Editors Note - This was written on Wednesday afternoon before the Sabres 6-2 loss to the Florida Panthers.
I was reading this story on NHL.com about the Rangers lack of secondary scoring and it reminded me how lucky we are as Sabres fans. It's amazing how much a couple of off-season moves can change the entire dynamic of a team. Last season the Sabres relied upon their power play and a couple of key players, much like the Rangers are dealing with now.
Many people wanted to see the team make an off-season splash, instead they signed a couple of role players they thought would fit in with the core of the team. Rafal addressed how much Steve Montador meant to this team but we should not discount the importance of signing Mike Grier and the emergence of Tim Kennedy who have been equally as important to the teams turnaround.
The Sabres vowed there would be changes this season. They vowed they would be a tougher team, a team that would not back down in the face of adversity. The stats don't indicate this team being any tougher, in fact the Sabres are dead last in the league in hits. I say the stats don't give a fair indication of how physical the team can be when faced with that style of play. They are not the team that is initiating physical play but they have proven their willingness to engage in that their opponent when necessary.
I have been impressed with the teams physical play and even more impressed with their confidence. There is no debating the talent on the team but in years past we seen them play with no confidence. When faced with adversity they crumbled. When they needed a goal they looked at a handful of players to provide the offense. This season has been different.
This season the team is rolling four lines and everyone of them has the ability, and more importantly the confidence, they can provide the team with a spark. When they were tied 0-0 with the Nashville Predators, it was Mike Grier scoring the only goal. When they were in a tight game with the Philadelphia Flyers, Paul Gaustad was the guy providing a big goal. Who thought the Sabres wold be 12-5-1 and Patrick Kaleta would have more even strength goals than Tim Connolly and Derek Roy? I think it's safe to say...none of us did.
This team is winning because of good great goaltending, good defense and a balanced offensive attack. The power play has not contributed yet but they haven't had to because of the even strength play of all four lines. The Sabres are among the best teams in the league in regards to 5-on-5 play. As of Wednesday afternoon they had the third best 5-on-5 goal differential behind only the Calgary Flames and the Philadelphia Flyers, whom they have already beaten.
The lines have obviously changed in recent games but here is the even strength goal scoring for the lines that have played the most together.
|MacArthur (5)||Connolly (1)||Pominville (2)||8|
|Vanek (3)||Roy (1)||Stafford (3)||7|
|Hecht (2)||Kennedy (1)||Grier (3)||6|
|Ellis (1)||Gaustad (3)||Kaleta (2)||6|
If not for MacArthur scoring five even strength goals, the numbers would be almost identical or each of the Sabres four lines. The Sabres balanced attack has made it difficult for opposing teams to defense against, especially when the Sabres get a lead.
Most of us were excited when the Sabres signed Mike Grier, mostly because he was a key piece of the Sabres resurgence after the lockout and it made us feel good about the direction of the team. Grier has made Darcy Regier look like a genius because he has scored key goals and helped with the comeback of Jochen Hecht and the emergence of Tim Kennedy. That line has provided offense when needed and is often faced with the task of being the Sabres "checking" line.
The biggest reason for the Sabres balanced attack might be, what I like to call the "best fourth line in hockey". I have been critical of every player on that line but their is no way to deny how good they have been. They are almost never in their own zone and they generate scoring chances with hard work in the offensive zone. Nobody is going to confuse Patrick Kaleta with a goal scorer and yet he has matched some top line players. Paul Gaustad is a versatile player that can play almost anywhere and he finds himself tied with Vanek and Grier with three even strength goals behind only MacArthur.
If the Sabres continue to play a complete team game and get great goaltending there is no telling where they could end up. It's hard for us to believe they have really turned the corner because we have been through this before. I'll say what some of us have already said...this year feels different.