Hockey night in Buffalo
I took in last night's game in Buffalo, a 2-1 win in a shootout by the Sabres. First, two things...
- What a crowd. The fact that NHL hockey was even close to leaving Buffalo is such a shame as the HSBC Center was hopping right from the puck drop. While the game itself was a little sleepy, the Sabre faithful were in it until the end and really turned up the volume as the game's seconds ticked away. Which brings me to...
- If there are still any straggling doubters about the value of the shootout this season, I submit this game as Exhibit A why it should stay. Other than an early punch-up between Andrew Peters and Brian McGrattan, there wasn't a ton to get rowdy about. When the overtime period came to a close, however, a cheer erupted in anticipation of what it seemed everyone had been waiting for. The shootout's a keeper.
In general, Buffalo looks poised to stay on top for a while. They're a very young team (behind only Ottawa, San Jose and Florida), one that is also undersized, but that's something coach Lindy Ruff has built around and made one of the team's strengths.
I'd say the Sabres also quite likely have the highest number of 'unknown' young players who are poised for — or are currently enjoying — breakout seasons (off the top of my head and in no particular order: Ryan Miller, Derek Roy, Vanek, Jason Pominville and Paul Gaustad).
With the win, the Sabres are now just four points behind Ottawa for the division lead. Here, in my opinion, are a few reasons why (and a snippet about the game's lone fight thrown in):
- Miller. This kid is the real deal and, boy, do they love him in Buffalo. The only cheer bigger than the one for Thomas Vanek's shootout winning goal was reserved for when Miller was named the game's first star. A lot has been written recently of Henrik Lundqvist's emergence as a superstar of sorts in New York, but the state's other phenom netminder has bushels of star power as well.
- Buffalo's breakout. I haven't seen a team try to take advantage of the lack of a two-line pass as often as the Sabres did tonight. Often, the long-bomb pass didn't pay off, but when it did, it did because the team has obviously practiced it and has the collective team speed to do so. I'd guess Buffalo's forward corps are the fastest in the league.
- Pominville. He was one of the players I was looking forward to seeing, as I believe he's been the best player 'you haven't heard of' the past ten games (with a nod to the Boston Bruins' Tim Thomas). Last night, Pominville logged more than 19 minutes icetime — 5th among forwards — and much of it was on the power play. Prior to his latest call-up, he had been terrorizing the AHL, notching 19 goals in 18 games, and he's had 11 points in his last nine games with the Sabres (including a hat trick on Jan. 14). He's tiny, but has elite level hands, shooting ability and speed. Pick him in your pool next year folks.
- Gaustad. A big, tough kid out of the WHL, Gaustad played just under 11 minutes last night but they were all of the banging, crashing variety. An excellent return on a 7th round pick for the Sabres, as Gaustad has already put up 18 points in 48 games as a rookie in fourth-line minutes. And, hey, he can fight, too, even though he didn't mix it up last night.
- Peters v. McGrattan. Longtime readers will recall I wrote a profile of Peters when I was a reporter for the National Post about this time last year, so you could say my sympathies were with him in this heavyweight tilt. It has been a trying season for Peters this year, and early in this bought he looked to be in trouble against the beefier McGrattan. One good punch later, McGrattan was hurt and out of the game entirely. While it may not have been the most glorious of victories, Peters — basically a hometown favourite as a native of St. Catherines, Ont. — revelled in the crowds' cheers.