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Buffalo Sabres @ Carolina Hurricanes
NHL: CAROLINA 1, BUFFALO 2 (OT)
|A Season in
Review by J. Myrle Fuller
Red and Black - Blue and Gold - Black and White
The year was 2005. The league was coming out of a lockout that had cancelled the previous season, displacing players to Europe, the AHL and their couches. Now back together, the NHL had to make an impact and regain its status as a significant sport in the eyes of the American public. A new TV deal that put the league on sports newcomer OLN and the continuing idiocy of NBC to broadcast games on Saturday afternoon didn't help. What did help, though, was a series of new rules dubbed the "new NHL," including a salary cap, a revenue-sharing agreement, and rule changes that allowed two-line passes and reduced the "clutch-and-grab" activity that had slowed the pace of the game to a crawl prior to the lockout. Perhaps no team benefited more from the new changes than the Buffalo Sabres.
Entering the 2005-06 season, the Sabres had fallen on some hard times. The team had missed the playoffs every year since the 2001-02 season and finished last in the Northeast Division each of those years. Coming into this year, most pundits didn't expect any different, especially with the losses of James Patrick (retired), Alexei Zhitnik and Miroslav Satan (both to the New York Islanders). However, what the pundits didn't recognize was that the Sabres replaced and perhaps upgraded in each of those positions. Replacing the veteran defenseman Patrick was Teppo Numminen. Taking the place of Zhitnik was Toni Lydman, while to replace the erratic forward Satan, the team called up rookie prospect Thomas Vanek, a top 5 draft pick in the 2004 draft.
In addition to the straight-up replacements, several of the young players from Rochester found their way onto the Sabres roster throughout the season. Rookie goalie Ryan Miller, who fell flat on his face in 2003 when he first tried to make the team, stepped up in his second season and became the franchise goaltender, with backup Martin Biron providing stiff competition and solid reinforcement between the pipes. Paul Gaustad was matched with enforcer Andrew Peters and the gritty Adam Mair to form a punishing "fourth line." Several young forwards also made the cha-cha from Ro-cha-cha to Buffalo, including Derek Roy, Jason Pominville, Daniel Paille, and Jiri Novotny. On top of that, several of the players already on the team stepped up their game significantly. The most notable of these was Tim Connolly, a trade acquisition from the New York Islanders for Michael Peca several years ago. He had struggled much with poor play and injuries prior to this season but stepped up his game and finally lived up to his potential. Another player to step up his game was Maxim Afinogenov, who could already stake claim to "The Fastest Show on Ice" with his raw skills, but matured into the team's leading scorer this year. Jay McKee cemented his role as one of the league's premier shot-blocking defensemen. The team was led by co-captains Daniel Briere and Chris Drury, as well as winger Jochen Hecht.
With the new rules in place and the young players set, the Buffalo Sabres came out swinging, exploding to a 6-2 start in their first 8 games. A rough stretch ensued in late October and early November, losing 7 of the next 9, but the Sabres would storm back, going an astonishing 18-2-2 to finish out 2005. The one fly in the ointment for the Sabres, however, was the Ottawa Senators. In the first three games the Sabres faced against Ottawa, they were obliterated 5-0, 10-4, and 6-1. These performances cost the Sabres franchise a shot at the top overall seed in the NHL. Nevertheless, the Sabres stood at the end of 2005 with a very respectable record and a strong second in the Eastern Conference.
Going into 2006, an interesting subplot arose from the Sabres season. Sabres goalie Ryan Miller was expected to be among the three goaltenders selected by Team USA. He unfortunately wasn't and was snubbed in favor of Rick DiPietro, Robert Esche and John Grahame, all three of whom Miller was ahead statistically and head-to-head up to that point. With that, Miller went on fire. In the months of January and February, Miller averaged 2.23 goals against, including a showdown with former Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek in Ottawa where Miller got a 2-1 shootout win over the Senators to get the proverbial monkey off the Sabres' back.
After the Olympic break, the team was a story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. On the Jekyll side, the Sabres won 8 straight games beginning with their second game in March. Then came Hyde, losing 8 of 9 with the only win being a squeaker over lowly Boston in Buffalo. The one thing that, other than what appeared to be a regression into the poor officiating styles of old, was different between the two streaks was the absence of Jochen Hecht. He returned against the nemesis Toronto Maple Leafs on April 3, and Leafs forward Darcy Tucker took a cheap shot at Hecht, reinjuring him and forcing him out of play for the rest of the regular season. Instead of skidding back into the losing streak, the Sabres took the Tucker shot and turned it into motivation. The team would only lose once for the rest of the season, finishing at a record of 52-24-6 with 110 points, setting team records for wins and points (although this year's absence of ties would affect that).
