Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Hockey Night in Buffalo
Trouble in paradise

Taking a trip down the QEW for a Sabres game in Buffalo is quickly becoming an annual tradition, but it's still a pretty significant investment — both in terms of time and dollars spent. I left my little apartment in midtown Toronto about 2:30 this afternoon, and didn't pull in back home until just after midnight.

It just goes to show what hockey fans in this part of the world will do for a chance to take in an NHL hockey game.

The contest itself? Well, it wasn't the barnburner you hope for. Marc Savard scored on an ugly turnover by Toni Lydman just as we took our seats, and P.J. Axelsson made it 2-0 on the Bruins' next rush up the ice. (I was still trying to figure out who Matt Hunwick was.)

If you've never had an up-close-and-personal experience at an NHL game, I highly recommend it. I've seen dozens of games live over the years, and many from lower bowl seats, but my Row 6 seat last night, just to one side of the penalty box, is as close as I've come.

It sounds cliche, but from that perspective you really get a sense of the speed (and the power) of the game, and you can pick up things you wouldn't from the upper deck: Max Afinogenov rolling his eyes after Jason Pominville bobbled the puck at the blueline on the power play; Marco Sturm taking a puck in the eye on the Bruins bench after an errant Tim Connolly pass hopped unexpectedly. (Thankfully, it sounds as though he'll be okay.)

When I bought the tickets at the beginning of the season, I was expecting the Bruins' level of competitiveness (or lack thereof) to be the problem for this game — but that's certainly not how things have unfolded through the first third of the campaign. Not a lot is going right in Buffalo this year, and you could feel that in the building and see it on the ice last night. The fans are frustrated, and the players even more so, and there was a spattering of boos when Boston skated away with a 4-1 win.

The Sabres managed a ton of shots on Alex Auld, who was impressive in his second start as a Bruin (and still sporting his garish purple Coyotes mask and gear), but there were an awful lot of missed passes, offsides and boneheaded plays by the home side. I haven't watched Buffalo particularly close this season, but this looks like a team that got in a rut to start and is simply short on consistency and veteran leadership. The Sabres remain one of the league's highest-scoring clubs, but they've received little from players like Thomas Vanek and Afinogenov this season (who were both invisible last night) and have had to break in a few young blueliners.

It's a bad combination.

After Boston took a 3-1 lead 17:11 into the first period, I knew this one was likely already in the books, especially with Buffalo so down, so mostly I took some time to get a close look at just how Claude Julien is working miracles with the Bruins' patchwork roster. Boston's incredibly beat up right now, with two goaltenders out, defenders Bobby Allen and Andrew Ference missing with minor hurts, and Patrice Bergeron gone from the top line, likely for the season. When Sturm was picked off on the bench early in the first, Julien resorted to some rather interesting line combinations, some of which saw speedy Phil Kessel with 19-year-old rookie Milan Lucic on his wing.

Lucic picked up 15:35 ice time, four minutes more than any one game he's had in the NHL so far, and was actually terrific; he looks incredibly oafish out there, but gets the most out of his limited skating ability and makes good decisions with the puck. He's going to be a really interesting story as his game develops the next few years.

The other spot where Julien's having some success is on the backend, where Dennis Wideman picked up huge minutes and didn't look out of place on a top pairing. He's a good shooter and is on a seven-game points streak. (Put it this way: I honestly don't think Boston made a major goof in giving up Brad Boyes for him.)

I also liked what I saw from Andrew Alberts and Aaron Ward.

The real source of Boston's strong play this season can, for the most part, be traced to the fact that all of the players Julien's matching (and trapping) against other teams' top lines are playing well — including Zdeno Chara.

That, and the fact Marc Savard has quietly become one of the better offensive players in the league, as he's put up 35 points in 28 games this season, putting him on pace for more than 100 points after posting back-to-back 97- and 96-point campaigns postlockout. He gets zero respect in many circles, despite the fact he's lining up against top competition in Bergeron's absence, but has put up more points than all but a handful of players the past three years.

Boston's coming on again, even with the full injury ward, and is 16-10-3 with 53 games to go. Right now, they're the fifth-best team in the NHL, and Buffalo's the 24th.

And the locals are getting restless.

(The overall entertainment value was middling; it's always a great atmosphere at HSBC Arena, but the loss of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere coupled with a slow start have affected that somewhat. What we did get to see was a pretty impressive new video display, installed this season. It's a great rink.)

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At 9:40 a.m., December 11, 2007, Blogger J. Michael Neal said...

Matt Hunwick was a very solid, steady defenseman for four years at Michigan. A quick look at the record book shows me that he picked up a lot more points than I would have guessed. I liked watching him play. Among other things, he picked up Jack Johnson's defensive responsibilities last year.

I'm glad to see that he's getting NHL ice time, even if not much of it. I have no idea whether he'll ever develop into a good player at this level, but I'm hoping for him.

At 12:37 p.m., December 11, 2007, Blogger Jamie said...

So they finally replaced the scoreboard that crashed to earth, eh? :)

I was there to see the Sens in 2003 and wasn't impressed with the scoreboard at all. There was no display of the time left in penalties, for instance - it took me until the 2nd period to notice that it was displayed on the mono-color LED displays on the front of the upper concourse.

Good to see they've improved things.

At 1:28 p.m., December 11, 2007, Blogger Andrew Bucholtz said...

Good to see Lucic doing well: I saw him play back when he was with the Vancouver Giants, and was very impressed. He also was one of the best players (and the Canadian captain) in the Canada-Russia Super Series this summer. The only downside of his strong NHL performance so far is it kept the Bruins from releasing him for the world juniors...

At 5:59 p.m., December 11, 2007, Blogger Heather B. said...

Max Afinogenov rolling his eyes after Jason Pominville bobbled the puck at the blueline on the power play...

Oh, lord almighty, Max is the last person who should be rolling his eyes at other people's play.

Consistent effort has been the biggest problem so far. Some nights they're all in, some nights they don't show up at all.

Our scoreboard does kick ass though.

At 6:14 p.m., December 11, 2007, Blogger Pinder said...

It's good to see Milan Lucic doing well in the NHL. He was always the most entertaining player for the Vancouver Giants, and of course the MVP of the Memorial Cup last year.


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