Sabres players, however, have moved on.
There’s little time for friendly reunions in what will be Drury’s first game back in Buffalo since bolting to the Rangers as a free agent in July.
“For us, it’s an afterthought,” goalie Ryan Miller said. “We all think very highly of Chris: Great guy, great friend. But he’s standing in our way.”
Miller was referring to what’s developed into a tightly contested late-season playoff race.
Buffalo (30-23-8) enters the game in a tie with the Rangers, who they’ve played twice in New York, and Boston - the three teams holding the Eastern Conference’s final three postseason spots. Lurking a point back is the New York Islanders, and Philadelphia is two behind.
Drury shouldn’t expect much appreciation from the fans, many are still unhappy over how quickly he signed a five-year, $35.25 million deal with a Rangers’ team he grew up supporting. It doesn’t matter that the Sabres didn’t make Drury a firm offer until the final week before free agency.
“Drury was so two-faced during the process that he made me forget how much I liked him in Buffalo,” said Mike Mannella, a longtime Sabres fan. “He wanted to go back home, and he tried to make Buffalo management look like the bad guy.”
The Rangers declined to make Drury available to Buffalo reporters until Saturday morning. Drury did not return a message left with him by The Associated Press.
Blame aside, the Sabres’ tenuous hold on a playoff spot isn’t a position they’re accustomed to. They ran away with the regular-season title a year ago and have won an NHL-leading 105 games over the previous two seasons.
What’s changed is their lineup. The Sabres spent the first half of this season attempting to redefine their identity minus Drury and fellow co-captain Daniel Briere, another offseason free-agent departure (Flyers).
Criticism that the Sabres lacked foresight for failing to lock up one or both to long-term deals well before last season has hounded Buffalo this year.
Sabres players are tired of hearing about it.
“I think the media has definitely made a big story about it,” forward Jason Pominville said. “It seems like we lose a few in a row, the first thing that comes up is those guys being gone and us struggling. I think that’s the easy way out. We know we’re capable of winning. And I think we’re starting to prove it.”
The Sabres are 10-2-2 in their past 14 games, rebounding from a dreadful 1-7-5 slump that dropped them to 14th place in the East late last month.
Like the Sabres, Drury has experienced some difficulties adjusting to a new environment.
While he’s tied for the team lead with 20 goals, including a team-leading five game-winners, Drury’s usually sound defensive statistics are down. His minus-9 rating - Drury’s been on the ice for nine more non-power-play goals scored against the Rangers than his team has scored - is worst among the Rangers’ regulars, marking a drop after he finished plus-one last year.
The Rangers (30-24-8) haven’t gelled either, despite spending lavishly to land Drury and Scott Gomez last summer, additions that were supposed to push them into the NHL elite after finishing sixth in the East last year.
Instead, the Rangers have been inconsistent at best and are coming off an embarrassing 6-5 shootout loss at Montreal on Tuesday, a game in which New York blew a 5-0 lead.
Sabres fan Lori Rackley blamed both Drury and the Sabres for what happened.
“I don’t like how (the Sabres) were so close to the Stanley Cup and they just let it all fall to pieces,” Rackley said. “But I don’t like how Drury left. It seems like he just blew off his entire time spent in Buffalo and couldn’t get out of here fast enough.”