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The bad Sabres & the good Sabres October 17, 2011

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With 21 back-to-back games on the Sabres schedule this season, we hope to see better performances consistently from the boys.  The euphoria of Friday’s home opener at the FN Center ended in an anti-climax, with a 4-3 loss to the Canes. Playing an open game but plagued by mistakes, the Sabres went 0-for-6 on the PP, gave up two shorthanded goals, had a third chance go off the post with goaltender Ryan Miller beaten, and then Miller stopped Eric Staal on a fourth breakaway. They peppered goalie Cam Ward with 42 shots, with goals from Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy & Drew Stafford. Ward kept the Sabres out time and again, and with just over a minute left in the game, Calder Trophy holder Jeff Skinner scored the winner off a nifty pass on the PP from Jussi Jokinen. The Sabres haven’t won a home opener since 2008.

Despite his goal, Vanek had a miserable game – both shorties came from miscues off his stick and he was in the box for tripping on the Canes PP winner. Coach Lindy Ruff was defiant despite the loss, insisting that he would stick with the high-risk/high-reward approach to the powerplay the team has adopted. The quick side-to-side passing has its benefits as it draws the penalty killers out of position, but any mistakes at the point leaves the middle open to a 2-on-1 or even 3-on-1 depending on how aggressive the defense chooses to be.

On Saturday, the Sabres traveled to Pittsburgh to face a Penguins team missing stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Steel City has not been good to the Sabres, their last win there being back in 2008. This time around, twice the Sabres led by two before they finally pulled out the 3-2 win. In a surprise move, Ruff started backup goalie Jhonas Enroth giving Miller the night off. The team played better in front of Enroth, and the young goalie responded making multiple fine saves to keep the Sabres lead intact before clinching the win by stopping Paul Martin point blank in the dying minutes.

Nathan Gerbe showed some creativity and hustle in starting the scoring, skating with the puck out of the defensive zone, shooting on Marc-Andre Fleury, before one-timing the rebound into the goal. The Vanek-Adam-Pominville line had another good game, completing a tic-tac-toe play for Adam to score the Sabres second of the game.

Ruff finally made a change in the third period on the uninspiring line of Tyler Ennis – Ville Leino – Brad Boyes, swapping Boyes out for Patrick Kaleta. Despite some better puck possession in the offensive zone, there were still precious few chances created by this line, mystifying considering Ennis and Leino are two of the better puck-handlers on this team. Ennis has no points this season, with just seven shots on goal and one PP shift per game. I wonder if moving Gerbe to this line with Leino and Boyes will make a difference, or if Ruff will wait for Hecht to get back before benching Boyes.

Finally, I’m loving Christian Ehrhoff’s self-guided surface-to-air missiles from right point. He seems to be getting them on goal with unerring regularity, the goals and rebounds can’t be too far behind.

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NHL Premiere – Sabres in Europe October 12, 2011

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The dust has settled on the Sabres first trip to Europe and with the team firmly ensconced back in their newly-refurbished digs in the heart of the FN Centre, it’s a good time to look back at their European conquest last weekend. The locker room looks even better than advertised (click here for pictures), with close to $10 million already spent on it and still counting. It’s all going towards the master plan of making Buffalo a ‘Hockey Heaven’, and nothing contributes more to that than results on ice. The Sabres went unbeaten on their travels across the pond, beating the Anaheim Ducks 4-1 in Finland and then hopping over to Germany and beating the LA Kings 4-2 the next day.

A quick review of the Sabres performance in these two games shows lots of positives. Often teams struggle with early season cohesion when new players are brought into the system, but defensemen Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr have stepped right in and fit into their expected roles. Third newcomer Ville Leino hasn’t looked very convincing yet, but two games is not a large enough sample size to pass judgement either.

The goaltending has been solid so far. Ryan Miller played both games and looked like his usual unflustered self in goal. He made all the timely saves that Sabres fans have become used to, and kept the team in the game until the offense caught fire and started scoring, especially against the Kings. After a long flight from Helsinki to Berlin that only landed at 5am local time on game day, many had thought that Lindy Ruff would give Miller the night off and get an early look at Jhonas Enroth. Miller also noted that the German fans really lifted the team with their cheering, and the Sabres were serenaded off the ice after the win by the capacity crowd. Of the three goals he allowed, Miller was screened on two while a defensive gaffe let Anze Kopitar receive a pass in the slot unchallenged and that accounted for the third.

