Sunday, March 24, 2013

It's was a good week for the Buffalo Sabres

After penning a piece where a rebuild was a foregone conclusion in this writer's eyes, the Sabres went out and grabbed all six points in their three games this week.

During their second three game winning streak of the season, Buffalo took two from Montreal--in Montreal--and a home game vs. Toronto. Two of the games went past regulation as they beat the Habs in overtime and the Leaves in a shootout.

A look at the standings as of this morning has Buffalo in 10th place, two points behind 8th place Carolina and the 9th place NY Rangers.


Here's the rub.

Both the 'Canes and the Rags have two games in hand.

Washington and the NY Islanders (who both play today) are one point behind Buffalo in the standings. They have one game in hand.

The Sabres will have a better grip on where they are in the standings tonight a spot that could end up being 10th or 12th.

Probably the best way to look at it right now is how many points they're behind the lowest seeded team who's played the same number of games.

That would be the 6th place NJ Devils.

The Devils are presently six points ahead of the Sabres. Considering that they also own the tiebreaker--total number of wins in regulation and overtime (ROW)--Buffalo actually sits seven points back.

Of note, the Sabres have nine ROW which is second last in the conference (FLA, 8.) In effect, for now we'll need to add one point in the chase as Buffalo would loose a tiebreaker with any of the clubs ahead of them.


A quick look back at the games.

This past Tuesday the Sabres travelled to Montreal and came a way with a 3-2 victory in overtime.

Steve Ott cemented himself as a burgeoning cult hero in Buffalo with two goals--including the overtime winner--and the game's first star.

Back-up goalie Jhonas Enroth got the win after facing 34 shots, none more difficult as he gloved Brian Gionta's shot from in tight late in the third.

In the words of Ott, “Jhonas was awesome tonight.”

The Canadians applied tons of pressure this game and were blasting shots from all angles at Enroth. In addition to the 34 shots on net, Montreal fired another 24 that missed the net (mostly high as they tried to go top-shelf on a smaller Enroth.) Buffalo blocked 23 shots as well.

The win by Buffalo snapped Montreal's five-game winning streak.

Thursday vs. Toronto was probably the most entertaining game of the season as the Sabres topped the Leaves in the shootout.

There were hits. There were fights. There were eight goals scored.

Plenty of skating back and forth. Plenty of ill-will and plenty of smack talk and gestures as well as an ejection of Toronto's Colton Orr for jumping Patrick Kaleta.

In one of the weirdest calls ever, Ott was given a two-minute unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for blowing a kiss at Leaves defensman Dion Phaneuf.

It was that kind of a game.

Unlike the previous game in Montreal, the Sabres actually came back from a two-goal deficit in this one (twice,) took the lead with three unanswered, and then gave up the game-tying goal in the third period.

Ott had the decisive goal in the shootout while Ryan Miller stopped former Sabre Clarke MacArthur in Toronto's final attempt.

Drew Stafford, a shootout-hunch for interim head coach Ron Rolston, came through in the clutch with the Sabres needing a shootout tally. He ripped a shot with authority that barely trickled over the line allowing the Sabres to eventually win 5-4 in the shootout.

And what did Stafford get for his clutch shootout goal?

A spot on the bench.

He's the fourth vet benched as a healthy scratch by Rolston joining Jordan Leopold, Jochen Hecht and Patrick Kaleta with that dubious distinction.

In a weird scheduling sequence, the Sabres then travelled back to Montreal for last night's contest.

Once again the Canadians were all over the Sabres registering 39 shots on goal on Miller. Most of them were on the outside, but Miller made some outstanding stops and earned the game's first star allowing only one goal.

The team also blocked 31 Montreal shots.

In classic rope-a-dope fashion, the Sabres took the punches and capitalized when opportunities came. 

Thomas Vanek came back from a hip injury to score Buffalo's only two goals--one on a tip on a 5-on-3, the other on a beautiful play with linemates Tyler Ennis and Ville Leino. (click here for the highlights)

Three games, six points and a confusing spot in the standings right now.


Some notes:

Rolston took over a mess when he came in as interim coach and he's had little time between games for practices with meaning.

With a multitude of problems to address, he started with defense as a jumping off point.

He has brought simplicity and positioning back to the blueline and the team has progressively gotten better.

The shots on goal are still high, but most are from the perimeter.

Two other notes on that:  the Sabres affinity for a "Keystone Cops" display in their own end has diminished and their play on odd-man rushes has improved dramatically.

That has lead to Ryan Miller being more confident in his defense corps and a return of simplicity to his game.

The second area Rolston addressed in limited practice time is the powerplay.

A once woeful powerplay now has goals in four consecutive games.

In addition, he's managed to get some chemistry with his line combinations with all four lines contributing in one way or another.

It looks as if his back-to-basics/fundamentals approach is starting to pay dividends.

There are still holes throughout the lineup, but team play and quality goaltending help minimize their impact.


