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Farewell Miserable November December 2, 2011

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With the month of November in the rear-view mirror, the Sabres will be hoping Santa doesn’t have lumps of coal waiting for them in the bottoms of their stockings. Between the calamitous injury situation, the collective turtling in the face of the big bad Bruins and the simultaneous initiation of half-a-dozen rookies into the senior ranks, the Sabres actually didn’t do too badly, finishing 7-6-1 (15 out of a possible 28 points). Yes I know, my glass of Blue Light is half-full, but I do have a six-pack of PBR tallboys chilling in the fridge if things had been more miserable. Player A could have been out for the season, Player B could have broken more bones, Player C could have missed more games, etc etc (I am not naming names lest even more Sabres find their way onto the injury report). In fact, we could have gone 0-14-0 and where would we be then?!

So with that in mind, here are some things to look forward to in this festive month –

  • Ryan Miller will be back very soon. Hopefully refreshed from an early season break. And hopefully in a better frame of mind than the time he got injured when he was quite dreadful at times, no thanks to the vanishing act by the supporting cast in front of him.
  • Tyler Ennis gets to try again. ‘Enzo’ needs to be better during Take Two. In the first go-around of seven games prior to his injury, he looked nothing like his 2010-11 avatar that scored 49 points. It might help that Leino is settling in and has been playing better, but all signs point to Ennis getting first dibs on the line with Roy and Stafford as soon as he is back.
  • Tyler Myers continues his comeback. After a pretty rough start culminated in his benching for a game, Myers had a couple of solid efforts and it looked like he was back to form again. However, an innocuous-looking collision resulted in a broken bone and he has been sidelined until the middle of this month.
  • Thomas Vanek and team captain Jason Pominville have both been playing like elite wingers, and have combined to drag the Sabres out of their proclivity to slump to long losing streaks. We would love to see this pair keep scoring and lead from the front.
  • Zack Kassian is here. The fan-proclaimed future of the Sabres finally made his way up to the senior team, and promptly went about earning his keep as a physical forward with an eye for goal. If he can continue to combine his feisty approach with some timely scoring, the Sabres will be vindicated in spending the 13th overall pick on him in the 2009 Entry Draft.
  • Big Joe Finley getting a stint with the Sabres. I propose that the moniker ‘Big’ be permanently prefixed to Finley’s name – the 6’8″, 260lb behemoth is not only big, he plays big too, laying crushing hits and gleefully dropping the gloves. And in his spare time he tosses around lawnmowers and kitchen tables, and slashes team mascots too. Read all about him here.
  • The rise of Brayden McNabb. Another one of the big-bodies that is expected to form the new Sabres core, he has settled in very well, fighting for the puck in the corners, clearing the blue ice of foreign matter (and players) and distributing the puck effectively up the ice too.

The Walking Wounded November 26, 2011

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Wow. A season that had begun with all sorts of high hopes is very quickly turning into one of the most farcical seasons in Sabres’ history. And with the Bills suffering their own set of calamitous injuries, there appears to be  a very large and very dark cloud hanging over Buffalo sports. Summon all the priests and the witches, the padres and the wizards, an exorcism seems to be in order.

As it is, the team didn’t seem to be gelling together, and apart from a few bright spots, overall the team didn’t look mentally tough and cohesive enough to make a deep run come playoffs time. Then the mishaps began, and right now it’s all going very wrong for the Sabres.

First Jochen Hecht began the season on IR with recurring concussion symptoms, and he only just made it back to the lineup this week. Then towards the end of October Tyler Ennis injured his ankle. Prior to that he had been nowhere near the 60-pt form that he was expected to grow into this season. He remains day-to-day.

November then turned into the veritable month of horrors for the team – on the ice they are 6-5-1 with two games yet to play. In the infirmary though is where the Sabres have been hit hardest. An apparently-malicious body check sent goalie Ryan Miller out with a concussion. He’s still nowhere near returning. Cody McCormick and Mike Weber went out soon after with unnamed upper body injuries, no word on when either will be back.

It got worse – Tyler Myers had surgery to repair a broken wrist and will probably be back in 2012. After that, Brad Boyes and Patrick Kaleta were put on the shelf with lower body injuries. And then on the day after Thanksgiving (aka Black Friday) Robyn Regehr, one of the handful of Sabres who had been having a halfway decent season, suffered an upper body injury and there is no timetable on his return.

I’m sure I voice the feelings of Sabres’ fans all over when I beg the injury gods for clemency – enough! Has Buffalo not suffered enough in the past already without having to suffer these indignities that are befalling our teams?!

Hark back to the post-lockout years when the current core of the Sabres came up from Rochester and played their way into the team. All the kids called up from the Amerks need this experience, and they will make mistakes while here – but they will learn, and get better. With eight of the next nine games at home, it’s a good time for the fans to rally together behind the team and show the players that we are fully behind them. If ever the Sabres needed our support, it is now.

First Month Observations November 12, 2011

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Last night’s win against Ottawa marked the start of a grueling week for the Sabres, where they play six times in nine nights, with no more than a day’s break between games. They play division rivals in the first three tilts, though mysteriously, they don’t play Toronto for the first time until Dec 16th, well over two months into the season.

The defense for the most part has played very well, 7th in the league with 2.27 goals against per game (GA/G). The game against Winnipeg marked a new low for the D, plagued by errors and turnovers they gave up a season-high five goals.