As expected (and hoped), the revamped defense held strong and looked good. Coming out of the lockout, the Sabres management have made it a priority to build a defense that is an integral part of the offense. Ruff used Ehrhoff & Jordan Leopold and Regehr & Tyler Myers as the top two pairs, and Andrej Sekera & Marc-Andre Gragnani together, with Mike Weber the surprise healthy scratch. The top four got the bulk of the ice time, especially with Ruff using two d-men on the points for the powerplays. As a unit, the defense did a good job keeping most of the shots at Miller to the perimeter, and they looked especially competent on the penalty kill. Some issues still remain though, especially with clearing the zone. Too often the Sabres attempt to play the puck out of their own end instead of making it a priority to get the puck out. Against teams with a more concerted forecheck, this is dangerous and will lead to turnovers if not corrected. Not surprisingly, Regehr leads the team with 7 hits and 9 blocked shots so far.

Ruff rolled out a very balanced attack distributed amongst three scoring lines, with rookie Luke Adam the surprise find of the early season. Skating on the top line between Thomas Vanek and new captain Jason Pominville, last season’s AHL Rookie of the Year Adam has discovered his scoring touch with two goals and two assists, as well as getting some powerplay time. This line is off to a flyer accounting for 5 goals and 8 assists and going +8. The Sabres seem like they are finally taking to heart the mantra of shooting and going to the net as most of the goals scored have been a result of hard work behind the goal and around the blue ice.

Derek Roy centered Nathan Gerbe and Drew Stafford on a line that seems to have all the elements for success, but hasn’t gotten there yet. Fans will be glad to see Roy is back to full fitness, but are still waiting on the sum of the three to be greater than the whole. On the 2A line, Ville Leino hasn’t fully integrated with linemates Tyler Ennis and Brad Boyes either. The idea of having two nifty stickhandlers and a finisher in Boyes is again a hit on paper, but yet to fully materialize on ice. Ruff has made a career as a tinkerer of lines, so expect changes if this remains the case after this coming weekend.

With Jochen Hecht still ailed by post-concussion symptoms, Cody McCormick, Paul Gaustad and Patrick Kaleta have been forming the fourth line. Gaustad and Kaleta have also been getting the bulk of the penalty killing time, while McCormick hasn’t had to drop the gloves as yet. It will be interesting to see if Hecht will skate right back into the starting lineup once he is healthy, and who will then be demoted to the press box.

The Sabres have their home opener this Friday against familiar foe Carolina Hurricanes, who will be only too happy to ruin the day in the house that Terry is building. However, with each Sabre having an action picture of himself hanging over his locker for inspiration, we hope there won’t be a letdown after their flying start in Europe.

You can bet on that October 6, 2011

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If you’re looking to place some wagers on hockey futures Vegas has the lines for you. Even if you aren’t interested in a flutter with the bookies, it’s interesting because the odds placed on certain propositions say a lot about how hockey neutrals think the season will pan out.

As of October 6th, here are the odds for various categories for the NHL, courtesy of Bodog.com

2012 Stanley Cup champion:

2012 Hart Memorial Trophy for Most Valuable Player of the season:

Alexander Ovechkin (WAS)
4/1
Steven Stamkos (TB)
Sidney Crosby (PIT)
Daniel Sedin (VAN)
Evgeni Malkin (PIT)
Henrik Sedin (VAN)
Jonathan Toews (CHI)
Pavel Datsyuk (DET)

2012 Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard Trophy for top goal scorer:

Steven Stamkos (TB)
7/2
Alexander Ovechkin (WAS)
Corey Perry (ANA)
Evgeni Malkin (PIT)
Sidney Crosby (PIT)
Daniel Sedin (VAN)
Jeff Carter (CBJ)
Rick Nash (CBJ)

2012 Art Ross Trophy for top points scorer:

Alexander Ovechkin (WAS)
7/2
Steven Stamkos (TB)
Daniel Sedin (VAN)
Martin St. Louis (TB)
Evgeni Malkin (PIT)
Henrik Sedin (VAN)
Sidney Crosby (PIT)
Corey Perry (ANA)
Pavel Datsyuk (DET)

