If ever there was a hockey team that needed to play hockey, in order to give its fans something to cheer for in the wake of a horrific act, it was the Boston Bruins.
If ever there was a hockey team that needed points, in a desperate attempt to keep its slim hopes of qualifying for the postseason alive, it was the Buffalo Sabres.
And if ever there was a time for the sport of hockey, in my eyes the most exciting sport on the planet to watch, to provide this country with a reason to sit down and forget about all of our problems for two and a half hours, it was tonight.
With everything that happened this week, and with so many playoff implications on the line, tonight’s game between the visiting Buffalo Sabres and the hometown heroes, the Boston Bruins, was the perfect storm of the current NHL season. And holy cow, did we all get a game for the ages because of it. From the national anthem being sung by the sellout crowd at TD Garden, to the teams sharing the ice following an exciting and hard-fought contest, this was one of those games that will occupy a special place in my memories. I hope you got a chance to share in the magic, everyone! Now – allow me to get down to business!
Buffalo’s 3-2 shootout victory pulls the Sabres within 2 points of the Winnipeg Jets and the New York Rangers for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. That’s good news, but in a strange way tonight’s game also amounts to a bit of a tease for the fans of the blue and gold, in that it perfectly illustrates how good the Sabres COULD be, while demonstrating the sort of problems that continue to keep the Sabres from establishing the consistency required to TRULY be a Stanley Cup-contending team. Allow me to illustrate.
Recurring Sabres’ problem: inability to clear the puck out of its zone.
When the game began, I thought that, if Buffalo wanted to actually win, it was critical that the Sabres score first, in order to take the overly-amped crowd out of the game and take the wind out of the Bruins’ sails. Of course, the opposite happened: Boston struck early, due to yet another instance of Buffalo being overwhelmed by their opponent’s aggressive forecheck. Watch:
I don’t coach hockey, but I feel like I could tour the country giving video clinics on how NOT to handle the forecheck, using only examples from the Sabres’ season. Notice how both defensemen are along the wall, leaving a forward, Tyler Ennis, to cover the front of the net. Notice the end result – Ennis having little clue how to defend the space in front of Miller, as he totally misplays the centering pass and allows Daniel Paille to score. That’s not Ennis’ fault; he was right to fill the void that had been left by one of his D-men. Bottom line, though, is that Ennis is not the guy you want defending the front of the net. The defense was out of position, a tune we have been singing all year long.
Recurring Sabres’ advantage: “Ryan Miller has been strong to keep this from getting out of control”
The quotation above comes courtesy of Mike Emrick, who said those words in the first period, and continued to sing Miller’s praises as the game went on. For better or for worse, the Buffalo Sabres have relied on strong goaltending to carry them all season long. The team that has given up the most shots on goal in the NHL surrendered 43 tonight – 43! Yet, the final score shows us that Boston only managed to score twice. One look at the video below goes a long way toward explaining how this is even possible:
Two scoring opportunities for the Bruins in the span of 5 seconds, and Miller calmly snuffs both of them out. That was how Miller played all game long, and it’s the sort of position that Miller and Jhonas Enroth have found themselves in in practically every game they have played. I know their numbers may not show it, but Miler and Enroth have to be one of the top 3 goalie one-two punches in the NHL right now; they are simply carrying this team through game after game.
Recurring Sabres’ problem: the power play
When the Sabres drew their first “penalty,” a terrible tripping call against Brad Marchand that was simply just a case of Brian Flynn (I believe) stepping on the puck and losing his balance, Mike Emrick threw this line at the viewers: “Best penalty kill versus the worst power play.” Well, when you put it like that . . . there was little surprise when the Sabres failed to score on that power play. Lo and behold, however, the power play of the Sabres came up huge tonight, producing both of their regulation goals, including the one that tied the game with just 26.6 seconds left in the game:
Steve Ott started it all by coming up with a huge win in the faceoff circle, and then Thomas Vanek, who had already scored a goal, threw one in front of the net that was deflected by Cody Hodgson for his 14th goal of the season. The secret to Buffalo’s power play success tonight? You’ll never believe it: they got shots on goal! Yep – mystery solved, finally. Great news tonight . . . but go back and examine that slew of one-goal games that the Sabres have lost this year, and ask yourself where this team would be right now if it could generate a consistent power play. Probably not in tenth place.
Recurring Sabres’ advantage: “The kids are doing well for Buffalo.”
More words of wisdom spoken by the master, Mike Emrick. Buffalo’s young core of players constitutes the future of this franchise. Whether they make the playoffs this year or not, fans of the blue and gold have to be excited by the potential being displayed by players such as Hodgson, Brian Flynn, Kevin Porter, Mark Pysyk, Marcus Foligno, and Chad Ruhwedel. With all of the emotions and hype leading into tonight’s game, I would have been okay if a veteran-laden team had gone into Boston and left with a loss, much less a team with so many young players. To fight the Bruins long enough to pull out a shootout victory – are you kidding me? Add in Ssbres-hopefuls such as Mikhail Grigorenko, Johan Larsson, Joel Armia, and Zemgus Girgensons, and the future is very, very bright in Buffalo.
And a huge “Thank you!” has to be given to the much-maligned, overpaid and under-performing Drew Stafford, who has given us a lot to complain about this season, but came up absolutely huge in the shootout after Vanek and Nathan Gerbe had already been stoned. Drewwwwwwwwwww!!!!!!!
Folks, games like the one I watched tonight are the reason why I love watching and writing about hockey. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did, and please, share your comments below!