrhoff as well after the defenseman made it clear he did not want to be in Buffalo. He went on to sign with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
7. Sam Reinhart drafted
The draft was a bright spot after an historically bad season for the Sabres. They had the second pick and wasted no time announcing that they chose Sam Reinhart.
Reinhart began the season with the Sabres but was soon sent to juniors to get stronger. He was selected to Team Canada for the World Junior Classic. Through the preliminary round, Reinhart leads in points with eight. He has three goals, two of them game-winning goals, and five assists.
8. The return of Matt Moulson
Another casualty of the 2014 trade deadline was left winger Matt Moulson, who was traded away to Minnesota. He had started the 2013-14 season with the Islanders before coming to Buffalo in a trade. Apparently he liked it here.
In a move that pleasantly surprised Sabres fans, Moulson wasted no time re-signing with Buffalo on the first day of free agency. The Sabres signed him to a five-year, $25 million deal. Before this season began, Moulson was named alternate captain. He’s thrilled to have some stability and has been one of the Sabres’ offensive leaders this season.
9. Buffalo announced as the host of the 2016 draft
The addition of the HarborCenter to downtown Buffalo is a story for another day, but so far has brought nothing but good things to the city.
One of those will be the 2016 draft. On October 13, it was announced that in addition to hosting the pre-draft scouting combine each of the next two years, Buffalo will be the host of the 2016 draft.
10. Rick Jeanneret cancer free
On July 1, longtime broadcaster Jeanneret was diagnosed with throat cancer and began to undergo treatment.
On November 7, the Sabres had their Hockey Fights Cancer night. Not only did the night honor Jeanneret and former Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, but both Buffalo sports figures announced that they were cancer free.
11. Home-and-home sweep of Montreal
One of the best teams in the NHL came into Buffalo on November 28 expecting an easy win. The Sabres didn’t give it to them, fighting their way to a 2-1 win over the Habs. Matt Moulson scored the game winner.
The next night, the teams squared off again, this time in Montreal. Buffalo trailed 3-2 with just under six minutes left in the third when a Brian Flynn goal tied it up. Flynn went on to be the shootout hero as well, scoring in the fifth round to give Buffalo the 4-3 win.
12. Comeback win over the Islanders
To follow along with the theme of unexpected wins in 2014, the Sabres looked at a 3-0 deficit in the third period on December 27 and turned it into a shootout win. Nicolas Deslauriers scored first, Zemgus Girgensons followed, and Chris Stewart tied the game at three with 8:09 remaining. Tyler Ennis scored the shootout winner.
13. Zemgus Girgensons, All-Star
Zemgus Girgensons is having a good year. The forward has 11 goals and nine assists in 38 games. He’ll turn 21 in a few days, and to think about his future should excite any hockey fan.
They call him the Latvian Locomotive. Fans in Buffalo as well as in Girgensons’ home country appreciate what the young player has accomplished already. And that is why, as of December 30, Zemgus led the All-Star fan voting with more than 1.46 million votes.
He isn’t the best player in the NHL, but he clearly has the best supporters — or maybe just the most.
14. The rise of Jhonas Enroth
Although I listed these moments chronologically rather than least to greatest, I may have saved the best for last. Jhonas Enroth has been invaluable to the Sabres over the past year. He was Sweden’s backup goaltender in the 2014 Winter Olympics and was finally given his chance to sign when Miller was traded.
This season, it’s tough to think about where the Sabres would be without Enroth. He’s split time with fellow goaltender Michal Neuvirth, but Enroth has 11 of the Sabres’ 14 wins so far this season. He’s 11-13-2 with 892 saves and a .908 save percentage on a team that doesn’t always give the offensive or defensive support he needs and deserves.
He keeps the Sabres in games that they have no business being in, and they’re lucky to have him. It was uncharacteristic of Enroth to end 2014 with a 5-1 loss to Tampa Bay on New Year’s Eve.
“That was last year,” Enroth said the morning after the game. “We’ve got to look forward to a new year here.”
Some expected better. Some expected worse. Some hoped for worse. But here the Sabres are, ending 2014 with a record of 14-21-3 and looking forward to 2015.