The Buffalo Sabres completed the October portion of their schedule with a disgusting 3-2 loss to the Florida Panthers, and despite the Sabres’ 6-4 record on the year, the team looks horribly out of sync. If it weren’t for the “top” line of Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and rookie Luke Adam, we could be looking up at the Boston Bruins, who are anchoring the bottom floor of the Eastern Conference standings.
The team started the year by giving Pominville the captaincy and, while I readily admit I wasn’t a fan of the move, he has not disappointed. His 14 points (5 goals, 9 assists) are second only to Vanek’s 15 points (8 goals, 7 assists), and the duo has found instant chemistry with 6’2″ rookie center Adam, who has contributed 3 goals and 6 assists on the year.
Winning their first two games in Europe was the start we all wanted, but the team laid an egg in their first game at First Niagara Center with a 4-3 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. The Sabres were clearly outplayed and out hustled, with the score certainly not emblematic of the shoddy play the Sabres displayed against the ‘Canes .
Behind the stellar play of rookie goaltender Jhonas Enroth, the Sabres bounced back with a 3-2 win south of the PA border against the current conference leader Pittsburgh Penguins. The night off, and solid play of young netminder Enroth, may have given goalie Ryan Miller all he needed to bounce back after the Carolina loss. He allowed one goal in his next two games, including a shutout of the Panthers in Florida, and looked liked the Vezina winning puckstopper we know he consistently should be.
A 5-1 record at this point had the town talking, albeit cautiously. The Sabres were certainly where they needed, and wanted, to be in the standings. However, disorganized defensive zone play, giveaways, and the occasional over-passing (in search of the highlight-reel goal) were dogging the team. Those habits followed the team into a home and home against the Tampa Bay Lightning, who lulled the Sabres to sleep with a methodical 3-0 win on home ice, and followed that up with a come-from-behind 4-3 win in Buffalo, in front of a national audience on the Versus network. It wasn’t so much that the Sabres lost that game, but it was the way they did it. The Sabres came out of the gates looking like the ’83 Oilers, skating, hitting, and passing, and were clearly dominating the Bolts, who quickly found themselves down 2-0 after a few minutes of play. Allowing the Lightning to tie the game, and ultimately go ahead 4-2 (before a late third period goal by Nathan Gerbe brought the Sabres closer than they deserved to be), stunned the home crowd and left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths.
Clearly looking for a spark after this latest three-ring circus, coach Lindy Ruff inserted Enroth back in between the pipes against the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets. Prince Jhonas rewarded the coach’s faith in him with a spectacular 41-save performance in a 4-2 victory against former Sabres assistant coach Scott Arniel and the 1-7-1 Blue Jackets team. Going back to last season, Enroth has posted an 11-2-2 record, and beyond a doubt is earning his ice time, and then some.
Game number ten, and the final tilt for the month, was again against Florida, this time in Buffalo. The Sabres had the chance to close out the month of October with a 7-3 record, and keep pace with (and it nauseates me to even utter these words) the surprising Toronto Maple Leafs atop the Northeast division standings. This time it was terrible execution, and a couple weak goals against Ryan Miller that took the life out of his team, in a 3-2 Florida victory in front of a booing FNC crowd.
Looking at this team, at the ten-game mark, we have some positives, some negatives and some puzzling neutrals:
Obviously Vanek, Pominville and Adam have done it on the score sheet, going 1-2-3 in team scoring. Patrick Kaleta, Paul Gaustad and Cody McCormick have dished out relentless physical pounding, with Kaleta and Goose leading the second-best group of penalty killers in the league, statistically speaking. Gerbe’s six points and +5 rating in ten games is representative of his hard work and hustle at both ends of the rink. Andrej Sekera, say what you will, is a case of “how do you take this guy out of the lineup?”. He is leading the team in plus/minus with a +6, and is moving the puck up the ice with confidence. He still makes the occasional heart-attack pass, but has cut down on the glaring mistakes that have plagued him before. We touched on Enroth earlier in this post, and hopefully coach Lindy Ruff sticks with the plan of using him on the tail end of back to back games, of which the Sabres have the most of league wide. Robyn Regehr has been the physical presence and rock this defense needed coming into the 2011-12 season, and has made his opponents pay dearly.