Mark Pysyk

Sabres rookie defenseman Mark Pysyk seems well-versed in the fundamentals of hockey.

A defensive-defenseman, Pysyk has shown a knack for being in the right spot on the ice. He positions his body very well around the puck, and makes the smart play in his own zone.

Pysyk was known for his poise in Juniors and it would seem as if Rolston has been able to help him bring that into the pros--first in Rochester now with Buffalo.

He still gets beat on occasion, which is par for the course for a rookie in his first pro season, but it would seem as if he's using his foundation as a rock-solid building block.

Although it might be early, his play has some thinking that his defense partner, Jordan Leopold, may be a player on the move as the deadline approaches.


Other individual player notes:
  • Tyler Myers' game is improving--from healthy-scratch-worthy to pretty solid. He still makes mental gaffes--like the one last night where he was caught indecisive in his own zone--but they're less frequent. He's simplifying his game and his confidence is building.
  • Tyler Ennis has 24 points (9g, 15a) in 31 games this season, and boy is he a whiz with the puck. Vanek, when asked whether he saw the opening last night behind the Montreal d, said that he knew Ennis would find him, "Tyler's a smart player and he made a great pass."
  • Ville Leino is back in the lineup and skating well. In five games back he has four assists and is showing his puck-possession skills. He seems to have found new life on a line with Vanek and Ennis. He still needs to find the back of the net, but after missing the first half of the season, that should come along soon.
  • Jason Pominville scored his first goal in eight games as he rifled a wristshot past Toronto's James Reimer with authority. It was a pretty passing play with him and Cody Hodgson playing keep away in the Toronto zone. Even so, Pominville is drawing the ire of some Sabres fans with some hoping that he will be the first of the "Big 3" (Miller and Vanek the other two) that might get moved at the deadline. Also there are many wanting a new captain, namely Steve Ott.
  • Speaking of captains, alternate captain Drew Stafford had his ass planted in the press box last night. Despite showing some signs of life lately (two goals in a one game and the aforementioned shootout goal) Stafford is having a mostly forgettable season. Rolston said this about his benching of the big right-winger, "We want everyone to play and play hard." This is nothing new, Stafford not "playing hard." A player with his size and skill set should easily be a consistent 25-30+ goal scorer. Maybe a change of scenery would help. He's also been mentioned as a player that could be on the move.
  • Defenseman Christian Ehrhoff is heating up. After going pointless in 10 straight games (Feb. 19 to March 10,) he garnered a goal and four assists with a plus-2 rating in his next six. His goal was a wicked blast from the point vs. Toronto and last night he took just enough off of his shot to allow for a Vanek deflection.


NY Rangers winger Marion Gaborik is possiby on the trade market.

Rumors began swirling in early March saying Rags GM Glen Sather was "sniffing around to see what kind of value [Gaborik] has on the market."

A little over a week ago, SNYRangers quoted TSN's Pierre LeBrun on the Gaborik situation, "it was put to me this way by a couple of sources, I don’t think the Rangers are calling every team in the league and shopping Marian Gaborik, however, if they can get what they are looking for and use Gaborik to do it, they will.”

He added, “so he is available in my book."

Gaborik has a year and a half left on his contract with a cap-hit of $7.5M

He's also a 6'1", 205 lb. right wing sniper. For five years running (four with Minnesota, one with NY) beginning with the 2005/06 season he was over a point/game player. Last season he had 41 goals and 35 assists.

This year is somewhat of an off year for Gaborik. On a goal-starved team he has only nine goals in 30 games.

Gaborik has been bouncing from one wing to another and one might wonder if the acquisition of RW Rick Nash has anything to do with his average at best performance so far this season.

One of the Sabres' downfalls over the last seven-plus seasons is the inability to beat a hot and/or top-notch goalie on more than a few occasions during the course of the season. The only one that has the pure goal-scoring ability to do it is Thomas Vanek.

Adding Gaborik would certainly help in that area, especially with the emergence of Cody Hodgson as a bonafide top-six, possible top-line center to get him the puck.

It's pretty cool to speculate at this time of year and coming up with a line of Vanek, Hodgson, Gaborik is pretty enticing.

Some of the obstacles that make it far-fetched for a Gaborik to Buffalo deal: 
  • The Rangers are in the eastern conference
  • prior to the season Gaborik submitted a list of eight teams he didn't want to be traded to as part of his no-movement clause, and odds would be that the Sabres are on it
  • he carries a $7.5M cap hit until the end of next season
  • Buffalo, or almost any team, would have difficulty fitting his contract in
  • Rags GM Glen Sather is said to be wanting a "hockey trade" and is interested in a top-nine forward with some "grit" and a top-four defenseman who can work the point on the powerplay.
Would they consider Drew Stafford a top-nine forward with "grit?" Or Jordan Leopold as a top-four d-man who can man the powerplay?

Doubtful, but strange things happen at this time of year.

At one point I was doubtful Robyn Regehr would come to Buffalo.


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