WASHINGTON, DC – Shining bright in the dimly-lit bowl of Capital One Arena, high above the Sabers and Capitals bowing their heads, was an image of Bills safety Damar Hamlin smiling.
The moment of silence in support of Hamlin, who went into cardiac arrest Monday night on the field in Cincinnati after tackling Bengals receiver Tee Higgins, marked the second time in less than a week the Sabers were tasked with helping Western New York cope with an unimaginable situation.
They assisted the City of Buffalo in the aftermath of the dangerous snowstorm by winning in their return to KeyBank Center, but this was a different kind of physical and psychological challenge.
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Hamlin was still in critical condition at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center when the puck dropped Tuesday night, surrounded by family and in the thoughts of people across the globe. The Sabers are acquainted with the Bills. In many ways, they are the same organization. Sabers General Manager Kevyn Adams and coach Don Granato routinely exchange messages with their counterparts Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott. Both teams are owned by Terry and Kim Pegula.
As all involved awaited another update on Hamlin, the Sabers delivered an inspiring performance Tuesday night with Alex Tuch and Tage Thompson combining for four goals. There were clutch defensive plays and timely saves by Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. Buffalo then allowed three consecutive goals before tying the score again in the third with Tyson Jost knocking the puck past goalie Darcy Kuemper.
The Sabers never relented. And following a failed power play to start overtime, Thompson completed the hat trick on a pass from Tuch to clinch a 5-4 victory over the Capitals.
Buffalo (19-15-2) has earned at least one point in seven of its last eight games, including a six-game winning streak that ended Sunday in Ottawa. Luukkonen made 28 saves to help the Sabers withstand the Capitals’ push, but Alex Ovechkin scored twice to spark the rally for Washington (21-13-6).
Adams could not bring himself to discuss the game when speaking to reporters afterwards. Wearing a No. 3 stickers on his left lapel, Adams provided insight into his players’ psyche in the hours leading up to the game.
“It’s hard to say much about the game, to be honest,” said Adams, who spoke in place of Granato and players. “What I can tell you though is we talked as a group this morning. We have such good people in our locker room, players, coaches, staff. And it wasn’t feeling right this morning. It didn’t feel like a normal game day…
Pronger was 23 years old and competing with the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference semifinals of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 1998 when he was struck on the left side of his chest by a slap shot. Pronger managed to stand up following the impact and took two strides before falling to the ice.
“I told them, to be honest, how proud I am of them and what they’ve done in this community through a lot of tough times going back to what’s happened in the offseason. And then some of the struggles with the snowstorms and the deaths that have gone on and then this last night.”
Tuch was alone on the ice Tuesday morning, shooting pucks one by one into an empty net while waiting for his teammates to join him for the pregame skate. Gradually, the Sabers emerged from the tunnel leading to their bench and began their typical game-day routine.
This was unlike any on-ice workout since Granato took over as coach in March 2021. Players spoke to each other in hushed tones. No one was smiling or joking around. Each sound, from hard tape-to-tape passes to pucks ricocheting off the glass, was magnified because of the lack of chatter on the ice.
There was a palpable increase in energy as the 30-minute skate progressed, but many Sabers held a somber expression on their face. As Tuch crossed the red line on his way to the bench, Granato gave a subtle stick tap to the forward’s shin pad.
Players stayed on the ice long after the skate typically ends, working through their typical routines to achieve some semblance of normalcy and to prepare for the herculean task of defeating Ovechkin’s Capitals on the road.
Physically, the Sabers needed to get ready for a game. They have gathered for practice only three times since Dec. 21, because of the winter storm that shut down the City of Buffalo over Christmas weekend and, as of Tuesday, had officially caused the death of 42 people in Erie and Niagara counties.
Psychologically, the Sabers had to block out the trauma of watching a fellow athlete, one of Buffalo’s own, lay motionless on the field at Cincinnati’s Paycor Stadium. Given a night off in Washington, DC, the Sabers’ gathering to watch a football game turned into an emotional experience. There were the images on television of Bills players sobbing as medical personnel performed CPR on Hamlin, a second-year pro who turned 24 in March.
