One does not have to look back to far to remember a Buffalo Sabres team that started a season looking this good.
In the 2005-2006 season the Sabres started off 6-2 on their way to a franchise best 52 wins. They followed that season with an 11-0 start coming out of the gates to finish with 53 wins and a Presidents trophy. An Eastern conference finals loss was the ultimate fate both of those years. Last year was a season defined by an identity crisis with the departure of co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. The young, leaderless Sabres struggled early on with two straight losses and ultimately missed the playoffs.
Fast forward to this season and the Sabres are 3-0 with two impressive victories over the Montreal Canadiens on opening night, and the previously unbeaten New York Rangers in MSG. Wednesday's game against New York was impressive because the team came back from a 1-0 deficit to win 3-1.
So what is the difference between this year and last? Maturity is a word that comes to mind. Thomas Vanek has looked sensational early on with five goals, including two shorthanded. The penalty kill is a new challenge for Vanek this year who has not been known for defense early in his career. So far, Vanek seems to be rising to the occasion.
In regards to Vanek, Sabres coach Lindy Ruff stated that, "I want to make him one of the best two-way players in the game."
Dan Paille has also stood out for the Sabres early on. He has three assists thus far, including the primary assist on both of Vanek's shorthanded goals. Paille is known as more of an energy guy, not a set up man, so his contributions are certainly welcomed by Lindy Ruff.
The Sabres have also benefited from the added leadership in the off season. Craig Rivet was brought in and named captain before he even played a game, a move criticized by some, but paying off early. Rivet is not afraid to get his nose dirty and defend a teammate. In the Sabres 7-1 shellacking of the New York Islanders, Rivet stepped in after Adam Mair took a cheap shot from Nate Thompson.
"You always want to stick together whether it's the first minute or the last minute," said Rivet.
Rivet's actions undoubtedly had resounding effects in the Sabre's dressing room. Last season there was not that go-to-guy for the Sabres. There was no one on the bench who the team could look to that provided that calming presence that teams need when down by a goal, or when a teammate gets run. Rivet looks to have that quality and the team is better for it.
So far the Sabres have looked great. They have been working hard and making smart plays. It will be interesting to see how they respond when they lose and face some adversity. Given the teams experiences the last three years, they should be prepared to meet any challenge. Look for the Sabres to return to contender status in the NHL this year.