Coming off a solid, team-unifying 3-2 win over sudden rival Nashville Predators on Saturday in Tennessee, the Buffalo Sabres finally showed they actually had a pulse. After being losers of four out of their last five games, the Sabres took advantage of some passive early game play from the Preds, and jumped to a quick lead. Rookie Zack Kassian was especially strong for the visiting team, using his big body to shield pucks and finish checks, and displaying surprising speed while chasing down a loose puck in the neutral zone and going in alone to score his second goal in five games. Paul Gaustad and friends showed the hockey world once again that they are prepared to take care of business when they need to, after Jordin Tootoo decided to “Superfly Snuka” into Ryan Miller.
So ends another week of the 2011-12 season, and I’ve some thoughts on what we’ve witnessed lately.
- I have to admit that I was much too excited for the Joe Finley era to begin in Buffalo. I don’t know if it was that the Sabres might have had another 6’8″ defenseman (who can actually skate well) patrolling the blueline, or if it was me looking for a change in the shoddy, soft D-zone coverage we’ve been forced to sit through. Finley, who made his NHL debut Friday against the humbling Detroit Red Wings, and who looked a bit more comfortable in his second game Saturday against the Predators, only skated around 12 minutes total between the two games he played. Not sure if coach Lindy Ruff didn’t trust the big man, but I would have liked to see a bit more of Finley to see what he could, and could not handle.
- It’s only five games in, but I will gladly eat some crow regarding my opinions of Kassian’s NHL readiness. Watching young Zack (who resembles a jacked-up Wily Coyote with missing teeth) in the Traverse City tournament this past September, I saw a kid with good size and even better hands play at times a dominating, yet surprisingly timid game. His skating stuck out in a big way, as something he needed to greatly improve upon. Seeing him in the preseason with the Sabres only cemented those opinions of him. I figured a full year riding the bus on the back roads of small AHL towns would do Kassian good, and he’d be ready to step in next season to replace the possibly departing Brad Boyes and/or Jochen Hecht. Well, I don’t know what Monroe County chow Rochester Americans coach Ron Rolston was feeding big Zack, but the kid still looks hungry. Sabres management has got to find a way to keep him in the lineup, and if he keeps playing like he belongs, I believe they will.
- 6’4″ rookie Brayden McNabb has impressed also, and was lone bright spot in the Sabres loss Friday against the Red Wings. It seems every game he plays brings one (or more) highlight reel, crushing open ice hit on an unsuspecting opponent. McNabb has defended well, using his long reach to disrupt plays, although he has yet to unleash the laser of a point shot he has. I’m sure, at this point, he’s just trying to keep things simple in trying to avoid making the big mistake. If he stays up with the big club, and gains more confidence (and his coach’s trust), we will see the offensive ability this kid possesses.
- Thomas Vanek has cooled off some, dropping out of the top ten in league scoring. However, his 27 points in 26 games still puts him on pace to equal, or better, his career high of 84 points set back in his sophomore season of 2006-07. That year also saw him lead the NHL in plus/minus, with a plus 47, and while he won’t lead the league in that category this year, his plus three is respectable nonetheless, given the erratic play of the Sabres. Vanek’s 6 power play goals also puts him on pace to equal his career best of 20 power play goals set during the 2008-09 season. He has 216 career goals in 495 games, which ties him with Don Luce for 10th place among the Sabres all-time goals leaders, and leaves him just six back of Sabre great Rene Robert.
- Miller looked like a man on a mission Saturday night against Nashville, his first game back after missing nine with concussion/whiplash issues. His ridiculous glove save/highway robbery of Nashville’s Matt Halischuk has got to be the save of the year so far, while his perfect positioning and calmness in net showed why he won the Vezina Trophy two years ago. When he’s on, and his head is right, there’s not many better. Expect him to get the start against those great guys (cough) from Philadelphia, when the Flyers infect, I mean, invade the FNC Wednesday night.
- You think Gaustad is out to prove something every time someone gets near his goalie now? Jordin Tootoo knows firsthand. Whether or not Tootoo receives any sort of discipline from the league for his spot-on impression of Christopher Reeve as Superman, when he flew (arms extended) into Miller, it was nice to see the whole team get behind their franchise goalie on Saturday. Although Gaustad did get injured in the dustup in Nashville (expect an update sometime Monday), he deserves full credit for showing Tootoo that doodoo like that, whether he tried to get out of the way or not, will be dealt with immediately now.
- Nice to see Tyler Ennis zipping around out there, scoring his first goal of the season after missing 19 games, and not over handling the puck. Hopefully his time watching from the press box cured him of his Afinogov-itis, otherwise known as Leino-itis.
- Jochen Hecht is on pace for 40 goals. Don’t get too excited when he’s suddenly on pace for 15, which is what he averages per year with Buffalo. He is skating well and looks fantastic out there, but he is not a number one center, something the Sabres still lack.
- And speaking of guys some of us thought would step into a top center role for Buffalo. Don’t look now, but Ville Leino has three points in his last two games. Is he starting to finally heat up, or does he go back to being a ghost again? He has looked great playing along side Kassian and another toothless rookie, center Luke Adam, and has been very strong on the puck as of late. Perhaps he just needed some time to adjust, or for Lindy to stop moving him from line to line every third shift. Or maybe, just maybe, Ennis told him to stop over handling the puck.
- Stat that has me dumbfounded: Marc-Andre Gragnani leads the Sabres with a plus 9. I have not been enamored with MAG’s play as of late, especially in his own end. He is a little soft for my liking and, while I know he’ll never be mistaken for Scott Stevens, he could show a bit more in the physicality department. Charging opposition forwards have picked up on his predictably soft D-zone coverage, resulting in Gragnani giving up the puck much too easily. I said you reminded me of Teppo Numminen, Marc. I didn’t say you were Teppo, and that’s a big difference.
- No offense to the man, but no one that I’ve heard say Paul Szczehura‘s name has pronounced it the same way twice. Maybe it’s better for everyone involved that he stay in Rochester (I’m kidding).
- And, finally, the Red Wings hopefully showed Sabres brass how far away they really are from being a cup contender. I know I am guilty of it, but perhaps this team was given unfair expectations this season. Injuries cannot, and should not, be an excuse or a crutch for this hockey club. I know the Sabres are coming off an impressive road win against the Predators, but this team does have it’s shortcomings, and it’s blatantly obvious when they play upper-echelon opponents. Hopefully Darcy Regier is exploring all options in trying to better this team before the trade deadline.
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Topics: Brad Boyes, Brayden Mcnabb, Darcy Regier, Detroit Red Wings, Don Luce, Jochen Hecht, Joe Finley, Jordin Tootoo Hit On Ryan Miller, Lindy Ruff, Luke Adam, Marc-andre Gragnani, Matt Halischuk Robbed By Ryan Miller, Nashville Predators, Paul Gaustad, Paul Szczehura, Philadelphia Flyers, Rcohester Americans, Rene Robert, Ron Rolston, Scott Stevens, Teppo Numminen, Thomas Vanek, Tyler Ennis, Ville Leino, Zack Kassian