Opening day in Buffalo went as well as any fan of the Buffalo Sabres could have wished, as the Sabres shook off some (translation: lots) rust to win 5-2 and send the Philadelphia Flyers home with their tails between their legs and a record of 0-2.
Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: yes, the game was sloppy. All of the hockey prognosticators who predicted a season “only a fan could love” were half right: Buffalo fans love the win, but few diehard NHL fans could have loved the gameplay at times. Questionable passing, pucks just sliding off sticks, defensive assignments blown: it was all on display, for a national audience to see. Yeah, it was frustrating . . . but even so, there were flashes of brilliance on display in the First Niagara Center today. It’s easy to complain about the Sabres lackluster power play, and so on, but if you resign yourself to the fact that the gameplay is only going to get sharper and more exciting as the players warm up, the Sabres should have filled you with hope today.
Aside from some junior hockey-like moments, then, the Sabres organization has to love what it saw; namely, a lethal combination of experience and youth overwhelming a team that many have picked to be at the top of the Eastern Conference standings this year. On the one hand, we saw goals from Steve Ott (welcome to Buffalo!), Thomas Vanek (2) and Tyler Myers, along with three assists from Jason Pominville and an assist and some scrappy play out of Drew Stafford. However, we also saw why Cody Hodgson has fans (and ladies, although that may be for another reason) drooling, what with his one goal and seven shots. His energy, and especially his speed and creativity, caused all sorts of headaches for the Flyers today. The Sabres also got one point out of Tyler Ennis (three shots on goal), and even though Lindy Ruff limited Mikhail Grigorenko to only 11:13 of playing times, the youngster still managed to squeeze off two shots and draw a penalty using his disgusting amount of speed. Strong play by the veterans, exciting play by the youth – you could not ask for a better sign of things to come. The Sabres should be able to use this game to launch themselves to the sort of heights their fans have been waiting for.
Before the game started, the biggest question I had was whether Ryan Miller was going to return to form after a so-so season in 2011-2012. Compounding my fears was the fact that he chose to stay in the states during the lockout – good for the NHLPA, but not so good if you were a Sabres fan who wanted to see Miller stay sharp, and in shape. Obviously, the season is still young – I am the original Captain Obvious – but Miller’s play today was solid. Nothing too flashy – but then again, flashy saves usually are the result of being out of position, so I’ll take boring and solid over flashy and heart attack-inducing any day of the week. Miller stopped what could have been a few momentum changers following sloppy puck possession in the first period; had he allowed one (or more) of his team’s early turnovers to translate into a goal, we might be having a different discussion here. Really, in each period, there were turnovers that were so galling that it’s practically a miracle that Philadelphia did not score more than two goals. I’m sure their rusty offense has to shoulder some of the blame for that, but Miller gets the bulk of the credit, as he made intelligent decisions with the puck all game long. The two goals he gave up in the second didn’t rattle him, and they were not garbage goals, either, so if anybody wants to try and argue with you and say Miller was shaky, you have my permission to strike them, insofar as the law will allow you to do that.
Clearly, as I already wrote, there are areas the Sabres will need to improve upon, the biggest one today being their power play. Simply put, it was putrid at times. Sure, they went three-for-six on the power play, but one of those goals was due to Thomas Vanek’s amazing individual effort in the second period. His goal not only saved the Sabres from what was a string of godawful power pay efforts, but it also tied the game up after Buffalo had fallen behind, and really turned the game around. The Sabres are going to have to put together some more creative and energetic power play units in the near future, and they might want to consider abandoning the practice of having two defensemen on the ice during short-handed opportunities. Just a thought.
A few notes to share:
– Vanek’s career-best five-point game is the first by a Sabre since Drew Stafford scored five against Atlanta in 2008. A fan on Twitter commented that Vanek was on pace to score 192 points this year. I think he was joking . . . .
– Eight different Sabres scored a point today – impressive. That’s the most in a season-opener since ten players notched a point against the Isles in 2007. Great team effort.
– The Sabres are now 24-14-4 in season-openers; Ryan Miller is now 6-1-1.
– And on a light note: apparently, they don’t serve hot dogs in the press area after the first period. Either that, or they severely underestimated how hungry the press is. Either way, I was bummed – no hot dog for me. So tough, doing this job.
That’s it for now! It was a great to be a Sabres fan, and thanks to all of you who followed us sent in your comments on Twitter today. As always, add your comments, opinions, or predictions for tomorrow’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs (in Toronto) here, or tweet them to me @theaveragedick. I leave you with Steve Ott’s first goal as a Sabre – let’s go, Buffalo!