For the first time this season, the Buffalo Sabres looked like an NHL team as they put in a 60-minute effort full of skating, hitting, top-notch goaltending and scoring. That their best performance of the year against a rival like Toronto, complete with a Leaf-nation invasion of First Niagara Center that turned sour, made it even better.
Despite giving up six goals in each of the previous three games, there were glimmers of hope beginning to emerge, especially on the offensive side of the equation. Head coach Ted Nolan had been juggling players, lines and positions more than an act at a three-ring circus, which is something this team had looked like for most of the season thus far.
It would seem as if he finally has one line he can rely on. Two games ago against St. Louis, Nolan put Zemgus Girgensons at center between left wing Matt Moulson and converted center Tyler Ennis. Although they didn't produce any scoring as a line, there was a noticeable chemistry between them which includes the defensive side where as a trio they were not on the ice for either of the Blues even strength goals.
In Minnesota they began click. Just over one minute into the game, they would tap into Nolan's "Latvian Line" play and were instrumental in Rasmus Ristolainen's first goal of the season. Girgensons, who was the catalyst in the Wild offensive zone on that goal, also scored his fourth of the season that game. Despite the Sabres losing 6-3 that trio had a stat-line of one goal, three assists and were a plus-3.
Last night they exploded in helping the Sabres do something they haven't done since January 31, 2012--score six or more goals in a game. During that 141 game span the Buffalo Sabres have scored five goals in a game only three times, all of them during the 2013-14 season before the trade deadline. The Sabres have been so bereft of goal scoring that they haven't scored more than three goals in a game since Ryan Miller and Steve Ott were traded this past February 28th, a span of 40 games.
Ennis got things rolling last night on the powerplay with his team-leading sixth goal of the year. The diminutive forward was the first Sabres' player to have his name called by Rick Jenneret post-cancer. By the end of the game, Girgensons would tie Ennis for the team lead in goals by scoring two of his own, one short handed while Moulson would pot his second of the season. The stat-line for the trio--four goals, four assists, and a plus-eight with Girgensons at a plus-four.
Nolan was so thrilled with the line's play that he couldn't fully get the words out to describe it, "I think when we put that line together it really..." he began, the kinda fumbling in his enthusiasm, "you see Matty Moulson put the...cute little passes underneath sticks and Girgensons grabbing it and throwing it behind the net for Tyler [Ennis].
"They kinda know where each other are," is what he finally got to. And in a grand understatement for this game he concluded, "They're three very talented players and they're starting to gel a little bit."
It's fun to see.
The first 18 games of this season have been a real drag, testing the patience of everyone in Buffalo, team and fans alike. Girgensons has been a catalyst in helping bring some fun back into the game. In the last five games dating back to the Edmonton tilt on November 7th, he has four goals, two assists and is a plus-five.
Both of his goals last night were doozies. On the first one, his short-handed tally, his patience was only outdone by the patience of Brian Flynn to get him the puck after Toronto goalie James Reimer was caught way too far out of his net. After receiving the pass from Flynn, Girgensons waited it out and rifled one into an empty net.
“It was just a free goal for me, pretty much," he said after the game. "Someone was in front there to block it but it’s not a goalie so what do you do? Score on a d-man with no goalie. Flynn did everything on that goal.”
He scored his second in "Latvian Locomotive" style as he barreled towards the net on a break finishing with a highlight real backhand (see full highlights below thanx to Captain Canada.)
Although that line was outstanding, with the entire offense playing well, one shouldn't take away from the work of Sabres' goalie Michal Neuvirth last night. He made some outstanding saves that kept the Leafs at bay. Toronto threw 34 shots at him and only two got by. Plus the defense played great as well. Just how well they played is reflected in the stat-line of the much maligned Mike Weber. In 18:14 of ice-time he had an assist on the Moulson goal and was a plus-three.
Another standout in the game was Tyler Myers. He really took the "A" on his sweater to heart playing a stout game that included netting his first goal of the season. Just how exasperating it's been for him was shown in the display of relief in finally scoring. His goal, where he poked in a puck lying in the crease, came 1:10 into the third period. It would provide some breathing room for the remainder of the game as it restored the Sabres three-goal lead.
Again, this was against the hated Maple Leafs and the influx of fans from Toronto almost gives the feel as if it's a road game for the Sabres. As one reporter at the press conference noted, the two first period goals "took the crowd (the large contingent of Toronto fans) out of it."
"Leaf-nation is very strong," said Nolan with a smile on his face as if he just ate the canary. "They were here in full-force tonight. I don't know what the percentage was, but it was almost like winning a road game for us."
That "road game" also included a very frustrated Leaf-nation. As bad as the Sabres are, most expected that. But with the Leafs struggling to a 9-7-2 record out of the gate and being shellacked by the worst team in the league, in full view of Hockey Night In Canada no-less, frustration grew into something that might be considered sacrilegious in Canada. Some Leafs fans were so distraught at the whooping they were witnessing took to throwing Leafs regalia on the First Niagara Center ice in.
All-in-all this was a good win for the Sabres and their fans. It's not as if anyone is planning a Stanley Cup parade, but it presents a solid leap forward. "We've had a tough season," said Girgensons, "and it's hard enough when you don't win games, but today was absolutely different how we played, 10 times better than what we've done."
He then was able to contrast the actions of Leafs-nation to getting blown out, "You don't see Buffalo fans out doing that with the kind of season we're having," Girgensons said. "I don't think that's right from the fans."
One final note, today marks the 60th birthday of Sabres' legend Taro Tsujimoto. The diminutive center was plucked from the Tokyo Katanas of the Japan Ice Hockey League with the 183rd pick of the 1974 NHL Amateur Draft.
Tsujimoto is legendary for the simple fact that he never existed. Sabres GM Punch Imlach, who had grown tired of the long, tedious draft format that he was talked into pulling a little prank.
According to Sal Maiorana in his book, 100 Things Sabres Fans Should Know Before They Die, the Sabres PR director at the time, Paul Wieland, came up with the stunt and convinced Imlach to go through with it. Imlach would go along with it figuring, according to Maiorana, "a 10th round pick stood almost no chance of making it in the organization anyway."
From wiki, "Wieland wanted the player to be of Asian descent and he knew instantly what the last name would be. As a college student driving route 16 from Buffalo to St. Bonaventure Wieland would regularly pass the Tsujimoto store and that name just stuck in his head. In 2013, hockey blogger Ben Tsujimoto revealed that Imlach eventually called his grandfather -- Joshua Tsujimoto, a local grocery store owner -- and a Sabres staffer asked for permission to use his family name without revealing the club's true intent, as well as asking what were 'popular' first names in Japanese."
And so, Taro Tsujimoto was born. The ficticious hockey team he came from got it's name from the Japanese word for sword or, katana.
Imlach would continue the ruse by creating a bio with Tsujimoto's "date of birth" being November 16, 1954, and according to Maiorana, they went as far as to "have a stall set up at a practice rink in St. Catharines, Ontario and equipment manager Rip Simonick even issued him a full set of equipment."
It's a classic story and a fun time for a team that was still in it's infancy.
Happy birthday Taro. Wherever you are.