ORCHARD PARK, NY (LGS) — Forget about the notion that it's just a regular season hockey game. There's more than just two points on the line for the Buffalo Sabres when they take on the Pittsburgh Penguins at Ralph Wilson Stadium tomorrow afternoon in one of the most anticipated games in NHL history.
That's because Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Ryan Miller and the rest of the Blue and Gold will be playing for the pride of Western New York.
And pride is one thing that is very near-and-dear to this close-knit community.
Since the end of the NHL lockout three summers ago, the Sabres have become the toast of the town. What was once a fanatical football town has quickly transformed into one of the best hockey towns on the entire planet.
Cheers of "Let's Go Buffalo" have been loud and proud in arenas all over the NHL for the past two and a half seasons. Whether Buffalo is playing down south in Tampa Bay or out west in Los Angeles, the droves of fans wearing Sabres jerseys have not gone unnoticed or unheard.
The growth of hockey in Buffalo is not just limited to the resurrection of Sabres Nation. More and more hockey players are coming out of Western New York, a trend that continues to grow at a rapid pace. Hockey is simply a huge passion here.
With the Bills mired in a decade-long slump and the region constantly held back by politics and a poor economy, the Sabres have been a glimmer of hope for many.
Despite a disastrous offseason that saw the departure of two of the most beloved players in franchise history, these Sabres are still good when they want to be. Outside of the Ottawa Senators, this team should be the best team in the Eastern Conference. With a little help at the trading deadline, they can be a bonafide Cup contender for the third season in a row.
Lindy Ruff's crew finally starting to find themselves in December after a slow start to the 2007-08 season. Outside of this past week's three-game losing streak, the team has showed flashes of brilliance and domination.
Currently seated in eighth place, Tuesday marks the perfect opportunity for the team to return to the elite ranks of the Eastern Conference. It's also a perfect opportunity for the Sabres to get their fans back and fully fastened into the bandwagon.
While Sabres pride is still strong, it's not at the level it was one year ago.
The Winter Classic is one of the biggest events ever hosted in Western New York, and a loss will simply be unacceptable to all who consider themselves a Buffalonian, whether they live in Clarence or Hamburg or transplanted to Scottsdale, Arizona or St. Petersburg, Florida.
Post-Winter Classic, Sabres fans won't care about NBC's television ratings or if this spectacle of a game can help hockey grow in the USA. On Tuesday, the only thing that matters is showing the hockey world that Sabres Nation is still strong and that the Sabres are still a team to beat.
"We take that very seriously. Everyone's going to try to be on top of their game," said Sabres' goaltender Ryan Miller in an interview with The Hockey News. "We try every night, but sometimes there are those guys who like to be on the grand stage. We've got some really talented guys who have performed great in tight situations, a lot of players who like that stage."
That stage will be set Tuesday afternoon when 70,000-plus Western New Yorkers will be fired up for more than just a hockey game. Now it's time for the Sabres to return the favor.