Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
With snow hitting the northtowns and interest in the Calgary Flames low, there wasn't quite the announced 18,000 fans on hand for the game last night, but the ones who were there got a nice treat. For only the third time in 29 games the Buffalo Sabres scored four goals in a game as they came away with a 4-3 comeback win.
The Sabres seemed to have awakened from the stupor they found themselves in at the beginning of the season and aren't being kicked around anymore. Where once there were howls that the lowly Sabres were tanking, the press is now taking notice of a very strong 8-3-0 run over the past 11 games.
Last night they took on a Flames team that's well within their weight class and did what they do best as of late, endure an onslaught of shots and bury what few chances they had.
Case in point. In the third period and down a goal, Zemgus Girgensons found the back of the net at about the 12:00-mark. It was their first shot of the period and it brought their shot total to 13 for the game. Buffalo would get outshot by an incredible 45-19 margin.
Play like that is unsustainable over the long haul, especially when playing the powerhouses of the league, but for now, we'll take the win. Calgary boasts some very talented players, but in this game of relative equals, the Sabres were the team that managed to pull it out. "The belief factor's starting to creep in," said bench boss Ted Nolan, "[Tonight] was pretty special. We believe we can win certain games now."
After constant juggling for the first six weeks, Nolan seems to have found himself some line combinations in the top nine. He's been rolling with Girgensons/Matt Moulson/Tyler Ennis as his top line for over a month now. "Ever since we put [that line] together, it sparked a belief," he said. The team is 8-5 since Nolan did that over a month ago. Last night that line did some serious damage with a collective three goals, four assists and plus-7 rating.
They're certainly playing like they believe.
While Nolan thought his second line did well, they struggled, seemingly a bit outclassed at times, but they were skating like they had the "belief factor."
Probably the most intriguing line of the night was the "Big Tree" line of Marcus Foligno centering Drew Stafford and Chris Stewart. None of the three are under 6'2" or weigh less than 213lbs. And they can move too.
Nolan called it a "makeshift line" as he moved Foligno to center and dressed a previously benched Stewart. The big guys got it on with Foligno potting his first goal in 20 games. "It was fun with Stewart and Staff," chuckled Foligno when I mentioned trees, "it's a big line."
Even though his goal came in the second period, Foligno felt that they really seemed to get it together in the third period and really worked the goal line down. "When you go down low," he said, "it's tough to move trees down low."
Add in defensemen Tyler Myers (6'8" 224lbs.,) Nikita Zadorov (6'5", 244 lbs.) and Rasmus Ristolainen (6'4" 203lbs.) and it's a veritable forest when they're on the ice.
It's a win the Sabres and their fans should revel in. This stretch might not last too much longer as rumors continue to swirl concerning Stewart and Myers, as well as others, especially after Sabres GM Tim Murray just returned from the Board of Governors meetings in Florida.
The entire league knows where the Sabres are right now and they know where they're headed this year. It's well known that very few players on this club should be considered untouchable as Buffalo's smack-dab in the middle of a rebuild. Murray has been sending out feelers almost as soon as he took over the club last January. We know trades are coming, and everybody's pretty sure who's on the move, the questions are when and for what return?
Craig Custance of ESPN.com writes that "Murray is one of the few GM's in position to sell right now. He knows the players he has available and he knows the teams with the assets that match up nicely with Buffalo.
"It [seems] like Murray has made his requests and it's time for some counter-offers."
The big chip is "Big Tex" himself, Myers.
Custance echoes what many across the league think of the big, mobile, defenseman. "[He's] attractive on many fronts, still just 24 yrs.old and has already crossed the 300-game threshold. His cap hit is $5.5M, [but] his actual salary is less--a nice bonus for a team on a budget--and he's a coveted right-handed shot."
Which begs the question, why on earth would the Sabres move him?
Also intriguing is Custance mentioning that the play of both goaltenders opens up options for Murray. Both Jhonas Enroth, who's been stellar in net during the Sabres recent hot streak and Michal Neuvirth could be focal points now that Ilya Bryzgalov and Martin Brodeur are off the market.
And with the drama surrounding Stewart and his definition of tough play, he may not be long for this team.
Nolan felt Stewart was good, but nothing spectacular last night. The big winger was itchin' for something, but didn't do anything to dispel the thought that he could be much harder to play against. Yes, he got into, and won, a spirited fight with Brandon Bollig, but that's not what the Sabres are interested in. If they were, John Scott might still be on the team.
"He needs to play the way he can," said Nolan before benching Stewart the previous game. "He's a big, powerful forward, but powerful forwards can't be playing a soft game."
Still, teams are interested and there are at least a few GM's and coaches who feel that they could get him to that 28-goal level again. There were plenty of scouts there last night from teams like Boston and Pittsburgh who weren't downtown to sample the fare at 716.
With Foligno and Stafford showing some chemistry, as well as having that "belief factor," two-thirds of a potential third line might be in place Las.t night Stewart wasn't even on the ice for Foligno's goal. Nic Deslauriers was parked in front of the net causing chaos and generally being hard to play against.
Nolan is continuing what he started when he was hired, weeding out those who won't do what they're capable of. He doesn't want any passengers. Nor does Murray. They want character players.
Last night the speakers blasted a Who track pregame: Eminence Front from their 1982 album, It's Hard, which was quite apropos.
It's been tough sledding for this club, but their starting to put it together. Nolan's sifting through and finding players that have the "belief factor." And there's no hiding from what he sees.