The NHL

November 06, 2006

Swift Success

The high-speed Sabres' record-tying start, on the heels of a great playoff run, has left their forgettable past in the dust

THE SABRES took 1,384 days to go from Chapter 11 to the brink of win number 11, which would have been a record for victories to start the season, but life and the crossbar got in the way for star-crossed Buffalo. Thomas Vanek's shootout scoring attempt ticked off the glove of Thrashers goalie Kari Lehtonen, then glanced off the bar last Saturday to seal Atlanta's 5--4 win. At least Vanek's shot didn't go wide right.

Heading into Thursday's game against the Bruins, Buffalo had 21 of 22 possible points, thanks in part to shootout victories. (Three wins had come that way, proving Sabres who live by the sword can die by the sword.) The team is the prototype for the shiny new league—not particularly big or overtly physical but stunningly aggressive on offense and faster than an auctioneer's patter. "If they play like that, they're going to win 80 games," Rangers right wing Jaromir Jagr told reporters last week. "Just like New Jersey brought in the trap 10 years ago, Buffalo brought something else. They changed the league. They play totally different."

The swarming Sabres rely on three lines patient enough to hang onto the puck an extra second to make a play, but their emerging star is right wing Maxim Afinogenov. The 27-year-old, who was tied for second in NHL scoring through Sunday (six goals and 11 assists) despite ranking fifth among Buffalo forwards in ice time, has been undressing so many defensemen, they might consider moonlighting at the Bada Bing.

On Oct. 17 Afinogenov, who no longer loses his nerve and the puck near the conclusion of his end-to-end rushes, blew past inert Flyers defenseman Derian Hatcher to score the sixth goal in a 9--1 humiliation that might have hastened the exit of Philly G.M. Bob Clarke. And last Thursday, Afinogenov abused Islanders veteran Brendan Witt on an audacious goal-scoring burst. "Max wasn't known as a finisher," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff says, "but he's more unpredictable now, shooting when people think he's going to deke."

Saturday's loss was Buffalo's first since bowing 4--2 to the Hurricanes in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final. The Sabres have downsized their new logo—from a distance, they're the San Diego Chargers—and have increased their season-ticket base 67%, to 14,815 this year. For the remaining 36 home games, fewer than 30,000 tickets remain. In a gate-driven league afflicted by soft crowds (the Avalanche's streak of 487 sellouts ended Oct. 16, and an announced crowd of just 8,861 saw the Sabres win number 10 on Long Island), Buffalo's revival is as delightful as it is important.

Since losing the 1999 Cup on Brett Hull's foot-in-the-crease goal, the Sabres have suffered enough. Goalie Ryan Miller suggested Buffalo could start a new streak. "Why not?" he asked after the team stayed on the ice to salute its raucous fans in defeat. "I've got nothing better to do for the next [11] games." For a team that speaks to the Lazarus in all of us, this could be Chapter 12.

KINGS' G.M. LOMBARDI

His Secret Weapon: Tolstoy

Here's a novel approach to being a general manager: Dean Lombardi, the new G.M. of the Kings, is reading War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy's classic that is heavier than the Flyers' defense after a big meal. Lombardi, among the most detail-oriented executives in sports, picked up the book in an effort to gain insight into top Los Angeles forward Alexander Frolov. "Somebody told me if you truly wanted to grasp the Russian soul, you have to read War and Peace," says Lombardi. As of last week he had read about 200 pages and planned to keep plugging.

PHOTOLOU CAPOZZOLA (BRIERE)RUSH ORDER Thanks to Daniel Briere (48) and Co., Buffalo's ticket sales have skyrocketed

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)