Hockey night in Buffalo (Part 2)
Last night was my second trip to western New York for a game in the last nine months, and it was, again, well-worth the trip. And, as I said last time around, the fact the Sabres were even remotely close to leaving Buffalo is a real shame.
That city is in love with their team.
There was even a discernible buzz leading up to the puck drop, as both the waiters and patrons in the restaurant where I had dinner were talking puck.
"That's the spot John Muckler sat at during the playoffs last season," our buttoned-down, 60-something server told my table.
A good omen for the struggling Senators — perhaps.
The last game I saw in Buffalo was in early February, a 2-1 Sabres win in a shootout, but even then the HSBC Center wasn't full to the brim. Last night, there wasn't an empty blue seat in the house, as 18,690 strong filled the rink to the rafters to give the club its seventh sellout in a row.
Yes, it was a royal convention of Buffa-slugs, as the team's new logo, much-maligned when unveiled this summer, was absolutely everywhere. In the rink's massive gift shop, merchandise with the new logo was priced higher than other stock — and business was good.
I can see why the team's new threads are the fastest selling jersey in the NHL: Buffalo's a place passionate enough to gripe about something as seemingly trivial as a logo, yet to ultimately embrace it as their own once the local heroes leap to the top of the standings with the blue-and-yellow gopher on their chest.
The game itself didn't ultimately end up being much to crow about — Game 18 may just be where we enter the humdrum middling part of the oh-so-lengthy schedule — but it did offer a good look at two teams who have been polar opposites so far this season.
The Senators kept pace with Buffalo all game, and the result can probably be attributed to the battle of the backups in goal as much as anything. Coming off an arm injury that has held him out about a week, Ray Emery played well, often covering for what was a somewhat scrambly Sens defence and staring down a couple more high-quality chances than Martin Biron. Emery's got a solid 40 pounds on his counterpart at the other end of the rink, and his square-to-the-shooter style allowed him to stop more than a few pucks he obviously didn't have an eye on.
It was anyone's game through two periods, and only a Peter Schaefer tip-in late in the third period — a goal that was reviewed for a high stick and disputed ad nauseam on the WGR-550 postgame show — made the difference. Buffalo didn't have nearly as much jump as I'd expected, but with 31 points in the bank a little let-up is somewhat understandable. Injuries have put Mike Card and Nathan Paetsch into the top six on the blueline, and coach Lindy Ruff leaned heavily on Brian Campbell (more than 30 minutes).
The Senators looked, for much of the game, like a team oh-so-low on confidence, one just hoping for a break — of which they got a few. Both teams had six turns with the man advantage but only Ottawa scored with theirs, and both power-play tallies came on Buffalo puck over the glass penalties.
Ottawa had a few group huddles, sometimes just among players and also at the bench with coach Bryan Murray, and there was little fanfare accompanying Senators goals. It was a workmanlike affair — chip the puck in, try not to cough it up, bang at rebounds — not the fun, freewheeling style we've seen from the Senators most of the last four or five years.
It wasn't pretty, not really, and that's understandable given the position Ottawa's in. In person, it was easy to see how much the team's breakout misses Wade Redden. As excellent as Chris Phillips was defensively, the fact he played close to 30 minutes takes something away from the offensive creativity of this team — although his 170-foot bank shot into an empty net to seal the victory was a nice touch.
Anton Volchenkov looked solid in a surprising 24:39 in ice time, and it was interesting how heavily Murray went with his youngsters (including Andrej Meszaros) over the blueline's newcomers (Tom Preissing and Joe Corvo). What was essentially a five-man rotation meant some interesting pairings at times, and a Meszaros/Preissing shift in the third period was particularly ill-advised.
It was interesting, too, to see Murray use Denis Hamel — he of four points so far this season — on the power play more than at even strength.
The Sabres? As I said earlier, they looked a little sleepy last night, for whatever reason, and that was something the team alluded to in their postgame press conferences. Thomas Vanek looks particularly impressive, and creates a bit of a Jaromir Jagr type buzz when he has the puck in the offensive zone. I think what the Sabres are really missing is the speed and flair Maxim Afinogenov brings to their forwards, as aside from Daniel Briere, Vanek, Paul Gaustad and Drew Stafford, there wasn't a ton of creativity shown upfront. (A rare occurrence, to be sure.)
I'll have to second Chris McMurtry's musings in his game wrap: "The question now is, can they build on this? Will we be looking back on tonight’s W as a turning point in the season or will they fall back into their rut?"
Neither team really impressed last night, but a win against the league's top team is what it is, and Ottawa has the talent to put together a string of wins here against some tough opposition — games than include a back-to-back in New Jersey on Friday, then at home in a rematch against Buffalo on Saturday. The Devils have been terrificly stingy at home lately, allowing just seven goals in their last six games in the swamp.
If I'm behind the bench, Emery receives both starts and I tell my crew it's time to get dirty. There's a long way to go yet.
(By the way, 10 out of 10 for E.B. Green's. If you're ever in town for a game, stop by for the salmon and steak.)