Last game of the year, can’t hold anything back now

If there is one common trend that I constantly hear Sabres fans complain about, it is that the Sabres are mentally weak and don’t show up for big games. Whether it is a team complaint, a criticism of Ryan Miller or Thomas Vanek or even Lindy Ruff; fans (and some media members) like to point to mental fragility and the lack of that big game mentality with this roster.

Now, I am not debating the mental toughness – or lack thereof – of the Buffalo Sabres’ roster. In fact, it is something I have felt has been an issue since Chris Drury departed in 2007. The lack of mental toughness is surely a culprit for a number of losses over the past few seasons and the early playoff exits that have plagued the team recently.

However, it is the concept of showing up for big games or when it matters that most seem to misunderstand. The reason this is misunderstood is that every game is a big game. Every shift and every save is equally important. In fact, the only “must win” games are those when you’re on the verge of elimination or victory (see: playoffs). Otherwise, every other game is of equal importance. (Even the playoff example is flawed because one player could be the reason a series was extended to six or seven games.)

This is probably a difficult concept to grasp, especially for those who like to point at poor performances of many players as evidence for their assumed shortcomings. The fact of the matter is that there are truly only a handful of games that could be considered more or less important than any other game during the year. Aside from the games that come down to the wire at the end of the year (and playoff games), each game carries the same level of importance. There is a reason every game is worth two points.

The difference of a game’s perceived importance is due to how much a team has succeeded or struggled during the year. Tonight’s game six is the biggest game of the year for the Devils, just as it is for the Kings. However, tonight’s game wouldn’t be happening if the Devils hadn’t won on Saturday, their last biggest game of the year.

I’d like to tie in the simplest example to prove my point. Since goaltenders are easily the most scrutinized players in hockey, they often are easily targeted as showing up or disappearing in big games. To connect that to Sabres Nation would be the opinion that Ryan Miller doesn’t show up in big games. The fact of the matter is that you always need your goaltender, star player and team to show up on a consistent basis. So, while the evidence is ultimately flawed, the argument is valid.

When the Sabres lost back-to-back games to Pittsburgh and Toronto, a lot of players were accused of not showing up for the pair of big games. When, in fact, those games wouldn’t have even mattered had the team not gone off like gangbusters in the weeks leading up to those games. That is where my point resides. A team may suffer a loss in a game they desperately need, but more often than not, previous performances – good and bad – are the reason that was a big game to begin with. Here is the logic of the argument: Which game was more important? The game the team lost, or the game(s) which led the team to that point?

Not to be a total Miller apologist, but many fans accused him of not showing up in the clutch on a regular basis. However, the Sabres would be picking in the lottery without his play from January 1 until the end of the year. Long story short, Miller (and the Sabres) would not have had any important games late in March without a string of clutch performances from their goaltender (and the team). For the record, this can be applied to anyone on the roster. Miller just happens to be the easiest example to use.

Yes, Ryan Miller had two poor outings against the Leafs and Pens. He was solid as hell against the Flyers despite losing that last game. Once again, that game wouldn’t have mattered had Miller not stood on his head in the previous months. These results are also a reflection of the team. The Sabres were very average against the Flyers and lost, but would never have been in that situation had they not gutted out that long win streak in the early spring.

At the end of the day they remain equally important. It is a classic example of the chicken and the egg. Without a bunch of wins in February, the Sabres March and April schedule would have been pointless. To that point, the games in late March and into April were must wins if the team hoped to make the playoffs. But one could not have been reached without the other and that is what people need to begin to realize.

So the next time you think that the Sabres have blown another big game take into account what it took to put the team into that situation. Understand that hockey is a big picture game, no matter how small the focus a particular fan, broadcaster or writer may take. As a goaltender, your next save is the most important; for a player, your next shift is your biggest; for a team, your next game is the biggest one of the season.

 

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