Sunday, February 05, 2006

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...
  1. 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...

  2. 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.
It's late and tomorrow's Super Bowl is going to mean a long, long day on the desk. So, I'll offer some abbreviated musings on the Sabres, who I got a pretty good look at (at least in their own end) from the seventh row.

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.
All in all, and aside from some issues finding food and decent parking in an unfamiliar downtown, it was well worth the trip. Now, the wait begins for my next 'from the seats' experience — Tuesday at the Air Canada Centre.

10 Comments:

At 4:03 PM, February 05, 2006, Blogger Grampapinhead said...

Very nice piece on Buffalo. Your take on the future of that team is very insightful. It could be that history does, indeed, repeat itself, and you may have just described the beginning of the 'Islanders Dynasty' in the Potvin years.

 
At 8:43 PM, February 05, 2006, Blogger dag said...

good insights on the Sabres! go Buffalo!

 
At 9:36 PM, February 05, 2006, Blogger Tom L said...

James,

I've been looking forward to getting your opinion on the boys in the AGH Sweaters... so thanks for this great piece on my boys.

I have to agree with you about the 'kids' you profiled. Gaustad (Goose) is a real treat. Everyone he plays with gets better.. Mair, Pyatt, Poms, the list goes on.

Last night was the first time I'd gottne the chance to see JPom play since he turned the corner about a month ago. He looks so much more like a keeper now. You'll be happy to know that Lindy Ruff told him to go look for permanent housing in Buffalo, as of last week he was still living in a hotel room.

Ta,

 
At 11:46 PM, February 05, 2006, Blogger CMcMurtry said...

And yet the game didn't even sell out. The Sabres, despite their big success, aren't drawing big crowds this year, are they?

What gives? Do local folks think this run is a fluke and so they're not allowing themselves to become emotionally invested in the team?

 
At 11:51 PM, February 05, 2006, Anonymous Andrew said...

"aside from some issues finding food "

What??? You gotta be kidding me, in Buffalo? My good sir, you were in the capital of 'Good Food'. Might I suggest a stop at Anchor Bar or Duffs prior to your next game at HSBC. It's a crime to go hungry in Buffalo :)

 
At 12:16 AM, February 06, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You couldn't find food in Buffalo? Sorry to hear that, there is a bar/restaurant on every corner. Thanks for the info on Peters (still in my opinion a wasted second rounder), I'm surprised he joined a league that did not allow fighting. Keep up the good work and GO SABRES!

 
At 2:28 AM, February 06, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please note that this was one of the most expensive games on the season (being a gold game). The ticket prices are virtually double that of most other games. Considering that it was only 1000 short of a sellout, ownership and management made out quite well this past evening.

 
At 7:16 AM, February 06, 2006, Blogger Tom L said...

Chris,

Extending what Anon wrote, please remember that this is a team that drew only 11-13k in 2003-04 (attendance numbers under the Rigas Clan were alwasy vastly inflated). Considering that this was a Gold game (with prices still cheaper than Tampa, btw) and that there's still a great amount of disbelief in the city about these Sabres coming within 1000 of a true sell-out is just fine with me.

Let's see if the next Ottawa home game sells out...I'll bet it does.

Ta,

 
At 10:42 AM, February 06, 2006, Blogger Matt said...

Expanding even further, Buffalo has actually sold out 7 of their last 9 games. The Ottawa game fell short by about 1000 due to the fact it was a gold game and the other non-sellout was a mid-week game against Dallas that only fell 600 short.

Buffalo is doing just fine at the gate, thank you very much.

 
At 11:23 AM, February 06, 2006, Anonymous KevinP said...

It's tough in a strange city to find where the good food is.

Just e-mail someone on your blogroll. Someone like BfloBlog, perhaps.

Hard to believe Poms cleared waivers at the beginning of the year.

 

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