2012 James Norris Trophy for best defenseman:

Shea Weber (NAS)
Zdeno Chara (BOS)
Nicklas Lidstrom (DET)
Mike Green (WAS)
Drew Doughty (LAK)
Kris Letang (PIT)
Duncan Keith (CHI)
Keith Yandle (PHO)
Christian Ehrhoff (BUF)

2012 Vezina Trophy for best goaltender:

Ryan Miller (BUF)
Tim Thomas (BOS)
Roberto Luongo (VAN)
Henrik Lundqvist (NYR)
Carey Price (MTL)
Marc-Andre Fleury (PIT)
Martin Brodeur (NJ)
Pekka Rinne (NAS)

2012 Calder Memorial Trophy for Rookie of the Year:

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (EDM)
Gabriel Landeskog (COL)
Brayden Schenn (PHI)
Nino Niederreiter (NYI)
Adam Larsson (NJ)

Note: Please bet responsibly. This author does not in any way condone gambling, and neither is this an official promotion of Bodog.com

Sabres season primer October 5, 2011

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These are heady times to be a Buffalo fan. It would be remiss of me to write about the optimism for the upcoming Sabres season without mentioning the cheer currently surrounding the city of Buffalo. Just before the Buffalo Bills season started, it was not uncommon to hear “When’s hockey season start?” – not much was expected from the Bills after all. However September was a very favorable month for the Bills, with this bunch of upstarts shocking the league and getting to the quarter pole with a 3-1 record, beating the hated Patriots on the way there.

The buildup to the Sabres’ 41st season has been highlighted by intense media scrutiny. Fans in Buffalo are simply not used to an owner who wants to win at all costs, and has a wallet to back up the talk. Between Terry Pegula and team president Ted Black, much has been improved about how the Buffalo Sabres operate, changing the face of the franchise both on and off the ice, leading to the city being given the unofficial moniker ‘Hockey Heaven’. Personally, I am most thrilled by how the management is not only building a winner now, but also laying down the roots of a legacy that will keep on winning and contend for the Cup for years to come.

Instead of rehashing one more time the changes made to the Sabres, I opted to collate posts written by more esteemed writers than me in one neat sequence for your reading pleasure.

Die By The Blade has a five part series on the Sabres, answering the top five questions surrounding the team, and an analytical breakdown of the forward, defense, goaltending and special teams units. – Zachary Zielonka

Buffalo Sabres Nation looks at how improving the picket fence defense is going to lead the Sabres to glory this year, and mentions some wildcards that could yet have far-reaching effects on the Sabres success. Scott Michalak

Sabres Hockey Central takes an in-depth look at the personnel on the team, and comes up with projected lines and defensive pairings to start the season. Lindy Ruff is famous for in-game tinkering with lines, so pretty much any permutation and combination you can come up with should see the bright lights of the ice at some point. – Brandon Schlager

Buffalo Wins answers 41 questions that fans have about the Sabres, in honor of the 41st season. The eight-part series should address any lingering doubts and queries that fans have before the puck drops Friday afternoon in Finland. – Joe Pinzone

The Globe and Mail has a look at how Terry Pegula has made the Northeast Division a much more difficult division for the other four teams to be in. James Mirtle

ESPN carries a ’10 Things You Need To Know’ about your Buffalo Sabres of 2011-12 feature, with the significant statement “An era that begins with dollar signs and aims to be remembered for Cup rings”. – Pierre LeBrun

TSN examines the Sabres as part of their ’30 Teams In 30 Days’ feature, with the lowdown on the offseason and what’s upcoming for the team during the season. – TSN.ca Staff

Bleacher Report previews the Sabres season, with predictions and odds, and expecting the Sabres to go on to win the division this year as well. – Doc Moseman

ProHockeyTalk on NBC has a breakdown of the different units on the team, and lists the expected strengths and weaknesses for the Sabres this season. – James O’Brien

I’m sure I’ve missed a few more insightful previews out there, please drop me a link in the comments below if you come across one that should be on here as well.

Go Sabres!

EDIT: Black & Blue & Gold previews the entire roster, starting with the forwards today. – Phil

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