If my opening strikes you as sounding a bit dramatic, then you didn’t watch tonight’s game between the Buffalo Sabres and the visiting Montreal Canadiens. Because if you did watch tonight’s game – specifically, the third period and beyond, you know you were thinking, saying, or screaming those same three words. Just when the game seemed to be over, Thomas Vanek threw the Buffalo Sabres on his back and propelled his team to an improbable, come-from-behind 5-4 victory in a shootout.
I know it’s only the Sabres’ fourth win of this young season, and it doesn’t change much in terms of where Buffalo currently stands in both their division and the Eastern Conference, but it’s a huge win, in that it showed us time and time again that there is no quit in this team. This is the sort of win that can, and should, boost the morale of a team and help them turn things around. Let’s break down how certain defeat turned into a rousing victory tonight.
Talk about a tale of two games. The first time these two teams met, the Canadiens out-shot the Sabres 15-1 in the first period. Somehow, the Sabres survived that nightmare only down by a goal, but you could tell it was only a matter of time before Montreal broke through, which, we all know, they did. Tonight, the first period was far more evenly balanced. Montreal still won the SOG battle, but only by the count of 13-10. It helped that Buffalo figured out how to win face-offs – thank you, Cody Hodgson, who was a master of the face-off this period. The Sabres didn’t just show improvement in the face-off circle, though; their energy and focus were noticeably better than the prior game, resulting in an aggressive forecheck that led to their only goal of the period. Steve Ott gets credit for the goal, but it was the forecheck of Mikhail Grigorenko that made Ott’s blast possible:
That was a man’s play, made by the young rookie, and it was symbolic of the Sabres’ intensity and work ethic all period long. No, it wasn’t a perfect first period – Sabres fans have become too used to hearing Rick Jeanneret announce, “But not out of their zone” in reference to yet another failed attempt to get the puck down ice – but it was the type of effort and fight you would expect a team that has lost three in a row to display. Heck, it’s the sort of effort we should see every night from this team – but let’s take what we can get so far.
Shame, shame Buffalo: this was a chance for you to get your offense feeling good about itself, but instead you were outscored 2-1. How did this happen? Well, the inability to score on the power play, for one thing. By the end of the second period, Buffalo had managed to extend its streak of power play futility to 0-16, stretching back to last Thursday’s game against Boston. Four power plays in the period, including a 5-on-3, and Buffalo rolled snake eyes every time. They had their chances, including a number of point-blank shots, but for whatever reason, they could only push one goal past a shaky-at-times Peter Budaj.
The other reason Montreal outscored the Sabres in this period, despite Buffalo’s numerous scoring opportunities? Take a guess. Come on, take a shot in the dark. You know you want to, because you know the answer: terrible defense. With the game tied at 2-all, the Sabres decided the best way to finally clear the puck out of their zone was to chase it like a dog chases its tail. Unfortunately, everyone forgot about Brendan Gallagher, who blasted a shot by Ryan Miller to put the visitors up 2-1:
Give the Sabres credit: for the second time, they came right back and answered a Montreal goal with one of their own, which tells me this team has a mental toughness that seemed to be lacking last year. That ability to steal momentum away from a team so quickly is huge, and is going to be a nice wild card to spring upon their opponents later in the season. Still, even with all of these positive signs of life on display, the Sabres still headed off to the locker-room down a goal, which had to be disappointing.
I’m going to go out on a limb and attempt to summarize the thoughts of every Sabres fan watching, or listening to, tonight’s game when Tomas Plekanec put Montreal ahead, 4-2, just 45 seconds into the third period: “Game over.” “Lights out.” “Another soft goal that Miller should have had.” “Kill me now.” Sound about right? I mean, what else could Sabres fans have been thinking at that point? Two periods of high energy, desperate play, and all the team had to show for it was a two-goal deficit. The life had been sucked out of First Niagara Center, and it appeared that the Sabres had no fight left in them and were resigned to the fact that they had just lost their fourth straight game.
I know, I know: I’m being pretty dramatic tonight. There’s still 47 regular-season games to be played. A lot of hockey left. A lot of amazing players in the NHL.
But if you can look me in the eye and tell me that, as of right now, there’s a player in the NHL who is more valuable to his team than Thomas Vanek is to Buffalo, I’d have to laugh in your face, and then kill you and dispose of your body. Kidding! Maybe. Without Vanek, the Sabres are 0-10-1, the absolute laughingstocks of the league; with him, they are within striking distance. Just look at what he accomplished in the third: his power play goal almost eight minutes in (courtesy of White’s idiotic four minute penalty for roughing) gives the Sabres a reason to keep skating hard; his goal with 2 seconds left to go in the game possibly salvages a season for a franchise that was dying a slow death. You cannot ask this man to do more for your team, and what the Sabres are asking him to do really isn’t fair – but here we are. He’s Superman on ice right now.
I’d be lying if I said I felt that the Sabres were destined to win overtime after Vanek’s miracle on ice . . . and of course, overtime wasn’t even 30 seconds old when Montreal had a breakaway on Ryan Miller. If someone had quickly bet me, I would have bet against Miller at that moment – don’t hate on me! I would just be playing the percentages. Thankfully, Miller came up huge, and Vanek and Jason Pominville took care of business in the shootout. Game, set, and heart attack to the boys in blue and gold.
I know in my post the other day I preached patience, so tonight I’ll do the same, albeit it in a
different vein: it’s one game, and the Sabres are still a sub .500 team. They have still yet to play a perfect game, and their defense is going to have to get a clue eventually if this team is ever going to win more than 1-2 games in a row. Tonight’s victory was amazing to watch, and has the potential to be the start of something good . . . but if the Sabres come out flat Saturday against the Islanders, it will be reduced to just another rare high in a season full of lows. Let’s not go wild with the optimism just yet. Still, with Tyler Ennis, his hair, and Marcus Foligno starting to give the Sabres a second line that can produce offense, and the team in general starting to play close to a full 60 minutes, there’s hope in Buffalo.
And Thomas Vanek.
Enjoy the game highlights, and check in tomorrow as the Sabre Noise staff toss out our game pucks!!!