As a team, there has been a marked improvement in taking faceoffs, with the Sabres fourth in the League at 52.5%. The Sabres have built a reputation for being a ‘soft’ team – this trend has continued with the team dead last with just 241 hits. In stark contrast, bottom-dwellers Columbus are leading the league with 418, which is a whopping 16 hits more per game than the Sabres.

Derek Roy has really turned it on after a slow start. He has points in every game of the Sabres four-win streak, with 4G & 4A, and a sixth-round penalty shootout winner as well. Roy now has 12 points (5G & 7A) in 15 games, getting closer to the point-per-game pace expected of him. Of his linemates, Drew Stafford is not far behind with 4G & 6A, while Ville Leino is continuing his resuscitation with 2G & 2A now.

On the top line, Thomas Vanek (10G & 9A) & Jason Pominville (6G & 13A) are tied for fifth in scoring in the League, with 19 points in 15 games. Vanek is tied for top as well with 5 powerplay goals (PPG) and tied for second with 3 game winners (GWG). Pommers is tied for sixth with 13 assists. Their pivot on the line Luke Adam stands third among rookies with 12 points.

Nathan Gerbe is solidifying his place in the team, leading with a +8 differential, along with his 3G & 6A and feisty play, especially in the offensive zone. Center Paul Gaustad is third in the League winning 59.8% of his faceoffs (Derek Roy is sixteenth, with a 55.7 FO%). A quirky note about Brad Boyes’ 2G & 5A –  none have come on the road and none against division opponents.

Lindy Ruff has confirmed that Patrick Kaleta will be back in the lineup after returning from his four-game headbutting suspension. Corey Tropp will be returning to the Rochester Amerks after posting 1G & 1A, +1 and 6 hits in his four games with the Sabres.

Backup goalie Jhonas Enroth has continued his electrifying start to the season, winning all five games he has started. He is currently third in the League in both save percentage (.956SV%) and goals allowed (1.34GAA) for goalies with five or more starts. His hot run stretches back to last season, with his record over his last eighteen games started over the two seasons now reading 14-2-2, .923SV% & 2.29GAA.

Interesting that while Sabres fans are often critical that the players don’t crash the net enough, Ottawa captain (and often Sabres-killer) Daniel Alfredsson thinks otherwise “They are probably one of the best teams around the net in the League.”

Goaltending controversy (or not) November 7, 2011

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Before I go muckraking some more like the conventional press has been with the apparent conflict within the Sabres regarding who the starting goalies should be, I would like to apologize for being MIA in between games 4-13 on this blog. In that period, Sabres fans have gone from humming “ooh ahh Sabres on the warpath” to screaming “it’s the same old story, same old song n’ dance my friend” from the rooftops. After the European road trip the bonhomie was flowing over and any apparent faults on the team were being overlooked by fans wearing Stanley Cup-shaped glasses. Nothing like some adversity to ground everyone back in reality and remind us all that the playoffs are still a whole 69 games away. Hehe, yes, I said 69 (Beavis and Butthead is back on TV, you can see I missed them).

So, to the question of goalies. It has been so long since we have had a capable backup for Ryan Miller that this is an unfamiliar situation for younger (and bandwagon) fans of the Sabres. By using the adjective ‘capable’ I am automatically eliminating any ‘tenders who answer to the first names of Ty (Conklin), Jocelyn (Thibault), Mikael (Tellqvist) and Patrick (Lalime). In all fairness though Conklin is the only one who has gone on to have any sort of success post-Sabres. Anyways, that takes us all the way back to the trade deadline of the ’06-’07 season when a certain Marty Biron last played second fiddle in goal here. That same season was the last time when Miller missed back-to-back games while healthy, until this last Saturday.

My take on this is that I insist we do not have a goaltending controversy here in Buffalo. We are in a situation where the lead goalie is playing like crap (and he knows it), and the backup has a hot hand and is therefore starting, and winning to boot. If Miller is pouting about it and showing pressmen some attitude.. good! I for one do not want any players on this team to be riding the pine and shrugging their shoulders going “Woe is me, I’m not playing”. I’d like them to be bleeding mad that they are not on the ice doing what they are being paid to do.

Jhonas Enroth is doing what he is being paid for, which is step in whenever required and win some games. Last season when Miller had his concussion problems, Enroth came in and kept the playoffs charge alive. Not only did he contribute to us making the playoffs, he was a key element. He is 4-0-0 so far this season, 1.41 GAA and .952 SV%. Ruff knew what he was talking about when he said he wanted to give Enroth more than 20 games this season. In fact, last season Enroth was 9-2-2,  2.73 GAA & .907 SV% – quite respectable don’t you think? In his last thirteen starts the shortest goalie in the league (at 5’10”) has gone 12-0-1!

This is not a controversy people, we are playing the better goalie at the moment now so that we can win games. What’s happening in our blue ice here is a distinctive reminder of what has been happening in the Boston Bruins net. In ’09-’10 Tim Thomas was having a rough go of it and the new kid on the block Tuuka Rask took over the reins, going 22-12-10 and going on to stymie the Sabres in the first round of the playoffs. The next season Thomas came back with a vengeance and went on to win the Vezina last year. Remember a certain member of the Sabres goaltending unit who not so long ago was the winner of that piece of silverware? Don’t write off Ryan Miller, the man is tougher and better than a lot of us give him credit for.

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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