Here's a recap of the first half of the Buffalo Sabres season:
The Sabres had a great start to the season, winning eight before tallying a regulation loss. Thomas Vanek has been hot placing himself in second place for total goals in the league (and finally living up to his absurd contract). Ryan Miller started better than he finished last year, and at the end of 08'. Buffalo can still be found in the top eight playoff spots (if it were to end today).
However, at 19-15-5, the young Sabres are still miles off of their pinnacle season when they won the Presidents Trophy just two seasons ago, or their run to the conference finals the year after the lockout, despite a badly injured team.
In fact, a general consensus around the city is that they are back to the 'Sabres of old'; a barely over .500 team that either just misses or squeezes in the playoffs at the last minute. And in the NHL with teams like the Sharks and Red Wings, and I hate to say it, but even Boston, that mediocrity will not take you very far.
So how does 09' look like it will treat the Sabres? Lindy Ruff became quite heated with the team after it's loss to Washington at the end of the year and threatened to bench the big players that are not producing.
"This is not an idle threat" said the coach.
Fans were quite upset, though not surprised, when the next game nobody but the typical were scratched. The result however, did catch the fans off-guard when they defeated Toronto 4-1. This was not a shocker though because the Leafs have had their issues in the past few seasons and still have not found their stride this season yet. So this game was a typical win for Buffalo.
The real shocker came when Buffalo out-played the red-hot Boston Bruins to end Bean Town's 14 game home winning streak, and 10 game overall winning streak to an abrupt end. This opened up some eyes, mine included.
Does this mean a complete turn-around for the lackluster Sabres? Probably not, however, historically, the Sabres have been called the "Hardest working team in hockey" because of their last half of the season hot streaks.
If Buffalo can continue to play like they have started this new year, they do have a great chance of making it back to the playoffs. That in itself is not enough though. If you are going to make it to the post-season and make it past the first round, the Sabres need to make a few changes.
First, we need to see consistent play out of Ryan Miller. The last few seasons, we have seen Ryan Miller's play go down the tubes. I find him making rookie mistakes, putting himself out of position, and allowing bad goals that he would not have allowed just three years ago. He needs to take a deep breath, and stop thinking out there on the ice, and just react.
He needs to keep his focus on the play as it evolves, never lose sight of the puck, make sure he can cover post-to-post, and adjust when play wraps behind his net. The most basic of all goaltending rules, let the shooter make the first move. All too often you will find Miller falling down far before a shot is released leaving an open net for the shooters.
Next, Lindy has to scratch the dead weight from the lineup—not just for a game or two, but for the season. The main target for this category would be Maxim Afinogenov. Two goals all season has been all he's contributed to a team that relies on a potent high octane offence to win games.
That won't cut it!
Tim Connolly is another, however his case does not match that of Max's. In fact I think Tim is one of the most talented players in the NHL. His problem though is that he cannot play through an entire season. On average, it seems like he is good for about 20 games a season.
The rest of the season he cannot dress for the games. With the money we spend on Timmy, we need more out of him. If he is healthy enough to give us some more games this season, or even in the post-season, GREAT! He will help us.
But when the season is done, or even when the trade deadline arrives, if there are players out there that are even half as good as Connolly, but are dependable to play an entire season, I believe we need to deal him and save the team some much needed money.
This team has been streaky since it's inaugural season. There have only been a few occasions, most of which more recently, when the Sabres were expected to win this game and the next. This season follows suit, and you never know what team is going to show up on any given night.
The Sabres have always been a team who lose the games they should win, and win the games they should lose. That needs to change. We need our top players and the leaders on this team to play their hearts out on every single shift, and the rookies should be playing like it is their last chance in the NHL.
Finally, Buffalo has got to start winning the five-on-five games. Our special teams, though not perfect, seem to have improved greatly since last season. However, they are being drastically out scored during even-strength battles, and seeing a majority of all games are played this way, it is something we need to improve on now.
So back to my main question: will the new year bring the city of Buffalo new hopes for a Stanley cup?
I wouldn't go as far as talking about Lord Stanley right now, but I think if the Sabres can make it to the second round of the playoffs, it will have been a successful year. Is it possible, SURE!!! But do not go into a drunken depression if we are eliminated like the entire city did after we won the Presidents Trophy and then played horrible, somehow sliding past two bad teams just to get eliminated by Ottawa in the Conference Finals the season before last.
Let's just enjoy some good NHL hockey, and remember, it's a long season that usually comes down to the last few games, so don't lose faith Buffalo.
Sean R. Martin