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NHL Predictions 2011: Buffalo Sabres Will Shine at Season's Start

Mike Chiari@mikechiariFeatured ColumnistOctober 6, 2011

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 30:  Ryan Miller #30 of the Buffalo Sabres makes a save against the Washington Capitals at the Verizon Center on September 30, 2011 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Friday will mark the beginning of a new era of Buffalo Sabres hockey as the Sabres face the Anaheim Ducks in Helsinki, Finland. This will be owner Terry Pegula's first full season at the helm as he took over ownership from Tom Golisano mid-way through last season.

After an awful start, the Sabres went on a tear to end the 2010-11 season in what essentially coincided with Pegula officially purchasing the team. They were able to slip into the playoffs as the seventh seed, but lost to the Philadelphia Flyers in seven games.

The organization underwent a myriad of changes over the offseason as Pegula has sought to put his mark on the team. Pegula has undertaken projects that are seemingly minuscule, such as constructing a new locker room, but are all part of his plan to make the Sabres a first-class franchise.

The biggest change, however, has been the attitude in which the team is operated. In years past, the Sabres would spend to the salary cap, but that money would be spent solely on signing players in-house and acquiring bargain-bin free agents.

Pegula proved that the Sabres could hang with the big guns in free agency as they traded for rugged defenseman Robyn Regehr as well as the rights to defenseman Christian Ehrhoff before signing him and forward Ville Leino. 

The Sabres now have the third-highest payroll in the NHL and are no longer being operated as a small-market team. With all that in mind, the Sabres seem poised for a Stanley Cup run, and it starts this week.

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Although it may not mean much, the Sabres were particularly impressive in exhibition season, going 4-1-1. They also thrashed German DEL team Adler Mannheim 8-3 Tuesday in a friendly contest, which may not seem like much, but the New York Rangers lost to a Swiss team while the Ducks and Los Angeles Kings hardly outlasted their European opponents.

Buffalo has its deepest team in recent memory, and likely its most talented squad since winning the President's Trophy as the NHL's best regular season team in 2006-07. Not only do the Sabres have three legitimate scoring lines, but they possess a well-balanced defense corps and one of the league's best goalies in Ryan Miller.

While it's difficult to predict how the Sabres will react to beginning the season in Europe, their early-season schedule is pretty favorable. After facing the Ducks and Kings, the Sabres will return home and get a nice five-day respite before hosting the Carolina Hurricanes.

The Sabres will also have two games against the Florida Panthers and one contest with the Columbus Blue Jackets in the season's first month. Their biggest tests will likely be consecutive games against the Tampa Bay Lightning, a date with the enigmatic Montreal Canadiens and game against the Sidney Crosby-less Pittsburgh Penguins.

It's impossible to know for sure whether the Sabres will immediately gel as a team until they take the ice in a regular season game, but there were a number of line combinations that seemed to work very well during the preseason. 

Two keys to Buffalo's success to begin the season and throughout the season for that matter are the power play and managing Miller's workload.

The power play has been incredibly inconsistent in recent years, but Ehrhoff's booming shot from the point with Thomas Vanek screening the goaltender could lead to plenty of success with the man advantage.

Also, Miller is notorious for breaking down late in the season, so head coach Lindy Ruff will want to get backup goaltender Jhonas Enroth involved early and often in an attempt to spell Miller and keep him fresh as the season progresses.

There are no guarantees that Buffalo's re-shaped roster will mesh, but the Sabres have the talent and the favorable early-season schedule to dash out of the gates and stake claim to the Northeast Division crown. 

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