The Sabers, like so many people across the globe, went to bed Monday anxiously awaiting word on Hamlin’s condition. Kyle Okposo, the team’s captain, met with Adams and Granato on Tuesday morning to discuss next steps. Players had to prepare for a game while processing the terrifying reality that a routine play on the field or ice can cause harm.
All involved knew that, in the big picture, this hockey game didn’t matter. It was secondary to what Hamlin and his family were going through.
“They’re a mature group, even though we’re extremely young,” said Adams. “But I will say that we’ve got great leadership in the room, and there’s an emotional connection to the city from our team. It was tough, to be honest, this morning, the conversations. But they also, I think, know how much our team means to this city and just wanted to be able to go out and do what we could today to put our best foot forward.”
Sabers players walked into Capital One Arena wearing T-shirts that read, “Love for 3.” The phrase was also used on two of the four signs hanging above the team’s bench during warmups. They weren’t alone in expressing support.
When gates opened to fans, one group rushed to a spot near the Sabres’ tunnel to press a sign against the glass that featured Hamlin’s No. 3 and multiple Bills logos. Similar words were written on poster boards across the arena, and the Capitals held a moment of silence as a symbolic gesture of support for Hamlin.
A brief chant broke out during a Sabers shift in the offensive zone during the first period, as a group of fans belted out in unison, “Let’s go Buffalo!”
On the ice, the visitors did not look like an emotionally drained team.
The Sabers took a 1-0 lead at 10:48 into the game when Tuch completed a remarkable, cross-ice, spin-o-rama backhand pass by Thompson. Tuch, an unabashed Bills fan who grew up in the Syracuse area, has 18 goals and 42 points in 36 games.
A quick answer by the Capitals’ Sonny Milano on a breakaway was not enough to deplete the Sabres. They roared back with Thompson scoring with a slap shot from the left circle on the power play to make it 2-1 at 17:29 into the game.
In goal for the 12th time this season, Luukkonen stopped a Capitals push early in the second period by delivering a pad save when former Sabers forward Marcus Johansson snuck behind the defense to earn a partial breakaway.
Tuch and Thompson then connected again to build on the lead. Tuch outworked the Capitals on the forecheck and protected the puck from multiple defenders before passing to Thompson, whose shot from near the slot made it 3-1 at 5:50 into the second period. This was the eighth time this season Thompson has recorded at least three points in a game. The 25-year-old center has 30 goals and 55 points less than halfway through the season.
The Capitals began to take control in the latter half of the second period and trimmed the deficit to 3-2 with Ovechkin scoring on a one-timer off a faceoff win, and the score was tied 53 seconds into the third on Nic Dowd’s goal off a rebound.
Another lapse by the Sabers led to Ovechkin’s 28th goal of the season and 808th of his remarkable career, as he gave Washington a 4-3 lead when he was left uncovered in front after Buffalo failed to maintain possession off a faceoff win in the defensive zone. .
The Sabers found a way, though. Jost tied the score again with 8:18 left in regulation on a rebound near the crease and, although Buffalo failed to capitalize on two Washington penalties late in regulation, Tuch and Thompson earned the win.
Tuch forced a turnover behind the Capitals’ net, then got the puck out in front of Thompson, who fired a shot over Kuemper’s blocker with two minutes left in overtime.
Hamlin, his family and the Bills were on the minds of Sabers players as they prepared to leave Capital One Arena.
“There’s really great chemistry between all of us, and we’re pulling for each other,” Adams said of the Sabres’ relationship with the Bills. “And that’s why it was such a tough week for us because we’re in this together.”
• Wingers Vinnie Hinostroza and Rasmus Asplund, and defenseman Casey Fitzgerald were the Sabres’ healthy scratches. Defenseman Henri Jokiharju missed a 10th consecutive game with a lower-body injury, and goalie Eric Comrie remains with the Rochester Americans on a conditioning assignment. The Americans host the Belleville Senators at 7:05 pm Wednesday.
• Sabers prospects Noah Ostlund and Isak Rosen will face Jiri Kulich in the IIHF World Junior Championship semifinals Wednesday. The winner of Sweden and Czechia will advance to the gold-medal game to play the United States or Canada. Kulich leads the Czech Republic with five goals and 28 shots on goal.
• The Sabers will host the Minnesota Wild on Saturday night at KeyBank Center with puck drop at 7:08 pm