One thing that the Sabres had above all else was teamwork. It seemed as though, with a few exceptions, that any Joe Schmok could step in and win games for the Sabres. A player such as Briere would go down with an injury and someone like Roy would step in and fill the void. Once again, this team lacked a legitimate 40-goal scorer, but with incredible depth of 20- to 30-goal scorers, one wasn't necessary. It was a running joke that the first line and the fourth line of the Sabres were indistinguishable of each other. The other notable strength was the special teams. The Sabres knew how to capitalize on their opponents' penalties and transformed themselves into one of the most lethal power-play units in the league (3rd overall at 21.4%) and stone-walled penalty killers (2nd overall at 86.6%). Ironically, despite the Sabres' strong penalty-killing skills, defense was not a particularly strong aspect of this team. While Jay McKee was a top-notch shot blocker, and players Henrik Tallinder, Dmitri Kalinin, Numminen and Lydman were respectable but not spectacular, beyond that it was a question mark. Brian Campbell was more frequently an offensive-minded defenseman and was used on the power play frequently, and Rory Fitzpatrick was largely a disappointment. To make matters worse, their top defensive prospects, Nathan Paetsch and Doug Janik, struggled with injuries in Rochester and were unavailable. The result was that Miller and Biron had to stand on their heads at times, and neither would notch a shutout until their final game of the season respectively. General Manager Darcy Regier was criticized heavily for his trademark inactivity at the trade deadline, not going after at least a depth defenseman. Defensive problems withstanding, the Sabres were able to make up for it in their special teams work, which was integral to the Sabres' success this year.
The Buffalo Sabres are returning to the playoffs for the first time since the Dominik Hasek era. Their last appearance was in 2001 against the Pittsburgh Penguins (my, how far THEY'VE fallen in the past few years-- other than Sidney Crosby, they've got nothing). They will face the Philadelphia Flyers in a best-of-seven series beginning Saturday, April 22. The team has called up 10 players, Novotny and a healthy Janik will dress, 8 others (Paetsch, Paille, Jeff Jillson, Chris Thorburn, Michael Leighton, Michael Ryan, Clarke McArthur, and Mark Mancari) are the Sabres' prospects from the Rochester Americans, whose season is over. Jillson was with the Sabres in 2004.
Looking ahead to the playoffs... I see no reason other than complete collapse that the Sabres will not beat anyone below them in the standings, including Philadelphia. Looking into later rounds, either Ottawa and Carolina would be a competitive series (although Ottawa has a notorious history of choking in the postseason). New Jersey scares me just because of their style; it plays directly into the Sabres' weaknesses, but New Jersey may not make it past the Rangers...
...that's just the Eastern Conference, though... what about the Stanley Cup??
Honestly, I'm not sure ANYONE can bring down the Detroit Red Wings in a 7-game series with the way they've played this year. If there's an upset, though (and stranger things have happened), Buffalo should be able to win against any of the other opponents; however, the West Coast jet lag could seriously be a problem. Because of these issues, I don't see the Sabres winning the Cup, but don't rule them out.
These "awards" merely reflect my opinion and have no bearing. THEY WERE DECIDED AT THE END OF THE REGULAR SEASON, SO DON'T COME CRYING TO ME ABOUT HOW TAYLOR PYATT'S BEEN GREAT THIS POSTSEASON. I KNOW HE HAS; HE REALLY IS SURPRISING ME.
Team MVP: Chris Drury. The team's leading goal scorer has cemented himself as leader of this franchise and remains one of Darcy Regier's greatest successes. Honorable mention to Jochen Hecht.
Offensive Player of the Year: Maxim Afinogenov, an incredible talent who led the team in points. Honorable mention to Daniel Briere, who, had he not been injured, could have easily had a 40-goal season.
Defensive Player of the Year: Jay McKee, for his ability to block shots and act as a second goalie to Miller or Biron.
Rookie of the Year: Jason Pominville. A scoring threat since he was called up from Rochester and versatile enough that some suggested he could play defense. Paul Gaustad was an extremely close second. (Vanek had a few bright spots but fell off in his performance later in the season.)
Comeback Player of the Year: Tim Connolly. This guy was left for dead two years ago after concussions and poor play. He proved his doubters wrong this year. Let's hope it's not an aberration.
Bust of the Year: Taylor Pyatt. How long do we wait until we realize that this kid just doesn't have it? He's less talented than Connolly and has dealt with fewer of the injuries.
Goaltending: Inconsistent at times, and it took aggravatingly long to finally get a shutout, but it was very good for the most part. B.
Offense: Finally sparked after several years of stagnance. Could still use a bona fide 40-goal scorer, though. A-.
Defense: With a few exceptions, it wasn't a phenomenal defense, but good enough to get the job done. C+.
Special teams: 3rd on the PP and 2nd in the PK. 'Nuff said. A+!
Coaching: Lindy Ruff knows how to coach, and that's one thing that has remained constant throughout these years. Through thick and thin, Ruff has kept this team competitive. A.
Front office: Darcy Regier is hesitant to bring in free agents or negotiate trades because he has built the team largely from within, but his biggest success stories-- Briere, Drury, and Connolly-- were products of trades or free agency. Regier should learn from this in the future because a season like this won't come around all the time. C.
Photo credits: NHL logo: Google Image Search. Sabres 'demon goat' and Daniel Briere: Yahoo! Image Search. Jay McKee: Buffalo News file photo. Blue-and-gold logo: Logoserver.com.
Buffalo Sabres © 2006 Western New York Hockey, LLC. NHL and all affiliated © 2006 National Hockey League Enterprises, LP.