The Buffalo Sabres have given fans something to cheer about in recent weeks.
With points in seven out of 11 games in December including five wins, the team has distanced itself from the "laughingstock" moniker it had earned during the first two months of the season. It has almost been a tale of two seasons for the blue and gold—which makes it somewhat hard to believe 2013-14 is only reaching its halfway point.
As 2013 comes to a close, let's take a moment to give out some midseason awards to a team that has provided not only suffering (as former general manager Darcy Regier promised) but also hope for the future.
For all the losing the Sabres have done so far in 2013-14, Ryan Miller has continued to show that he is one of the top goalies in the game.
Despite being peppered by an average of 36.5 shots per game in his 28 starts, he has been rock solid between the pipes. His 10-17-1 record must be taken with a grain of salt, as he was playing behind a team that spent a large portion of the season averaging fewer than 1.5 goals per game.
Miller's most impressive stat comes in individual game performances in which he's faced the most shots. Through Dec. 29, he has faced 40 or more shots nine times already on the season. Among those games are a 45-save performance in a 1-0 loss to Ottawa. Even more impressively, he had 49 saves in a 2-1 shootout victory over the Washington Capitals and the league's leading goal scorer in Alexander Ovechkin—whom Miller shut out on 12 shots on goal and in a shootout attempt.
Overall, Miller has a .927 save percentage and a 2.69 goals-against average so far on the year. It's hard to fathom just how poor the Sabres' record would be if they didn't have one of the league's best and most consistent players in net.
There haven't been many great NHL players from Latvia. Arturs Irbe, Sandis Ozolinsh and Zemgus Girgensons?
The Sabres' second first-round draft pick in 2012, Girgensons (for whom Buffalo traded up to pick at No. 14) spent 2012-13 with the Rochester Americans before making the big club this season. He made an immediate impression, scoring a goal on his first shot—the team's only goal in a season-opening loss to Detroit.
However, it wasn't until Ted Nolan—Girgensons' national team coach in Latvia—was brought in as Buffalo's interim head coach that he really had a chance to shine.
He was promoted to the Sabres' top line in early December, and he has been on a hot streak since. He has tallied three goals and four assists during December, and is fourth on the team in scoring behind only Cody Hodgson, Matt Moulson and Tyler Ennis.
Matthew Coller of WGR550 reported earlier this month that a closer look at Girgensons' play shows he has been one of the Sabres' top performers all season:
The Sabres' power forward has risen to the top of the chart in puck possession. His Corsi % (a possession measure that uses shot attempts for and against at 5v5) is 47.0%, which ranks No.1 amongst Buffalo forwards with over 200 minutes played.
When he's on the ice, the Sabres improve greatly in terms of possession. His Corsi% Relative to teammates is +4.4%, which basically means the team is 4.4% better in terms of possession when he's on the ice than when he's off. In terms of shots that reach the netminder, the 19-year-old has the best on-ice percentage of the game's shots on goal at 48.2%
Basically, Girgensons is the best possession player on the team and his rise to the top of the chart has happened mostly under Nolan. In the last 10 games, he's posting a whopping 57% Corsi%. To give some context to that figure: If everyone on the Sabres repeated it, they would be a top five possession team. The best possession players in the NHL (Anze Kopitar, Zach Parise etc.) are around 60%.
That's a lot of information to process, but the basic fact remains: Girgensons is good. Really good.
Years down the road, when someone is trying to test your mettle as a true Sabres fan, you might be asked who scored the "Butt Goal."
The hashtag took Twitter by storm in the aftermath of its improbable occurrence. In one of the most incredible turns of events possible, it even got a Sabres vs. Coyotes game onto ESPN:
In the record books, it went down as a game-winning overtime goal by defenseman Mark Pysyk—his only goal of the season thus far and just the second of his career. To all who saw it, however, it will live on as much more.
For those who don't recall the moment from the Dec. 23 game, here is the play by play. Pysyk chipped the puck over Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith's head, who reached up in an attempt to catch it. When he lost sight of it, he turned around, and it proceeded to drop into his pants. Smith, not knowing the location of the puck and desperate to cover his goal mouth, spun backward and slid into the net—unwittingly carrying the puck in along with him.
