It’s only fitting that the red hot Ottawa Senators earned their franchise record 10th straight win at the expense of the Buffalo Sabres, considering how one-sided this matchup has been over the past few years.
It was the Alfie and Spezza Show once again. It looked like a rerun.
Senators forward Jason Spezza now has 50 points in 38 career games against Buffalo. Fellow SabreCrusher Daniel Alfredsson started slowly but had a whale of a finish with two goals in the final minute of a 4-2 Ottawa victory at HSBC Arena last night.
It was just a regular season game in February, but the hype and buildup was justified, as there were some major implications.
For starters, any plans coach Lindy Ruff may have had to rest Vezina frontrunner Ryan Miller a few extra games have been put on hold. Losing the division title would likely mean an unenviable first round date against either Pittsburgh or New Jersey.
But what should be of bigger concern to Sabres fans isn’t exactly a new question: When in a tight playoff series having to fight for every inch of ice and getting figuratively punched in the face, how will they respond? Don’t underestimate the importance of this just because of their skill level. It’s not 2005-06 anymore; even with Miller, being an above average finesse team with little grit and jam isn’t going to be enough.
In a related story, Sabres veterans have apparently instituted a new rookie initiation program. When Senators physical and ornery defenseman Chris Phillips took advantage of an opportunity to run Miller into the ice, it was the new guy - none other than Calder candidate Tyler Myers - who had to respond and defend his goaltender. Hey, at least it’s cheaper than dinner for twenty.
Buffalo's tolerance of Miller getting knocked around continues to be an unpleasant trend. Last night it was Phillips. Earlier this season it was New Jersey Devils forward Jamie Langenbrunner. Last season, courtesy of then-Ranger forward Scott Gomez, accident or not, it cost the Sabres a ticket to the playoffs.
It seems inconceivable that fans and media here actually get angrier about these incidents than Miller’s own teammates, the guys with whom he goes to battle. Strangely enough, though, that’s always how it seems.
In essence, though, this really gets to the heart of why, even with superior goaltending, the Sabres have such a hard time against the Senators. They just don’t match up well against them. When it comes to top skill players who can find open ice and score big goals when they are absolutely needed, the Sabres don’t have the horses that Ottawa does.
And when you aren’t willing to get into the face of a superior skill player and make life difficult for him, the end result looks a lot like what happened last night. Ask Alfredsson and Spezza about the 2006-07 playoffs and what it was like to be freewheeling around HSBC Arena ice, and have them compare that to what they had to deal with the following week when battling the Anaheim Ducks.
Not coincidentally, the Sabres aren't the only good team subject to such torment lately. Make no mistake - this is a talented Ottawa team with a bright young coach. During this winning streak the Senators have beaten the Blackhawks, Devils and Penguins by a combined score of 11-2.
In an effort to keep up with the Joneses, you have to believe that some tweaking of the lineup may be in order. Columbus forward Raffi Torres has 16 goals and could challenge his career season high of 27. His numbers would make him the 2nd leading goal scorer for Buffalo, and it wouldn't take a whole lot to get him.
Torres plays on the left side, which would be an upgrade from rookie Tim Kennedy, who only played 9 minutes last night but still managed to end up as a –3, including being on the ice in the final minute for the game winning goal. (Why he and fourth liner Adam Mair would be out there against Spezza and Alfredsson in that spot is the curious subject of another conversation.)
Theoretically, of course, Buffalo could lose their remaining games to Ottawa and still march through the playoffs without ever having to face them. At this point, the Senators star forwards have gotten so into the heads of the Sabres, it may be the only way.
Since I failed to do so last week, I'd like to take a moment to give out a thank you to Die By The Blade staff and passionate readers - both those who've welcomed me as well as those who've sent me their hate mail during these past few weeks. Thanks again! Follow me on twitter: @DaveDavisHockey