That’s all that stood between the Buffalo Sabres taking the New Jersey Devils into a shootout for the fourth consecutive time: 40 seconds.
After battling the Devils through sixty-four minutes of scoreless hockey, the Sabres lost a tough one as ex-Sabres player Steve Bernier beat Jhonas Enroth glove-side with a mere 40 seconds left in OT. The shot was a beauty – no fault getting beat on that one, Jhonas – and was one of the few times all night that a Sabres’ blueliner failed to get in front of a New Jersey player or outright block a shot when given the chance. I’m not laying any blame on Mark Pysyk for allowing Bernier to get that shot off; I’m simply pointing out that the Sabres’ defense was active and in great position pretty much all night long, which, along with the stellar play of Enroth, is why the Devils failed to find the back of the net until the extra frame.
It’s not just the Sabres’ defense that has been playing better lately, and this is where my “new-look” tag in the headline comes into focus; the Sabres in general have been playing more competitive, gritty hockey since Darcy Regier and Ron Rolston were told to clean out their desks and hop the next train out of Dodge. From Drew Stafford showing his physical side, to Ville Leino doing everything except putting the puck in the back of the net (and again, I’m not complaining – he’s been the victim of bad luck lately), to Buffalo’s d-men (and their forwards, too) blocking shots and being really active with their sticks and getting deflections on shots and passes, the Sabres have become the sort of team that now finds itself in a position to win games in the closing minutes of games.
One play in particular stood out for me tonight as an example of the sort of smart, fundamentally-sound hockey that the Sabres have been displaying more and more since Ted Nolan took over as coach. It was in the middle of the first period, and the Sabres had just turned the puck over. The Devils had a 2-on-1, which actually turned into a 4-on-2. Henrik Tallinder had gotten back on defense and was about to follow the puck behind the net when he realized there were two more New Jersey players behind him, joining the play. Instead of over-committing to chasing the puck, Tallinder hit the brakes and flicked his stick out at a centering pass, knocking it harmlessly into the air and denying the Devils a shot attempt on the play. It was a great individual effort in a game that was full of such moments (Zemgus Girgensons blocked shot in the third being another example), and is the sort of play that fills me with hope as we head into the third month of the season.
Now, as better as these new-look Sabres have been, they still exhibit a major fear of scoring. I mean, how else can we explain the paltry fifteen shots they managed to fire at opposing goaltender Cory Schneider tonight? I don’t want a team just firing terrible, contested shots willy nilly . . . but when you have three power plays in the second period, and can only manage two shots, you just are not shooting enough, my friends. Too often, Sabres players were passing up shots in order to make that extra pass in the hopes of getting the best shot, when in reality, the best shot during a power play is often a shot through traffic, or a rebound that results from a shot through traffic. As MSG’s Dan Dunleavy pointed out during the broadcast, the New Jersey Devils are the least penalized team in the NHL, so you have to jump on power plays when the Devils hand them to you. It’s a recurring theme when it comes to the Sabres: Shoot. The. Puck!
Overall, I am pleased with what I saw out of the Buffalo Sabres tonight. As staff writer Andrew Amerk pointed out in the comments section of last night’s Three Stars post, no fan with any hockey sense expect these Sabres to be “world-beaters,” but we do expect them to compete and act like they actually give a damn. That wasn’t the case in the month of October, but it seems to be the case now as we head into December, and I’m okay with that. As long as Buffalo plays like they did last night and tonight, I won’t have to explain to my eight year-old son that the team loses, “Because they suck.” Now I can tell him they lost, “Because the other team was better tonight.” Hey – moral victories count for something in my house!!!