Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
No one will ever be able to draw a parallel between the skill level of the Buffalo Sabres and Muhammad Ali. They don't "float like a butterfly" nor do they "sting like a bee." Nor are they "the greatest."
In fact the Sabres of the first two months may be more akin to Jerry Quarry, who was an average size fighter with a couple of good punches, a sturdy chin and decent footwork in the ring. But at every turn, Quarry was no match for the likes of Ali and his lightening fast punches, "Smokin" Joe Frazier and his relentless attack or George Forman and his devastating right hook.
Although Quarry was a gamer he inevitably came up short. In the hockey world he was basically a bottom-six hockey player, who gave it everything he had, but just didn't have the natural ability to hang with the best of his era.
Boxing analogies were flying last night after the Sabres 1-0 win against the Los Angeles Kings. When a reporter asked if the Sabres played a "rope-a-dope" kind of game to beat the defending Stanley Cup Champions, head coach Ted Nolan went with it. "You must have listened to our pregame talk," smirked Nolan.
"You don't want to go into a slugfest with the Champion," he continued. "They're a big team. They're a heavy team. We knew we couldn't battle them pound-for-pound that way so we thought we'd stick and bob and weave and rope-a-dope a little bit We wanted to hit when we could hit but we didn't want to go power for power. We wanted to hit and get out, hit and get out and it worked pretty well."
Although they aren't Ali, it didn't keep them from impersonating his tactics vs. the Kings. In a battle against the heavies from Los Angeles, how ironic that the two smallest players on the ice played the biggest and were the deciding factors in the game.
Sabres goalie Jhonas Enroth and his 5'10" 160 lb. frame proved to be a wall as he stopped all 34 shots thrown at him by the Kings. It was the first shutout of the season for Enroth and the first-star effort left the Kings frustrated on two fronts. While giving Enroth his due, LA defenseman Drew Doughty also felt they could do a much better job finishing, "We got some good looks," said Doughty post-game, "[Enroth] made some big saves, but we’ve just got to score those goals."
The only shot that did light the lamp came from 5'9" 169 lb. Buffalo winger Tyler Ennis as he was able capitalize on two mistakes by two seasoned NHL veterans.
Early in the third period former Sabre Robyn Regehr found himself in the box for two minutes because of a useless roughing penalty on Buffalo's Marcus Foligno. The Sabres powerplay was pathetic early in that man advantage before jumping on a coverage breakdown by the Kings' Mike Richards. Ennis was left all alone in tight against goalie Jonathan Quick and buried his eighth goal of the season.
"It's a bad play by Richards," said Kings bench boss Darryl Sutter. "It's a set play by us. You've got to cover the middle of the ice."
As much as most Buffalo fans would've loved to see the Sabres drop this one, credit must be given to Nolan, his coaching staff and the players. Even though the Sabres have a stellar home record vs. the Kings (12-1-1 dating back to December, 1993,) they were severely outclassed heading into this matchup, yet were able to execute a well-designed game-plan to topple the champs.
This team is still finding it's way as they're beginning to form an identity. It's a Nolanesque-type identity which is predicated on tight defense and opportunistic counterpunching for now, which is really all he has to work with at this juncture. Where it leads is another story.