Welcome to the first installment of my new weekly column, Sabre Tactics! Every weekend I will review and summarize the Buffalo Sabres games from the past week, provide highlights and stats on the progress of the team, and preview the games of the upcoming week. For easy reference, I have attached video links to key plays performed by Buffalo players.

This past week the Sabres attained 5 points out of a possible 8, going 2-1-1.  The two wins were at home, the regulation loss in Anaheim, and the shootout loss was in Ottawa. The hard earned points allow for the Sabres to claim the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. The club received some phenomenal goal-tending by Ryan Miller and witnessed a natural hat trick from Thomas Vanek.

Recap of this week’s action:

Sabres Ducks HockeySABRES vs DUCKS  2/2/09

For the Sabres, this game closed out a West Coast road trip that began before the All-Star break. Buffalo went 3-3 on the trip, dropping their final game to the Anaheim Ducks by a score of 3-2.

In his first game back from injury, Pat Kaleta scored the first goal of the contest, his 3rd of the season. The Sabres would be kept off the score board until the third period when team captain, Craig Rivet, finally got his first goal of the season. Backup Patrick Lalime had the start in net for Buffalo and played a solid game, stopping 34 shots. His best performance was in the second period when he faced 20 shots and only let in 1 goal, compliments of Chris Pronger. Across the ice, the Sabres offense only managed 23 shots on goal (a mere 6 in the second period), giving Duck’s goalie Jonas Miller an easy night. Buffalo had a power play opportunity and some chances in the closing minutes, but couldn’t get it done.

This game took place amidst lead color guy, Rick Jeanneret’s vacation. Without a doubt, it’s weird hearing a Sabres game called without his voice. I rue the day that he retires from calling Sabres games.

LEAFS vs SABRES  2/4/09

The Sabres rebounded in their first game home at HSBC Arena since January 17, blanking the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-0. Thomas Vanek stole the show with his 4th career natural hat trick (his 5th career hat trick), and Ryan Miller shined for Buffalo, getting his 5th shutout of the season and his 2nd in two games (2-0 against the Phoenix Coyotes). Maple Leafs Sabres HockeyTeppo Numminen also returned to the ice from a broken jaw injury.

The last time the Sabres played the Leafs in Buffalo, I was there with my dad. The Sabres lost 2-1 and the Loafs fans stuck it to us all the way to our cars. This time around I’m happy that lots of Leafs fans wasted their gas money to see their team get shredded. 

Toronto lost to the Florida Panthers the night before in OT, and their fatigue showed in this game. Tim Connolly got the scoring started in the first period with his 10th of season, and Drew Stafford put the Sabres up by two with his 14th. Stafford had a great night, also having an assist and a +3 rating. Thomas Vanek scored his 30th, 31st, and 32nd goal of the season, starting in the second period on the power play. He then he put the Sabres up 4-0 when Drew Stafford found him on the breakaway early in the third period. Less than four minutes later Vanek continued to dominate, earning his natural hat trick when Buffalo had the two man advantage. True to his style, he was camped out in front of the net, easily getting the puck by rookie goalie, Justin Pogge (who was playing in his 3rd NHL game). Buffalo hit him with 32 shots in the game, while Ryan Miller only had to turn aside 16 in the victory. 

Sabres color guy, Harry Neale, had the quote of the night while trying to remember the name of our goal tender: “Ryan Murray, Ryan Miller, Murray.” Hilarious. At this point, Vanek was 7th in the NHL in shooting percentage. Out of 164 shots on goal, he connected on 19.5% of them.

CANADIENS vs SABRES 2/6/09

Ryan Miller critics can no longer claim that the Buffalo goaltender hasn’t stolen one for his team. In the first period, Miller was blasted with 15 shots and didn’t let one of them in as the Buffalo Sabres went on to beat the Montreal Canadiens, 3-2.

Miller carried his team to the victory as the offense sputtered in this match-up (two of the Sabre goals came from defencemen). He stopped 35 shots and his shut out streak of 157:13 was ruined by Saku Koivu halfway through the second period. Miller’s previous streak was 149:12 earlier this season, and his great play hasn’t gone unnoticed by his teammates:

Canadiens Sabres Hockey“Ryan kept us in the game. It would have been two or three-nothing, and it would be tough to come back against a team like the Canadiens. … every night, he gives us a chance.” – Defenseman, Jaroslav Spacek

Spacek got things going for the Sabres, scoring just 27 seconds into the second period to put Buffalo up 1-0. This was his first game back after missing the previous two with a hip injury. The Candiens would respond with a goal from Saku Koivu, but less than three minutes later defenceman playing forward for the evening, Nathan Paetsch, scored his second of the year to put the Sabres back out in front 2-1. In 59 games last season Paetsch scored a mere 2 goals, but this season he has that many in only 19 games. Paetsch’s play has come under fire from head coach Lindy Ruff and the Buffalo fan base, as he took a demotion earlier in the year. Due to the teams defensive injuries, he’s back on the ice and it’s nice to see him respond in a positive way. In the third period, the red hot Tim Connolly scored the game winning goal, his 11th of the season, in dramatic fashion; While on his knees, he shot the puck off the backhand, putting away an opportunity off of a bad Montreal pass. 