Pysyk may score many more goals in his career, but it's a safe bet that none will be as unorthodox as that one. And it's very possible none will be as memorable, either.
Mikhail Grigorenko's tenure in Buffalo has been much maligned.
The team's first pick in the 2012 entry draft (12th overall), Grigorenko was thrust into action immediately and expected to produce. Whether he wasn't ready for the NHL game or just wasn't a good fit for former coach Ron Rolston's system, Grigorenko's first season-and-a-half in Buffalo has been a failure. He is halfway through his entry-level contract and has a grand total of three goals to show for it.
When Nolan took over in November, things turned from bad to worse for Grigorenko. He was a healthy scratch for Nolan's first game behind the bench, and a week later the team tried to send him to the AHL before the NHL blocked the move.
When the World Junior Championships in Malmo, Sweden, drew close, the Russian National Team came calling for the 19-year-old's services. Grigorenko expressed excitement over the opportunity to go home and represent his country, and he was officially loaned to Russia on Dec. 5.
He has played well so far in the World Juniors, with five points and a plus-six rating through the tournament's first three games. It remains to be seen how he'll translate that success back to the NHL game.
Elevator malfunction? Publicity stunt?
Either way, it was a fun sight at the First Niagara Center on Nov. 12 when Rick Jeanneret joined on-ice analyst Rob Ray to call the game from between the benches.
The 71-year-old Jeanneret donned a custom helmet (which was later raffled off to benefit the Buffalo Jr. Sabres) to protect himself from danger—which proved a good idea, as the Los Angeles Kings' Jordan Nolan was knocked over the boards by Rasmus Ristolainen during the game and nearly bowled over the beloved broadcaster in the process.
Jeanneret's performance from on-ice level wasn't just comical. His call of the game action remained sharp and thorough, despite difficult angles to see the puck when it was down in the corners. It was one of the most impressive nights in an impressive career of a Hall of Fame announcer who is beloved by Sabres fans everywhere.
Jeanneret will call two more abbreviated seasons with the Sabres after this one, with Dan Dunleavy taking over more of the duties before becoming the full-time broadcaster in 2016-17.
It was a moment that many were expecting, but no one was really expecting—does that make sense?
On the morning of Nov. 13, the Sabres announced they would have a press conference, and rumors quickly began to swirl. The first name to emerge was that of Pat LaFontaine, who would be coming into the front office under a new position: president of hockey operations.
With his No. 16 hanging in the First Niagara Center rafters for his performance as a Sabre from 1991-97, the return of LaFontaine to the organization was a welcome sight. But it wasn't the major change that fans were hoping for.
Then, the craziness started.
Media members who were streaming into the press conference began tweeting LaFontaine wasn't the only familiar face on the dais. Ted Nolan, the fan-favorite head coach from the 1995-96 and 1996-97 seasons, was in attendance too. And Darcy Regier was nowhere to be seen.
This was going to be a bigger announcement than the creation of a new front-office position.
Owner Terry Pegula announced Nolan was returning as interim head coach to replace Rolston and LaFontaine's top priority would be to find a replacement for Regier as general manager. Fans rejoiced at all the announcements.
Nolan remains the team's interim coach, though recent successes on the ice are evidence of the life he has drummed up in the team. And LaFontaine has said he wouldn't name a new general manager until after the 2014 Olympics—though recent reports indicate he may be closing in on the deal.
It hasn't been an easy year to be a Sabres fan.
The games haven't been fun to watch at times. The results have been frustrating, and some of the players on the ice may not be likable.
But for those who've stuck it out and remained on the bandwagon through the doldrums, there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel. The team already looks to be turning their performance toward the positive, looking competitive throughout December.
There always will be the raucous games against Toronto to balance out the snoozers against Calgary. You take the good with the bad.
While the Sabres may not dig themselves out of the hole they buried themselves in early in 2013-14, that means their draft position will be prime in June. There will be a young superstar (perhaps Sam Reinhart?) to be excited about in Buffalo in 2014-15.
And just remember: It's always more rewarding to celebrate the successes when you remember riding out the failures.
Have a happy 2014, Sabres fans. May there be plenty more great blue-and-gold memories in the year to come.