“Better late than never.”
That common four-word phrase perfectly sums up the Buffalo Sabres two-swing through the Sunshine State, which the Sabres capped off tonight with a less-than-pretty 4-3 shootout victory over the Florida Panthers.
Consider these “better late than never” moments that we witnessed on the Buffalo Sabres’ annual Mentor Trip:
1. Tuesday night’s victory against Tampa Bay provided interim coach Ron Rolston with his first NHL coaching victory.
2. Tonight’s two-goal effort by Nathan Gerbe provided Gerbe with his first two goals of the season.
3. Tonight’s first period power play goal by Tyler Ennis marked the first time the Sabres have scored on the power play in a span of 14 power play opportunities spread across four games, going all the way back to the Pittsburgh Penguins game on February 17th. It also happened to be the first power play goal the Sabres have scored on the road since they notched one in Boston on January 31st.
4. Tonight marked the first time in Steve Ott‘s career that he ever notched three assists in one period.
Not on the list of “better late than never” moments? The fact that this was a game the Buffalo Sabres really had no business winning. We’ve already seen too many of these types of games this season, so I wish the Sabres would relegate these slightly undeserving wins to the “passing fad” bin as quickly as possible.
Let’s break this game down, shall we?
Unless you are blind, deaf, and so new to the game of hockey that you yell, “Touchdown!” when someone scores a goal, you would know that the first period was the best period of hockey that Buffalo played tonight. You would also know that that’s not a good thing. Not too many teams make a habit out of playing good hockey for just the first twenty minutes, but the Buffalo Sabres sure seem to like to get that little inconvenience out of their way so they can spend the remaining 40 minutes of the game simulating a penalty kill situation. It’s not like the Sabres were great or dominant in the first period; they only outshot Florida 11-9, and were lucky to be nursing a 3-2 lead after they had blown the early 2-0 lead they had spotted themselves. Thankfully, the shortest yet hardest-working man in the NHL donned his Super-man cape tonight – where would the Sabres be right now without Nathan Gerbe? Aside from on a plane, I mean? Gerbe’s first two goals of the season could not have come at a better time, and both were the by product of sheer hustle and determination. Each was timely in its own way, as the first one opened the game’s scoring, and the second one put Buffalo back on top just over a minute after the Sabres had coughed up a two-goal lead. I can’t figure out which one I like better – Gerbe’s first:
Or maybe his second:
Ah, who am I kidding? I have to go with the second, because it earned the “Where momma hides the cookies!” line that my son and I enjoy oh-so much. Kudos to Steve Ott for getting the puck to Gerbe both times, but to me each of those goals should be unassisted because he worked hard to create both of those scoring opportunities. It’s good to see his effort pay off, especially since the Sabres would have lost without it.
Periods Two and Three
Trust me: I’m doing everyone a favor by hitting the fast forward icon and blurring these two periods together. For starters, no goals were scored for 38:26 of these two periods, and while that doesn’t necessarily make for boring hockey to watch, it does make for boring hockey to write about. Besides, if you come here often, you’ve seen this movie before. Allow me to summarize: after playing twenty minutes of great/good/passable hockey, the Sabres emerge from the locker room with their skates untied, their pads on backwards, the curves on their sticks reversed, and no effing clue how to play the game of hockey. They skate around, generating little to no offense and constantly playing in a manner that forces me to actually count the number of players on the ice to make sure that I did not miss a penalty. I mean, my god! The Sabres were outshot 30-13 over the final two periods, and blew two consecutive two-on-one opportunities deep into the third frame. I’d like to sit in on a Sabres practice to see how they are trying to improve their offense, because I’m pretty sure I have a few mite-level youth hockey players who could help these guys out. SHOOT. THE. PUCK. Oof.
And just when you thought the Sabres were going to escape regulation with a win, they manage to lose a faceoff – surprise! – in their own zone, and we get this game-tying blast by Brian Campbell:
Come on! Florida didn’t even have to pull their goalie to tie the game. That’s unacceptable, and so back-breaking.
Fortunately, Ryan Miller came up huge in overtime and in the shootout, and Buffalo escapes the state of Florida with two wins, four points, and hopefully a boost in their morale and confidence. For all the doom and gloom talk a lot of us (myself included) have engaged in, the Sabres are only 4 points behind both Winnipeg and Philadelphia for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference. And they are still playing pretty terrible hockey! Get it together, Sabres: if you start playing good hockey this weekend, you will have earned yet another “better late than never” moments!
And speaking of those “better late than never” moments: at some point, before he retires, I better be able to say that it was better late
than never that Ryan Miller won the Stanley Cup. No team in the NHL is asking more from its goaltender this season, and for that reason alone, Ryan Miller deserves to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup at some point in his career. Not only was he solid, AGAIN, in the net, keeping the Sabres in a game they probably should have lost, AGAIN, but he played some of the smartest hockey I have seen in a while. Any chance he got (and I really only started noticing this in the second period, so I’m assuming this is when he began to do this) Miller held onto the puck, resulting in a stoppage in play and a faceoff in the Buffalo zone. Why would he possibly want to keep the puck on his end of the ice, especially when his team is godawful at faceoffs? Simple: stopping the play allowed Buffalo to change lines. Think about how many times this year (and even tonight, because it still happened) that Buffalo has been unable to clear the puck out of their zone. Their opponents cycle it around, forcing the Sabres to scramble, lose men, and get tired out. How many goals have the Sabres surrendered in this manner? Hard to say, but clearly Miller was having no part of that tonight, which is why he froze the puck as often as he could to allow his team to get a fresh set of legs out on the ice. Savvy, heads-up goaltending by Miller, for which I salute him and say that if he cannot win the Cup in Buffalo, Terry Pegula and Ted Balck need to do everything in their power to get this man on a Cup-contending team.
As good as it is to get the win, you still cannot feel too good about this team’s chances of really making a push to become relevant in the playoff hunt. Take away Gerbe’s huge individual performance and you have another poor showing by the offense of the Buffalo Sabres. Yes, Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville came up big in the shoot-out, but I would prefer they come up big in regulation so we don’t have to sweat out those close calls. Tyler Ennis is currently the most reliable Sabres scorer, but I still feel his line needs some help. Mikhail Grigorenko continues to be severely under-used – just 5:02 of ice time tonight, which I just cannot wrap my head around. Has he really played that terrible? Did he get injured, and I just missed that? Someone help me out here. I’ll double check for an injury, but if he is still healthy, the Sabres have to figure out a way to use this kid, because their offense needs all the help it can get.
The Sabres return home for a home game against the New Jersey Devils on Saturday, and then head into Madison Square Garden to confront the New York Rangers on Sunday. Can they build on their successful Florida road trip to keep the points a’coming? I don’t know, but at least now I have a little more reason to believe they can.