After I got home from a long day in Buffalo yesterday, I was reading through some Tweets and Facebook messages when I came across a message from a fan/friend of mine who had this to say to me: ” I read your article on the game. Good stuff, although you gave Vanek credit for turning the game around instead of Stafford. No mention of the Stafford fight at all. You’re better than this.” This guy’s a huge Buffalo fan, and he knows his stuff, so even as I was trying to defend myself, I realized something: he was right. Mostly.
I’ll go on the record as saying that I don’t believe Drew Stafford should get credit for turning yesterday’s game against the Flyers around. I reserve that credit for Thomas Vanek, who single-handedly created his own offense while Buffalo was on the power play in the second period, down two goals to one. Philadelphia had already scored twice in the period to silence the crowd and take the lead, and my feeling is that, if Vanek doesn’t score that goal, there was a good chance that the suddenly efficient offense of the Flyers might have put one more past Ryan Miller in that period, which probably would have meant lights out for the Sabres. Vanek’s goal gave momentum back to Buffalo, and probably emboldened Stafford, who looked out of place during his fight with Scott Hartnell and lucked his way into taking Hartnell down onto the ice.
What I cannot argue with my friend about is the fact that nowhere in my recap did I mention Stafford’s altercation with Hartnell, or the physical play of the Sabres in general. Even if Stafford’s fight wasn’t a turning point, it certainly seemed to represent a shift in the culture of the Buffalo Sabres organization. This is something I had already discussed: the fact that, by bringing in Steve Ott and John Scott, the Sabres brass was making a deliberate effort to provide some grit and backbone to a team that had been called soft too often. Well, if I had already discussed the potential for a newer, tougher Buffalo Sabres, why didn’t I address it in yesterday’s recap? I have three theories:
1) I was still angry that I never got a hot dog from concessions;
2) I was in a hurry to get my three-hour drive underway; and
3) I am a total clueless idiot.
You make the call!
Truth be told, the Sabres were without a doubt a very physical, yet smart, team on the ice against the Flyers. You knew Ott was going to come out and throw his body around when he needed to, and he was awarded with the Collision of the Game. Marcus Foligno surprised me by actually setting the tone early, taking two penalties in the first period. Tyler Myers made up for some less-than-impressive puck handling by demonstrating a willingness to put a body on people. And then there was Stafford, a guy who is definitely not known for his fighting skills, going toe-to-toe with Hartnell in an attempt to administer some payback after Hartnell had leveled Tyler Ennis from behind. Stafford acknowledged in post-game interviews that being more physical was a focus the team had: “Everyone in this lineup is trying to hold each other accountable to be harder to play against, and that [physical play] falls into that category.” It stands to reason that this will remain a focus of the team as they fight to make their way back into the playoffs this year.
You can argue that it was the Sabres’ home opener, when emotions are high, and that the Sabres are going to revert to their old form soon enough, possibly as early as tonight when they play their first road game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Physical play is great, but only if it is backed up by the mental toughness teams need to have in order to win on the road, and to handle adversity. We’ll see if Buffalo truly possesses these traits enough, but no matter what happens, you can see that there is strong potential for a new culture to take hold in Buffalo.