Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Sabres get Rolston his first NHL win

It wasn't a thing of beauty, but it was a win nonetheless.

In his third game since taking over the head coaching reigns, Ron Rolston finally got his first victory as a head coach in the NHL, a 2-1 win over Tampa Bay and their potent offense.

The Lightning came into the game with a league best 3.70 goals/game and the 7th best powerplay. Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier, and Cory Conacher must have been licking their chops looking at this one. The Sabres defense had given up the fourth most goals against in the league (3.23) and had a penalty kill ranked in the bottom half.

With the score tied 1-1 in the 2nd, the Sabres had a parade to the penalty box that lasted nearly a full five minutes with 43 seconds being down two men. With the help of a fortuitous post rung by Stamkos 5-on-3, the Sabres weathered that tornado and, unlike previous games this season, the weathered the entire second period as well.

Ryan Miller came up strong throughout the game and was awarded the 1st star. But unlike other nights this season, he wasn't tested often. The defense looked much better position-wise and kept most of the shots to the outside. They also refrained from screening their goalie and made cross-ice, one-timers into long passes giving Miller ample time to scoot over.

The post hit by Stamkos was one of two breaks that the Sabres got last night, the first being Cody Hodgson's eighth goal of the season. Hodgson gathered the puck behind the net and sent it out front to Jason Pominville but it deflected off of Tampa d-man Sami Salo into the net. That tied the score not long after Stamkos put the Lightning up 1-0.

Rolston called it a "gritty win" last night and it was. Not from the sense of a street brawl with, say, Boston, but from the perspective that they were exorcising (or trying to exorcise) the many demons that have plagued this team throughout the 2013 season.

Not everything was corrected last night, but they moved the puck much better out of their zone with fewer (although still too many) turnovers. They also had sustained pressure in the offensive zone more than we've seen all year. Their defense was tighter and they had fewer breakdowns.

"Baby steps," as Rolston put it the other day.

And the true grit came out when they came back from Stamkos' goal a mere 1:30 into the game and while they had that parade to the box early in the second period. Plus, they were able to get the lead in the third and hold it, not by sitting back, but by attacking more than they've done so far.

Are they Stanley Cup contenders? No. Are they among the elite in the conference or division? No. Is this the beginning of a drive to the playoffs? It's their fourth win in the last 14 games.

What we may have seen is a bottoming out last Saturday vs. the NY Islanders. There's still a ton of work to do, but a victory like last night should start moving the confidence meter a notch away from despair.

And now Rolston is 1-2 as Sabres interim head coach.

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