There was a time last season when Buffalo Sabres coach Phil Housley came off as an over-protective mother in a post-game presser after his team got shellacked 5-1 by the Dallas Stars. On November 4, 2017 the Stars scored three goals in the first 10 minutes en route to crushing the hapless Sabres. Afterward, Housley tried to gloss over his team’s performance saying that he thought his team "played well" in the loss. "The score tells you differently and there's probably going to be a lot of people that disagree with me."
Yup, pretty much everybody disagreed with Housley on that with one beat-reporter writing, "That was one of the most egregious quotes I've heard from a Buffalo coach in a long time. An affront to a battered fanbase.
"There's a difference in being positive and being a Pollyanna Phil."
The Sabres were in the throes of an horrific start to last season and looked awful on many occasions. Housley was a rookie head coach and his Buffalo Sabres had just dropped to 4-8-2 and had played some terrible hockey in the process. The last thing the media and fanbase wanted to hear from him after the Dallas loss was a distorted view of the truth from a blindly optimistic head coach.
Fast forward a year and Sabreland is running with a narrative that is totally different from what was happening 13 months ago. The Buffalo Sabres look like a real team with enough speed, skill and goaltending to at least make a playoff push. They are presently third in the Atlantic division with a 17-8-4 record and have showed extreme poise in the process. On November 4 of this season the Sabres just lost to the NY Rangers and fell to 7-6-2 on the season but went on a 10-game run before losing the last four. All but one of those 14 games were one-goal games and during that stretch they emerged with a 10-2-2 record. And they hadn't played a complete game yet.
Last night against the Toronto Maple Leafs, they did, but fell short 4-3 in overtime.
If you, as an invested fan of either team, weren't a bit winded after watching last night's game between the Sabres and the Leafs, then you need to check your investment. It was about as thrilling a game as one could want in December with end-to-end rushes an immense amount of skill, big saves being played in front of a raucous crowd with a Game-7 feel to it. It was a see-saw battle with two American superstars in Buffalo's Jack Eichel and Toronto's Auston Matthews trying to will their team to victory with the latter scoring the game-winner in overtime with only 2.7 seconds left on the clock.
It was Buffalo's fourth loss in a row (0-2-2) after tying a franchise record with a 10-game winning streak and the Toronto game concluded a stretch of four games in six nights playing three of the top teams in the league. The first three were on the road in a back-back against Tampa and Florida with the Sabres in Nashville on Monday before playing the Leafs at home last night.
Despite that, Buffalo came to play against their archrival and went toe-to-toe with the Leafs the entire game.
"We were ready to play tonight," said Housley to the gathered media post-game last night., "and I give credit to our guys, you know, of the schedule and the travel, losing an hour (because of time zones) and having to turn around against a really, really good hockey team.
"That group in there tonight really came to play. I mean they brought their A+ effort. [They were] a little bit fatigued but they found the energy which was really awesome to me."
Buffalo and Toronto always seem to play each other tough no matter what the records are. Over the past decade both teams have been in the dregs both together and at opposite times but when they hit the ice to play each other, it's on. Last night was a bit different from the past 10 years as we saw two quality teams that featured a lot of skill and speed playing an extremely fast game. Large chunks of the game were played without a whistle with credit going to the players for keeping it pretty clean and to the referees for staying away from ticky-tack calls. Only two penalties were called on each team with the first one coming over half-way through the second period. Oddly enough, neither the Leafs, who had the first man advantage, nor the Sabres who had one in the third period enjoyed a full 2:00 minute powerplay as the team on the powerplay each took a penalty leading to 4-on-4.
About the only thing to dislike about this game was that one team had to lose, and it happened to be the Sabres.
There's no shame in losing a game like this. Sure, it put Buffalo on a four-game losing streak and it was to an archrival that filled a good chunk of KeyBank Center with Blue and White, but the Sabres put on a helluva performance and just fell a little short. They played a rested conference, and possible Stanley Cup, contender after playin a Nashville team with the same projections the night before. They were down two starting d-men going into the game and played nearly the entire game with five defensemen after Casey Nelson left with an injury mid-way through the first period.
Buffalo faced a loaded Leafs team up front with a good, mobile defense-corps that was backed by some strong goaltending and they were 2.7 seconds away from taking it to the shootout with a team not nearly as talented, at least up-front, as Toronto.
Maybe, and in Buffalo, them's fighting words.
Most get that the Buffalo sports scene has been average at best, horrendous at worst this century with the lone bright spot being the Sabres and their back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals appearances in '06 and '07. And it might be fair to say that any negative reaction to games like last night are in large part due to the past 17 yrs. with all of the crap the fan base had to endure while wading through a seemingly endless parade of clichés and false-positivity as numerous players, coaches, GM's, team presidents and owners shoveled a boatload of crap designed to cover the fact that the team lost and/or wasn't even very good to begin with.
This year for the Sabres has a much different feel to it as this young and surprisingly poised Buffalo team is drawing comparisons to those very successful 2005-07 teams.
Yes, they lost last night and their losing streak is at four games, but it's nothing to hang your head about and it was best summed up in a Martin Biron tweet afterwards:
"Losing sucks. Losing to the Leafs sucks. Losing 4 after winning 10 in a row sucks. But going 10-2-2 in the last 14 and the way the Sabres played tonight doesn't suck."