Sabres put on a show Friday night

BUFFALO – The stage was set for a dramatic start to a new era in Buffalo Sabres hockey.

A spotlight lit up Pat LaFontaine’s No. 16 banner hanging in the First Niagara Center rafters.

Another spotlight took hold of the red-and-black 1997 Northeast Division Champions banner at the other end of the arena signifying interim head coach Ted Nolan’s final season with the team the first time around.

The arena was rocking when Nolan stepped behind the home bench.

And a couple of Ted Nolan-type players and plays were major reasons for the win when the new coach left the bench at the end of the night.

Steve Ott, the Sabres full-time captain since the Thomas Vanek trade tied the game, set up the eventual game-winner and made the little plays a captain should to help the Sabres hold on to a 3-1 victory and the first win on their self-proclaimed “clean slate.”

“It’s been a pretty awesome 48 hours,” Ott said. “(Ted Nolan) came in here and told every guy to a man, everything is wiped clean. We are starting fresh, starting to build from this day on.”

Ott cleaned up a rebound off a Tyler Myers point shot for his power-play goal and then hit a driving Marcus Foligno at the far post for the eventual game-winner.

“Our older guys lead by example and that’s what us young guys have to do, just follow those guys,” Foligno said. “I thought the young guys played great tonight too. We have no excuse. We are young guys and we should bring energy every night.”

All that was left for the Sabres was to protect a third-period lead, something they’ve only been asked to do twice this season.

“(Nolan) told us just play hockey and have a lot of fun,” Foligno said. “There are a lot of little battles that we have to win. We are all focusing on that and not thinking about anything else.”

When Henrik Tallinder went off for interference with less than five minutes remaining, the Sabres were backed into a corner. But this wasn’t the Ron Rolston-led Buffalo team that lacked fire and rarely had a lead in the third period. Steve Ott showed how the Ted Nolan-led Sabres are different as he dove for a loose puck near the blueline midway through the penalty.

“Steve was one of the first guys I spoke to when I got here, and he was a little bit frustrated with how the season was going; didn’t like how the group was competing,” Nolan said. “This is a very tough league. You have to compete to have a chance to win.”

Later in the kill, Zemgus Girgensons and Rasmus Ristolainen, two of the Sabres’ teenagers, were on the ice in crunch time and didn’t disappoint.

“You’ve got to play who you have,” Nolan said. “Girgensons, for a young 19-year-old kid, he did pretty well for himself.”

And Christian Ehrhoff competed until the end with one of his grittiest shifts as a Sabre late in the third period, making a miraculous save with Ryan Miller out of his crease and the Maple Leafs pouring on the pressure.

“You have to still defend,” Ehrhoff said. “You have to know your position and protect the goalie’s backside.”

Later in the shift, Ehrhoff made sure the third First Niagara Center sellout crowd of the season would go home happy when his clearing pass trickled all of the way down the ice into the Toronto goal.

It was the type of win Terry Pegula, Ted Black and the rest of the Sabres’ management team had in mind when they brought in the heart of Pat LaFontaine and the tenacity of Ted Nolan.

“It was one of those games when you don’t ever know if this type of game will ever happen again,” Nolan said. “It was fun to look up once in a while and see how much fans enjoy this game.”

It was just one win, but on the Sabres’ clean slate, they are undefeated.