Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
--If the Buffalo Sabres could have converted on of their many odd-man rushes to get the score to 2-0, they'd not have been clinging to a one-goal lead in the third period...
--If Evander Kane could have kept his stick lower, or if Colorado Avalanche veteran center John Mitchell wouldn't have given Kane's left arm a shove as the latter was trying to forcefully backhand the puck to center ice from the snowy boards, Kane's double minor for drawing blood on a high stick wouldn't have happened. Or at least it would have only been two minutes...
--If Buffalo had been able to get one more change after killing off that four-minute double-minor, or if goalie Robin Lehner would have refrained a desperation sprawl in the crease and stood tall...
--If Kane would shown more hustle when the puck went into their corner and the game tied at 1-1 with just over :30 seconds to play in the third period...
--If Kane's stick wouldn't have nicked Francois Beauchemin's shot from the point or if defenseman Mark Pysyk's hand was just an inch tighter to his body...
Such are the "if's" of losing a close one in the waning minutes of the third period.
The Sabres lost on the road in Denver last night 2-1. They had the lead on a powerplay goal by Kane and had plenty of opportunities to increase it by a goal, maybe even more. They skated well and it looks as if they're finally finding their stride. But they need to start converting their opportunities and it starts with wanting to be the guy to take the bull by the horns.
A team like the Chicago Blackhawks have stars that want to be "the guy." They have the talent and they have the chutzpah. If they go in on a 2-on-1 and the shot is there, it's spotlight-time and they take it. Yet they also have enough hockey smarts to pass the puck if there's a better opportunity for their teammate.
That's why the NHL's leading scorer, Patrick Kane, leads the league in points with 71 on the strength of 30 goals and 41 assists. His nearest competitor in the points race is 15 behind yet he's only two goals ahead of the second-place scorer, three ahead of No. 2 in assists.
Granted, this group of Blackhawks have been together for years. They're talented, they're well coached and they know each other very well, but they're the benchmark.
This group of Sabres has been together for all of four months. They're young and talented, just like the Hawks were back in 2008 and they also seem to be well coached. And GM Tim Murray has assembled a team that's not only high on skill, but also has a high hockey IQ.
One of those players is Evander Kane.
His namesake in Chicago has chutzpah up the ying-yang and always has and Buffalo's Kane has it as well, only right now he doesn't have the hockey creds of a player who has three Stanley Cups under his belt, a Calder Trophy, and a scoring resume that's never dipped below 21 goals or 66 points in a full season. The Kane in Chicago had his fair share of non-hustle gaffe's early on in his career, but he was always scoring and always had the defense on their heels. He also matured (on ice) and evolved into one of the game's best players.
Perhaps Buffalo's Kane took too much for granted in the game last night after scoring his 10th goal of the season on the powerplay. Don't get me wrong, he was skating well, and using his body while making it tough on the 'Lanche, but at that crucial moment when he needed to get on that puck and get it out of the zone, he didn't. He lollygagged it, Colorado got control of the puck, Beauchemin sent a prayer on net and, ting-ting, in went the game-winning goal.
Although he would end up being a big part of all three goals scored last night, I'm not so sure one can fault Kane for his double-minor. He was digging it out of some heavy snow along the boards and tried to get a little oomph out of his backhander. Colorado's Mitchell was engaged with Kane on the play and pressed his elbow on the follow-through. Up went the stick, Mitchell locked in his elbow and as Cody McLeod was coming in to help, smack, blood, four-minutes in the box for No. 9.
From thence, a series of events that lead to the game-tying goal about half-way through the third period.
With the Buffalo's PK on a roll lately, a four-minute kill wasn't exactly detrimental, but it ended up being extremely taxing and lead to the even-strength game-tying tally just moments after the Sabres killed it off.
Prior to that, however, just :15 seconds in, Ryan O'Reilly, playing in his first game against his former team raced in on net with the puck, got a shot in on Semyon Varlamov, corralled the loose puck, took it around the net and sent a rainbow pass up and over the crease to David Legwand who was charging in on the play. Varlamov had to be real sharp as the pass landed right on Legwand's stick. Legwand got a good piece of it while staring at half the net, but he couldn't get an accurate shot on the tricky bounce and Varlamov pinned it to his body.
That was another "if," a short-handed one that could have turned into a back-breaker. But it wasn't to be. With the penalty killed and Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma trying to normalize his line combinations, the Sabres failed to clear the zone, O'Reilly and Legwand got caught on the ice for an extended shift and the Avalanche tied the score.
Lehner could've really helped out his and the team's cause on that one, but he flopped around on that one, looking like a rookie goalie. Buffalo's Linus Ullmark was up and saw a lot of action while Lehner was out with injury. The rookie looked good much of the time but he had his moments where he looked a little wet behind the ears. It showed when he lunged out of desperation and ended up on his belly with the puck whizzing by him into the net.
That's what Lehner did last night. Perhaps he heard too much about The Dominator and tried to channel Sabre great Dominik Hasek, but he ended up lookin silly on the play.
That said, although it seems as if he's been in the league a long time, Lehner is only 24 yrs. old and with only 89 games under his belt at the NHL-level, things like that happen. It's best to look at him as a goalie that's still developing at a position that takes years to master. He's a behemoth in net, is intense and moves very well. Gaffe's will happen and goals will be scored, but it's how he rebounds from them that will determine just what level goalie he'll eventually become.
This is a young Sabres squad that's just gone through some serious growing pangs the first half of the season and they're in the early stages of a growth-spurt. Unfortunately there are plenty of factors, plenty of "if's," associated with it that will prevent growth from translating into wins, or in the case of last night, getting out of the visitor's building with at least a point.
This team is far and away better than last season (which isn't saying too much,) but they've also come a long way post Christmas break. They turned around a six-game losing streak and have been playing real good hockey on the road. They went into Colorado on a three-game road-winning streak and would've made it four...