Monday, January 02, 2006

A Great Night at the Arena


Not the result I was hoping for to start 2006 but it was a fantastic night at HSBC Arena.

The Sabres lost their first game of the new year, dropping a 2-1 decision to the Florida Panthers on Sunday night. Florida opened the scoring only 30 seconds into the game, when Joe Nieuwendyk flew in on his off wing and wristed a weak shot past goaltender Ryan Miller. Not a good start for Millsy.

Buffalo looked very sluggish for the first ten minutes and finally started to come to life late in the period. However, Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo was up to the task and the score ended up 1-0 at the first intermission.

The Sabres would tie things up midway through the second period. Defenseman Henrik Tallinder scored his third goal in four games off a nice feed from Maxim Afinogenov to knot the score at 1.

However, it was just not meant to be on this night. Another former Maple Leaf, Gary Roberts, tipped home a wrist shot on a powerplay to give the Panthers a 2-1 lead. The Sabres at one point had three straight powerplays but couldn't convert on any of them, meaning the 2-1 score would hold up for the Panthers.

Florida has defeated Buffalo in all three meetings this year.

The Sabres organization held a big autograph session about an hour after the game. There are 10'x10' photographs of all the players spread throughout the building and we were told that the players would be stationed by their portraits. I brought my panoramic poster that I purchased a couple weeks ago in hopes of getting some players to sign it. However, I was dismayed to see that the lines to get the signatures were HUGE!

My buddy and I contemplated leaving but I decided at the last minute that I'd tough it out and see how things went. We went into the smallest line around, which happened to be for defenseman Brian Campbell, nicknamed 'Soupy' for obvious reasons.

The players started arriving to their stations to cheers from the fans and started signing. We only had to wait about four minutes before getting to the front of Campbell's line. Campbell is having a phenomenal year for Buffalo thus far, eclipsing career highs in every offensive category. Everyone in line seemed like a robot, not really saying anything to the poor guy.

Well, I'm not shy!

Matt: "Hi Brian. How are you?"
Campbell: "Pretty good, but I wish we could find a way to beat those guys."
Matt (laughing): "Yeah I hear you!"
Campbell: "Black or silver?" (sharpie colour)
Matt: "Black is fine. Keep up the great play, Brian!"
Campbell: "Thanks a lot."
Matt: "Thank you very much."

We then took a chance and hopped in the biggest line you can imagine, hoping to get highly touted rookie Thomas Vanek's autograph. Thankfully, the line moved pretty briskly and within 15 minutes, I was face to face with the future superstar.

Matt: "Hi Thomas. How are you?"
Vanek: "Doing great. How about yourself?"
Matt: "Really good, thanks. Keep up the great work!"
Vanek: "Thanks, I'll try!"
Matt: "Thank you very much."

Another nice, quiet and polite kid. We then took off, as I tried to find the Sabres leading points scorer, Tim Connolly to no avail. So we took off upstairs and got signatures from rookie Jason Pominville and defenseman Toni Lydman. Next came the funniest exchange of the night for yours truly, as we stumbled upon the leading goal scorer for Buffalo, Ales Kotalik.

Matt: "Hi Ales. How are you?"
Kotalik: "Not bad, yourself?"
Matt: "Good. You know, you were robbed when you didn't get selected for the Czech Olympic team."
Kotalik: (shrugs and shakes head) "Yeah, the damn powers that be..."

My buddy Brandon and I were laughing for two straight minutes after that comment! Great stuff and a great sense of humour from Kotalik. We went on to get a signature from injured defenseman Dmitri Kalinin, another guy I had a nice exchange with and ended the night by getting stalwart defenseman Jay McKee's signature.

Matt: "Hi Jay. I sure hope Darcy (Regier, Sabres general manager) gets you signed to a long-term deal soon!"
McKee: (smiling and laughing) "Yeah, you and me both!"

We came THIS close to getting Ryan Miller and Daniel Briere's autograph too, but just missed out when their sections were shut down.

Man, I'm 32 years old and had a smile on my face a mile long after the one hour session. The players were all extremely cordial and polite and very talkative. Both Brandon and I had a blast. I wish Jacky could have been there, as I'm sure she would have got a kick out of it.

My only regret, and it's a big one, is that I didn't bring my digital camera for the event. EVERYONE was getting pictures with the players. I won't make that mistake again next year!

Anyways, I've scanned a couple portions of the panoramic photograph for your viewing pleasure. My hope is to get this sucker mounted so I can eventually hang it on my wall.

What a great night!

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