The Buffalo Sabres have managed to not only excite and energize their fan base, but they have astonished and proved critics wrong this season. After failing to make the playoffs for the past two seasons, it seems like the Sabres have truly turned things 180 degrees.
If the Sabres have anything to prove, it's going to be during this seven-game road trip in January. It started in Atlanta and will end in host city of this year's Olympics, Vancouver. So far, the Sabres have managed to take five points of the potential 14 that lie within this trip.
Buffalo's first game, at Atlanta, was a 2-1 OT win, followed by a SO loss at the New York Islanders. With tonight's win, the Sabres are 8-0-3 in their last 11 and have thus earned at least a point in each of those games.
Buffalo had a blowout game against Phoenix, hounding the Coyotes to the tune of a 7-2 rout. With the two points earned in the game, the Sabres have currently squeezed into the No. 1 spot in the Eastern Conference with 66 points. The Washington Capitals also have 66 points, but the Sabres have done it with one fewer game played.
Buffalo has another chance against Anaheim on January 20th, as the West Coast swing continues. The wins have been opportune, as the New Jersey Devils are currently on a rare losing streak. This Western Conference tour is the best moment possible for the Sabres, for two reasons:
- The Sabres have the best record against Western teams, at 8-0-1. Many critics and western fans have touted their supremacy, but Buffalo has the chance to prove eastern teams still have the mettle to tango with the West.
- Buffalo has the opportunity to pull away, even if it is temporary, and claim the top spot legitimately. This stretch is one of the longest and toughest in this season, and if the Sabres emerge with a winning record, they will have proved much to the NHL.
Both Anaheim and Los Angeles have experienced slides of their own, and while Anaheim has righted the ship, a streaking Buffalo team may have what it takes to steal two wins and four points from California—with the biggest test being at the Shark Tank.
So, what has the Sabres going? What has made them an elite team?
No doubt, people are going to point out the stellar play of Ryan Miller, and he deserves all of the accolades he receives, but I'm going to try and focus on the players around Miller. He always tries to share the spotlight, and I'll join him in his efforts.
While the Sabres' defense is ranked 25th in terms of shots against per game (31.9), Buffalo has a huge star-in-the-making in Tyler Myers. He's leading the team in ice time per game, and he also has been pegged as a favorite, or at least a legitimate contender, for the Calder Trophy. He added another tally during the Sabres' rout of Phoenix, and now has scored seven goals and has 27 points.
The re-emergence of Tim Connolly and the rest of the Sabres offense has also been crucial to Buffalo's success. Buffalo is currently ranked ninth in terms of shots on goal per game, averaging just under 31 shots/game. Connolly is on a points binge, adding at least one point in the last 12 contests. He's at 11 goals and 31 assists for a team-high 42 points.
Lindy Ruff's "scoring by committee" system has finally broken through and found success. In the last 11 games in which the Sabres have gained at least one point, Buffalo has scored 39 goals, averaging just about 3.5 goals per game. That has boosted their "goals for" ranking, from 19th up to their current 11th-place spot.
Miller's goals-against average is 2.01, so basic math tells us that the offense is doing it's job.
The lack of an offensive superstar may be cause for concern, or at the very least some wishful thinking, but the Sabres currently have a system that works for them. The biggest danger is having the defense slide—then the team relies on Miller too heavily, which can wear him down.
The defense will also have to step it up, especially just before and after the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Ryan Miller's position on the USA squad is practically a guarantee that Buffalo will see backup Patrick Lalime minding the net for quite a few games. If the Sabres want to continue winning, they must adjust their defense accordingly.
In the grand scope of things, the Sabres are doing just fine. Sixty-six points and a 30-11-6 record is proof of that.
Theodore Roosevelt has a famous quote, that states "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are."
The Sabres seem to be taking his advice quite well.
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