At the beginning of the season, I ruminated on the Sabres’ long-term viability in small-market Buffalo.
My opinion was not born of jealousy or malice, as some of you asserted in your feedback, but of concern. To me, the Sabres have always had a high likability factor because of their little-guy persona, kind of like the Minnesota Twins in baseball.
That’s why it’s satisfying to see them stampeding in the young season, losing just two games in regulation among their first 12 and posting the second-best goal differential in the NHL (plus-13, behind only San Jose’s plus-17).
The question is can they maintain their high level of play the rest of the way and into the playoffs? I like their chances – a lot more than The Hockey News did a few months ago when we slotted them 11th in the conference in our pre-season predictions.
A pivotal factor will be the continued Vezina Trophy-caliber play of netminder Ryan Miller. The Sabres, a team with a history of allowing star players to escape, stopped the bleeding by securing Miller long-term in the summer and he has rewarded their faith to this point, posting a 7-1-1 record and .942 save percentage through the first month and change. He’s backed up capably by Patrick Lalime, so the slight-of-stature Miller should be relatively fresh come playoff time.
Up front, Thomas Vanek is emerging as a truly special player, a potential first-team all-star and regular difference maker. He’s surrounded by a deep cast of forwards, a group with a good blend of size, speed, skill, grit and peskiness. It’s a tribute to the Sabres system that they keep finding, developing and mixing forwards into their lineup without any noticeable drop-off. Lines 1-through-4 may be as balanced as any other set in the league, which bodes well for the spring.
The defense could be the Achilles’ heel, but so far hasn’t withered. Led by popular newcomer and team captain Craig Rivet, the blueline lacks a big-time stud, instead relying on capable NHLers such as Jaroslav Spacek and Toni Lydman to maintain equilibrium and get the puck moving.
Behind the bench, they don’t get much better or experienced than Lindy Ruff, one of the few men who has discovered the formula to keeping an NHL coaching job – with the same team – for more than three or four years.
And in the stands, the Sabres have some of the best and most loyal fans in the game, giving them an extra boost when they play at HSBC.
I won’t get ahead of myself and anoint Buffalo as the team to beat in the East – Montreal still has that edge – but I’m prepared to label them as a legitimate threat in a relatively wide-open conference.
Jason Kay is the editor in chief of The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears every Friday.
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