The physicality of this series between the Buffalo Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers has been the definition of playoff hockey. It has been impressive to see the Sabres raise their game to a level that was rarely seen in the regular seasons and while fans may be disappointed in Game 3’s final score, the mistakes were easy to pinpoint and most importantly, easy to fix.
The first period seemed to flow directly from Games 1 and 2 and the high intensity was evident as was the loud hometown crowd that came out to cheer on their beloved Sabres. With the new reign of owner Terry Pegula, there was certainly some extra excitement in the air.
At the 3:40 mark, Patrick Kaleta was put in the box for roughing as he protected goaltender Ryan Miller—a penalty that, in my mind, was one worth taking. Sending a message is what Kaleta does best and starting the game off in this fashion seemed almost acceptable.
Unfortunately, at 4:42 the Flyers’ Jeff Carter scored on the power play giving the Flyers the first goal of the game. The pace and momentum of the game continued throughout the first period and the Sabres' Drew Stafford tied it at 11:55, much to the relief of the capacity Buffalo crowd. Stafford now has five goals in less than a month and his play seems to be at a new level as well.
With 3:20 left in the period the Sabres were given a gift, a double minor on Flyer Scott Hartnell for delay of game. The Sabres were unable to capitalize on this and the frustration seemed to begin to mount at that point and for the rest of the game the Sabres seemed to play at a level of uncertainty that wasn’t reflective of the numbers on the score board.
While the crowd was certainly a factor in the first, they were quickly quieted in the second period.
The second started with the buzz of Patrick Kaleta’s absence from the ice which was later announced as being due to an upper body injury. That seemed to take a little out of the Sabres’ sails.
Meanwhile, former Sabre Danny Briere added another score for the Flyers at the 17:16 mark and that was where the Sabres official lost their momentum. They certainly battled hard to get it back but just couldn’t seem to get far enough up that proverbial hill.
With 3:16 left in the second, the Flyers put another point on the board thanks to Nikolay Zherdev putting the Flyers up 3-1. With just two minutes to go in the second, the SOGs were the tell-tale factor: Flyers 13, Buffalo 4. While the Sabres seemed to dominate the puck consistently, the shots to the net were not good enough for the laws of probability.
The true warrior of the night was, without a doubt, Nathan Gerbe. His play was nothing short of outstanding and anyone watching the game will tell you that he was the on-ice leader for the Sabres. He was simply hustling the entire night and making himself part of plays at every opportunity. There were some incredible scoring opportunities for the Sabres at the end of the period as well.
Gerbe’s hard work finally paid off with 1:48 left to go in the second when he sent a rocket through the five-hole of Flyers goaltender Brian Boucher for one of the more comical sights of the night. Boucher was in his stance with his legs open in a V as Gerbe’s shot came out of nowhere. Boucher bent down almost perpendicular to the ice and peered through his legs to see if the puck had actually gone in the net, which it did.
Going into the third with only a 3-2 deficit, the Sabres seemed to be slowly running out of gas. At the 13:01 mark they found themselves with a 5-on-3 power play for about 1:15 and were unable to capitalize on it or the 5-on-4 that followed. Yet they continued to battle, even against some questionable if not outright illegal moves by the Flyers.
Earlier in the game the Flyers made a substitution during a break in play as the referees consulted on a call and then, late in the third with the heat turned up high around his net and the Sabres making some serious threats to tie the score, Boucher inexplicably ripped off his mask to get a stoppage of play whistle claiming that something was wrong with the straps on his mask, which wasn’t the case at all—gamesmanship a la the Flyers.
With a little under two minutes left in the game, the Sabres pulled goaltender Ryan Miller—a move which I felt was going to be fruitless considering the pace of the game—and with just 17.8 seconds left on the clock, Kimmo Timonen scored the open-netter to make the final score 4-2.
The Sabres outshot the Flyers 37 to 26 yet couldn’t make them count. Their SOGs were predictable for the most part and Boucher was ready. Their puck handling in the offensive zone seemed tentative at times and they were hesitant to bring the puck deep into the zone, giving Boucher plenty of time to prepare and with rarely much traffic in front of him, he was able to make the saves keeping the Sabres to just two goals.
What needs to be done in Game 4? Continue keeping the tempo and pace of the game, ease up on the excessive passing in the offensive zone and make bolder moves to get deeper into Flyers territory to make those SOGs more effective.
Additionally, let’s start getting some more bodies in front of the Flyers net whenever possible. Based on Boucher’s panic move in the third, removing his helmet to stop play, he certainly wasn’t comfortable with all that confusion in his area—something that the Sabres hopefully took note of and will use to their advantage on Wednesday when they again host the Flyers at HSBC Arena.