Carey Price had a mediocre night as the Sabres put only 25 shots on him. Pat Kaleta had a replay worthy hit on defenceman Ryan O’Byrne. This was a huge win for the Sabres, as they currently trail the 4th place Canadiens by 2 points.

SABRES vs SENATORS  2/7/09

The Sabres played three games in four nights and it showed against the Ottawa Senators as they lost 3-2 in a shootout. Coming into this game, Ottawa ranked last in the league with 2.36 goals per game, and third last in the league overall. This victory was the first for their new head coach, Cory Clouston.

weber_0207091Despite overcoming a 2-0 deficit in the third and a decent turn out by Sabre fans, the club didn’t have enough gas in the tank for a win. Except for Ryan Miller (who stopped 26 shots before letting one in), Buffalo looked the worst in the second period, giving up 18 shots on goal and only managing 7 for themselves. Less than two minutes into the third period Adam Mair scored first for Buffalo, closing the gap to 2-1. Mair also had a nice hit on Jarkko Ruutu. Ruutu is a marked man to the Sabres after biting Buffalo tough guy, Andrew Peters on the thumb earlier this season. About five minutes later, Drew Stafford tied it up at 2 on the power play, his 15th of the season. The game went to a shootout, where Miller let in three off of the backhand. Ales Kotalik and Tim Connolly scored for Buffalo, while Drew Stafford was stopped. Derek Roy missed the net to lose it for the Sabres.

Once again, Miller kept the Sabres in the game making 40 saves to Elliot’s 28 saves for Ottawa. Miller made spectacular saves on Dany Heatley (Save 1Save 2) and Daniel Alfredsson. In the past, Jason Spezza has been a thorn in the Miller’s side, scoring 14 goals and 10 assist in 17 games since the 2006-2007 season, but Ryan stuffed him in the shootout.

Quick Hits

  • Top Duelers of the Week : #1 Ryan Miller   #2 Thomas Vanek   #3 Tim Connolly   Honorable Mention: Drew Stafford. See above.
  • Dull Sabre of the Week: Maxim Afinogenov. He’s been out 15 games and the Sabres have gone 9-5-1 in that span and Miller has had two shut outs. 
  • Sabres That Need Sharpening: Nathan Paetsch, Jochen Hecht, Jason Pominville. Hecht and Pominville are a combined -11. 
  • Broken Blades: Thomas Vanek/jaw/3-4 weeks, Paul Gaustad/upper body/day to day, Maxim Afinogenov/groin/IR, Henrik Tallinder/shoulder/IR, Andrej Sekera/ankle/IR.
  • In his last 15 games Ryan Miller is 11-3-1, and has allowed 2 or fewer goals ten times in that stretch.
  • Maple Leafs Sabres HockeyTim Connolly and Drew Stafford’s trade stock has never been higher. Connolly is injury prone and Stafford is prone to cool off for long stretches. Trading one of them now for a worthy goal scoring defenceman could prove to be beneficial for the club in the long run.
  • Marc-Andre Gragnani has been sent back down to the Portland Pirates.
  • A poll on espn.com asked if fighting should be banned in the NHL. Out of 23,975 votes 10% of the world says yes while an overwhelming 90% says no. The entire poll map was the color red, which represented ‘no’. Not a single state, country, or region on the planet had a majority vote that favors fighting being banned in the NHL. Kick. Ass.
  • ESPN gave a survey to NHL players, with one of the questions being, ‘Which team has the most disruptive fans?’ Buffalo and Chicago were tied at 4th with 4% of the player vote. Montreal was first with 13%, San Jose was second at 8%, and Calgary was third at 7%. Having 3% or less of the vote was Detroit, New York (Rangers), Edmonton, L.A., Vancouver, Minnesota, and Toronto. Five other teams had one vote.
  • The Sabres are 6-3-1 in their last 10 and have won 10 straight home games. 

The Final Word

The worst news of the week happened in the Ottawa game, and it isn’t that the Sabres lost. The news is far worse; Thomas Vanek is out 3-4 weeks after taking a puck to the face early in the game. The Sabres All-Star fractured his jaw and had successful surgery in Buffalo the following day. This happens at the worst time for Vanek as he has 52 points in 54 games, and is tied for 2nd in the league for goals scored.

This also happens at the worst time for his team.

The Sabres are clinging to 7th place in the Eastern Conference with 62 points. The New York Rangers are in 6th with 63 points, the Montreal Canadiens in 5th place with 64 points, and the Philadelphia Flyers have 65 points which puts them in 4th place. The New Jersey Devils (69 points), Washington Capitals (72), and Boston Bruins (85) occupy 3rd-1st place. In 8th place sit the Carolina Hurricanes (59) with the Florida Panthers (58 ) and the Pittsburgh Penguins (57) hungrily lurking on the outside looking in.  

Buffalo needs to find consistency in their play this week as they (again) face the Ottawa Senators and the San Jose Sharks. Ottawa is still in third last place in the league, where San Jose and ex-Sabre Mike Grier are the #1 team in the Western Conference.

Lets Go Buffalo!

Special thanks to nhl.com, espn.com, and wgr550.com for stats and facts.

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