The Puzzling Neutrals:
Brad Boyes started the year in a funk, but has picked it up the last handful of games, and has been rewarded with some time on the power play as of late. Boyes has 6 points, is on pace for roughly 50 for the year, and is a +2. Christian Ehrhoff came to the Sabres with a reputation for having a howitzer from the point, and has not been shy about using that booming shot (when he hits the net). His 7 points in 10 games puts him on pace for a career year, though his current -6 rating is troubling. He has been erratic is his own end, showing both a physical side and a maddening, stick-checking passiveness. He needs to be better. With the addition of partner Ehrhoff, Jordan Leopold has been pushed to the rear a bit offensively, but has been a steadying influence defensively, and seems content with letting his sidekick take the puck and run. Marc-Andre Gragnani isn’t lighting the scoresheet up as much as he was during last year’s playoff series against the Philadelphis Flyers, but is seeing a ton of ice time on the power play. He moves the puck beautifully, with crisp tape-to-tape passing, but has yet to spark a very inconsistent Sabres team with the man advantage. Although boasting a +3 rating, he has not been terribly physical in his own end. Goalie Miller has been solid, if not a bit inconsistent. He seems to have games where he looks unbeatable, only to let in the “Miller softy”, prompting calls for backup Enroth. Despite a 2.14 GAA, and .930 save percentage, Miller can be, and should be better.
Ville Leino has been a terrible disappointment thus far, looking disinterested and, quite frankly, lost on the ice. 2 points on the season is not what anyone, least of all Leino himself, expected when the Sabres signed him in July. Leino needs to go to the net with the puck, and forecheck with the doggedness that he is known for league-wide. Much more is expected, and required from #23. Drew Stafford has had a game or two where he looked like the player that popped home 31 goals last season, however much of this season has seen the hulking winger do his best Claude Rains impersonation. When Stafford is skating and hitting, and just getting involved, that is when he is at his best. He has done very, very little of that thus far, and needs to step it up. Tyler Myers, for lack of a better word, has been terrible. He looks clumsy and tentative, and is being pushed off the puck much too easily in his own end. He doesn’t look like a kid who was supposed to have put on added muscle heading into the season, instead looking like a mirror image of the player he was to start the year last season. Will he bounce back, and become the force he has shown he can be? I’m confident. But is he? The Sabres’ other Tyler, Mr. Ennis, couldn’t seem to catch a break to start the season, with zero points before injuring himself (or was it Ryan Malone that put Ennis on the shelf?) in his seventh game. Ennis seemed to have a bad case of the dreaded Afinogenovitis, a severely contagious affliction (just ask Leino) that renders the victim incapable of passing the puck in a timely manner, thus putting him at risk for multiple giveaways. If I were Ruff, I would make Leino and Ennis do a lap around the rink during practice anytime they don’t show a willingness to move the puck towards the goal!
Derek Roy gets a pass thus far because he has been fighting some nagging injuries. By all reports he is close to being fully healthy, and his last game against Florida served some notice that he is close to 100%. Roy was the best Sabre on the ice, and hopefully that will start translating into some points.
Overall, it could be worse. A record of 6-4 after month number one has the team on pace for 49 wins. Confident that the Leafs will choke, that should be good enough to challenge for the division crown, and at least a three seed in the playoffs. The thinking is that, even though the team is winning more than they are losing, there are obviously some players that are not living up to the potential, hype and expectations we have for them. If the team can clean up some erratic defensive zone play, and the middle two lines start clicking on a regular basis, this 2011-12 Buffalo Sabres team should be more of a force night in and night out.
Special Teams: B+
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Topics: Andrej Sekera, Brad Boyes, Buffalo Sabres, Christian Ehrhoff, Cody Mccormick, Jason Pominville, Jhonas Enroth, Jordan Leopold, Lindy Ruff, Luke Adam, Marc-andre Gragnani, Nathan Gerbe, Patrick Kaleta, Paul Gausted, Ryan Malone, Ryan Miller, Thomas Vanek, Tyler Ennis, Tyler Myers, Ville Leino