Maybe Buffalo sports are more connected than we think. It certainly has seemed that way, with one flop after another. The Bills have now blown six fourth-quarter leads. The UB Bulls have lost four games either in the fourth quarter or overtime. And our beloved Sabres have thrown up some ugly-looking third period efforts in the past three games.
Thus far, the Sabres are 4-5 in November, with each of those losses looking horribly reminiscent of the Sabres teams of the past two years. Conversely, those four wins (as well as most of October) are reminiscent of the last Stanley Cup team from 1999. So, the question remains:
Will the Real Buffalo Sabres please stand up?
The team that has won 12 games is going to outwork you, out-hustle you and stonewall your offense. Sound familiar? As in 1998-1999 familiar?
The team that has lost eight games (two in OT) has been unable to score regularly, lazy in the neutral zone (resulting in dumb penalties) and has seemed overall disinterested. You know, the norm here in Buffalo for the past two-plus years.
So, what next, you may ask. Here are three keys to watch for this week:
1. Patrick Kaleta's playing time
Kaleta leads the team with 55 hits, tied for 29th in the league. Not bad at all when you consider that every single player ranked ahead of him has averaged more time on the ice per game than Kaleta. In most cases, it's eight to 10 more minutes per game. Remember, Kaleta played on the fourth line until Mike Grier got hurt. Will Kaleta get more ice time in order to provide some much needed grit, or will his TOI diminish as Lindy Ruff attempts to spark the offense?
2. Tim Kennedy's Role
I love Tim Kennedy. I believe that he can be a special player in this league, along the lines of Michael Peca 10 years ago or Chris Drury three years ago. But he just hasn't been the same since Grier went down with an injury. He seems hesitant to rush the offensive zone and looks like the game is moving too fast for him at times. These are all signs of a developing player and evidence of how important Grier is to Buffalo's third line. Tim Kennedy will not be a third-line player for very long. Could Lindy Ruff move Kennedy up to the second line temporarily to compensate for a struggling Jason Pominville (four points in November)? Not likely, but an option that Ruff should explore in my humble opinion.
3. Buffalo's Neutral Zone Play
Congratulations, NHL. You have effectively removed any effect that the lockout may have had. We are now being forced to watch neutral-zone trap snore-fests again. Whereas Buffalo's trap resulted in four goals against and a save rate of over 95 percent for Ryan Miller during their most recent three-game win streak, their lackluster neutral zone play has resulted in 13 goals against over the past three games (all losses). Will Buffalo return to the trap, knowing that they are unable to score their way out of trouble as in past years?
Let's check back in a week and see where we are.