Okay – raise your hand if you really thought the Buffalo Sabres would be 2nd in the East with more points than Pittsburgh and Washington at the halfway point of the season.
In all fairness to pretty much everyone, it’s unlikely that any hockey pundit on the planet would have predicted such a start. My secretive inside sources have told me that even the anonymous hockeybuzz guy got this one wrong.
But this is where we are, and for the typically cautiously optimistic Sabres fan it now becomes a simple question of whether this is a good team or a great team.
Is this club really that much better than the one that failed to even make the playoffs last season? Well, to be honest, not a whole lot.
Before sending in that hate mail, ask yourself a simple question: How can a team be that much better when, out of your top five most talented forwards, every single one of them is behind their scoring pace of last season?
Derek Roy, Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek, Drew Stafford – all lower. An injury free Tim Connolly will outpoint his 2008-09 total, but he was injured much of the season and was averaging a point per game. As well as he’s played he isn’t doing that now.
This brings us to the obvious reason for the seven-point increase over last years half-season point total: the franchise goaltender.
Thanks in great part to Ryan Miller, the Sabres are 13-1-4 in one-goal games. This stat is almost incomprehensible. He’s made so many huge saves, game after game when it’s been on the line, that he's almost becoming at risk of being taken for granted.
Buffalo certainly has banked some impressive wins against good teams – especially on the road. I seem to recall that was also the case last season. And five-game winning streaks are certainly nice, even when four of those wins are against losing teams.
Recent history indicates that the lack of goal scoring is enough of an impediment to keep the Sabres from having an extended playoff run. They’re on pace to score 228 goals. Since the lockout, the fewest goals scored by any Stanley Cup finalist was Pittsburgh with 247 in 2007-08. Last season six teams that didn’t even make the playoffs netted more than 228.
For all the complaints about Roy and Stafford, the biggest concern has to be Vanek. Every year we wait for him to hit that hot streak for which he is so well known. As for this year, we’re still waiting. He hasn’t scored goals in consecutive games this season, which by his standards is rather incredible.
If you’re dreaming big, this team cannot get to the Stanley Cup Finals without Vanek pulling his weight. There just isn’t enough offense elsewhere to go around. He’s a $7 million cap hit and is on pace for 44 points. If the second half ends like the first he’ll have the same point total as Tyler Myers. Last season Jaroslav Spacek and Dominic Moore had better offensive production.
For now, Sabres fans can only hope that 18 regulation goals scored in the past 5 games is the start of a trend. Otherwise it’s going to be questionable at best to expect Miller to keep up his torrid pace, especially after what is sure to be a grueling Olympic tournament.
If that’s the case, will Moore be available again at the trading deadline? Here's hoping the bar will be set a tad bit higher.