Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Sabres raise some eyebrows in beating Detroit, are 2-2-1 in last five

Reprinted with permission from

The Buffalo Sabres weren't supposed to beat the Detroit Red Wings yesterday evening. Get a loser-point? Maybe. But win the game? Nope. Shouldn't happen.

It's too early to think that Sabres head coach Ted Nolan might be ticking off the powers that be in Buffalo, but Sabres President Ted Black and general manager Tim Murray may have had their interest piqued yesterday. The team Nolan coached vs. the Red Wings in the Sabres first home victory looked like a good, hard-working team that's tired of being an embarrassment.

With the 3-2 shootout victory over Detroit, the Sabres are now 2-2-1 in their last five games. Granted, they were shut out in the two losses by a combined 9-0 score, but a loss is a loss whether it's by a goal or five goals. And a win is a win no matter how few goals it takes.

The Sabres are in Jekyll and Hyde mode right now as they've altered between good, solid performances and embarrassments. It started in San Jose' as they throttled the Sharks 2-1 in the last game of their three-game, west coast swing. That was followed by a 4-0 shellacking in Toronto, one that caused Nolan to put the team through a grueling practice the following day.

Buffalo would then show up against Boston at home, but couldn't contain nemesis Brad Marchand as he scored late in the third period to tie the score then potted the game-winner in overtime. They then travelled to Pittsburgh on Saturday to begin their fourth back-to-back of the season. Buffalo was 0-3-0 in the first game of back-to-backs and left there 0-4-0 as the Penguins totally outclassed them en route to a 5-0 thumping.

Oddly enough, unlike much of the league, the Sabres seem to play better in the second game of back-to-backs. The win yesterday vs. Detroit put them at 2-2-0 in that department.

What does all of this mean?

Getting five of a possible 10 points looks like a minor miracle at this point in the season as it's been such an awful start for Buffalo. The team is 29th in the league right now, one point ahead of Carolina (who also won yesterday,) but points percentage-wise they are in last place having played three more games. Their points percentage is .269 while Carolina's .300.

In addition to that, the Sabres are scoring at a horrific rate of only 1.08 goals per game which puts them on a pace for less than 90 goals on the season. They've been shut out five times in 13 games thus far, a feat that must have the folks at Elias Sports Bureau combing the record books. Even if Buffalo was to average two goals per game the rest of the season, they'd be challenging last year's futility mark of only 151 goals scored.

At this pace the Sabres will end up at the bottom of the league for the second straight season thus assuring that the team would one of two highly touted prospects--Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel.

And therein lies a potential conflict.

Black is near the top of the Sabres' food chain and has been a constant through this rebuild. He unabashedly mentions his time with the Penguins when they were rebuilding and often points to "the Pittsburgh model" as being a successful model with which to build a Stanley Cup team. Over the course of four years beginning in 2003, the Penguins never picked lower than second overall. They had two #1 overall picks in G, Marc-Andre Fleury (2003) and C, Sidney Crosby (2005) and the two second overall picks were C, Evgeni Malkin (2004) and C, Jordan Staal (2006.)

To balance things out, that model would always be mentioned in concert with "the Chicago model" which was also predicated upon multiple, successive high draft picks as well.

In 2006 the Blackhawks drafted Jonathan Toews (3rd overall) then followed it up by drafting Patrick Kane first overall in the 2007 draft. It wasn't close to the tank-job they pulled off in Pittsburgh, though.The Kane pick for Chicago wasn't through finishing dead-last in the league, it was a product of winning the new NHL lottery system which was in place for the first time that year. The Blackhawks moved the maximum four spots up to pick first-overall in front of the Philadelphia Flyers.

Former Buffalo GM Darcy Regier got Black's "Pittsburgh model" rolling when he put the team and their fans in full "suffering-mode" last season. The result was the second-overall pick in the 2014 draft, Sam Reinhart. It was assumed the team would continue with that approach this season under Murray.

Murray added a twist, though. At the start of free agency he brought in legitimate NHL players like Brian Gionta, Josh Gorges and Matt Moulson along with an oft-injured Andrej Meszaros. Those new players would be mixed in with some existing talent and youth up-front to provide a step in the right direction. But not too big a step. That group would be balanced out by lingering laissez faire attitudes carried over from the previous regime, some borderline NHL'ers and iffy goaltending. Put it all together and Murray built a team would probably be able to compete often but would ultimately fall short way more often than not due to major holes throughout the lineup.

If a tank-job is in the works, all started out well in October. But this is a team that should not be as bad as they were through the first nine games when they went 1-7-1, including three shutouts in a span of four games, especially with their goalies performing as well as they are (relatively speaking.) And it's only a matter of time before individual pride starts taking over. Yesterday evening was a good example.

Zemgus Girgensons played a whale of a game yesterday, like he's done often this season. He barreled to the net wreaking havoc and getting the puck to squeeze out before linemate Brian Flynn put it in the net. Girgensons scored the go-ahead shootout goal which proved to be the winner. He was also was on the ice at a critical point in overtime with the Wings on a 4-3 powerplay. He won two faceoffs during his second stint on that same kill vs. one of the best faceoff men in the league, Pavel Datsyuk. Flynn was also on the kill during that penalty in OT.

Girgensons is a "Nolan-guy," the type of player who's all-in and hates to lose. So is Flynn. There is talent there, and we're just getting a glimpse of it from the 20-year old Girgensons, but the driving force in their game is will and determination. Those aspects were prevalent team-wide yesterday evening as they refused to buckle despite a one-goal deficit in the third period.

Zemgus Girgensons celebrates his sweet shootout goal
with his teammates. (Photo:  Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)
Nolan is a very proud man who is known for squeezing talent out of nothing. His mantra has, is, and always will be that hard work is the foundation of winning. Throughout his career he's been able to take a group of players with very little talent to speak of an mold them into a team that surprises. He did it in Buffalo, he did it on Long Island, and he did it in Latvia.

In the process of hiring coaches, he brought in Bryan Trottier who has his name on the Stanley Cup seven times--six as a player, one as an assistant coach. Trottier was a complete player, the best two-way center in the game at the time. And he hated to lose.

Under their guidance are players like Gorges and Gionta who are wired the same way. There are others who are that way as well like the diminutive Tyler Ennis and Sunday call-up Johan Larsson. Chris Stewart, who also had a strong game last night shows glimpses of it. Youngins like Rasmus Ristolainen, Nic Deslauriers and Marcus Foligno also have it in them.

It's not a large group, but with real good goaltending, it's solid enough to where they can compete against almost anybody. They will have trouble with elite teams like the Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks and the Penguins. But there's no reason why they shouldn't be able to give the better teams, including rivals Boston and Montreal, a run for their money, even stealing a few games. And they should be able to compete with, and beat, teams in the bottom-half of the league.

Which is the potential conflict down the road.

The Sabres had a pretty brutal schedule to start the year including that west-coast trip. Although they play the Penguins again and the Canadiens three times in November, along with road tilts against 2014 playoff teams St. Louis and Minnesota, it's not as difficult a schedule as October was. December, at this point in time presents a less difficult schedule. Add it all up and it means that they have the potential to put up some wins in the win-column.

If Nolan can get the most out of this team, and the goaltending continues to hold up, they may be a little too far away from where they're supposed to be. And the powers that be will need to do something if they wish to continue with "the Pittsburgh model."

There's a lot to be fixed before they can get to that point, and there's a long way to go, but it looks as if they've started changing their attitude. That's enough to change a raised brow from Black into a furrowed one.

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