Sabres first five will come quickly

With five games over the next seven games, the Sabres will know exactly what they can come to expect from the condensed 2013 NHL schedule. Rather than scrambling to provide specific previews for each and every game this season, it is more likely that you will see a look at each week of the season as it begins.

The Sabres open at home today against the Flyers and follow with games against the Leafs, Hurricanes (twice) and Capitals. Here are a few things to keep an eye on as the Sabres and NHL hockey returns.

Sabres vs. Flyers – Jan 20

Today’s home opener will likely be full of conflicting feelings. There will be fans that boo when the festivities begin, but it seems more likely that fans in Buffalo will welcome the game back with open arms. If the incredibly impressive ticket sales surge over the past week is any indication, fans in Buffalo are more than ready to watch hockey again.

This game also marks the NHL debut for Mikhail Grigorenko. Grigorenko spent his abbreviated training camp skating between Steve Ott and Ville Leino and that isn’t likely to change. Although Leino was reported to be nursing a slight injury, expect this line to spend some time together before a decision is made on the young Russian center. Grigroenko is quite the talent and hopefully will blossom into the game breaking talent he was projected as a draft prospect last spring. Many fans will probably expect him to turn into Sidney Crosby right off the bat, but that is unrealistic. If Grigorenko proves capable of contending night-in and night-out and can make the players around him better, he will stick around for the year. Should he record a few points, great. But I don’t need to see a goal and two assists in his very first contest either.

Buffalo’s defensive pairings will also be interesting to track. Particularly Alex Sulzer. If he continues his impressive play from last spring he will be a revelation for this shortened season. However, with TJ Brennan and Mike Weber also battling for ice time – not to mention Adam Pardy – Sulzer’s play will likely be monitored closely.

The Flyers are without Chris Pronger and picked up Luke Schenn from the Leafs. How Schenn and his brother Brayden perform this season will help to power this team. Keep an eye on those two today as the game progresses.

Sabres @ Maple Leafs – Jan 21

Both the Sabres and Leafs are teams that could just as easily finish in a respectable playoff position as finish last in the Northeast Division. The Leafs will live and die with their goaltending this season along with their everlasting quest for a number one center.

  • Keep an eye on James van Riemsdyk and how he gels with the likes of Phil Kessel, Joffery Lupul, Tyler Bozak and the Leafs other scoring forwards. If Toronto is capable of finding chemistry and production up front, they’ll be a difficult team to play against. However, if their struggles from last year persist, they will again be on the outside looking in.
  • Monday’s game will mark game two of five in Grigorenko watch. The young center will need to continue to impress as his five-game tryout rolls along.
  • There is a chance that Lindy Ruff rotates his defensemen at times this year to search for the right pairings. I wouldn’t be surprised if players like Sulzer, Weber, Brennan and maybe even Andrej Sekera are part of a platoon of players who fill the fifth and sixth role based on what Ruff is looking for on a particular night.
  • Chalk this as start number two for Ryan Miller. A no brainer this early on.

Sabres vs. Hurricanes – Jan 24 & 25

In a season in which back-to-back games will be the norm, the Sabres will wipe two dates out against the Canes quite quickly. Carolina reloaded in a big way over the summer by acquiring Jordan Staal and signing Alex Semin. The Canes are a young team with some impressive talent in the form of Jeff Skinner and Justin Faulk. They’re typical mainstays are still around too. Eric and Jordan Staal should form an impressive pair of centers for the Canes and if Cam Ward has a strong year, they will contend for a playoff spot.

  • The bad blood against the Canes is still there from 2006. The Canes fans seem to dislike the Sabres and their fans more than those who root for the Sabres, but it is still pretty much a mutual level of hate. Regardless, it will be nice for the Sabres to play a quasi-home game down in Raleigh before hosting Carolina the next night.
  • The Canes front end should have plenty of firepower this season. I’m going to be interested to see how Lindy Ruff chooses to match his lines against teams who roll out a number of impressive scorers each night. This is something to keep an eye on against the Flyers on opening day, too.
  • If Lindy Ruff has a gameplan with his goaltenders, then Jhonas Enroth will get one of these two games. That is just my gut. However, nothing is a surprise when it comes to Ruff and his goaltenders.

Sabres @ Capitals – Jan 27

For some reason a lot of media members don’t think all that much of the Capitals heading into this season. It seems like they expect Alex Ovechkin to continue to be a very good player, not a great one. Questions still surround their goaltenders and depth scoring could potentially be an issue for Washington.

  • Count me as someone who still has the Caps penciled into the top of the Southeast. Their top line still has impressive firepower, they have a solid core of defensemen and their goaltending tandem should be solid. Adam Oates should also do well in his first gig as a head coach.
  • With an offensive-minded coach, Ovechkin is expected to flourish. That wouldn’t be much of a surprise. The key for Ovechkin lately has seemed to be motivation over opportunity. Should the Great Eight find that fire again he will be one of the league’s premier talents.
  • Since this is the first week of the year, I don’t expect to see much fatigue from many teams. But these five-in-seven stretches will certainly be grueling on every team. This could be a game in which things get sloppy quickly.
  • This is game five of Grigorenko Watch. As Tyler Myers nine-game run came to a close he wowed in his final few “auditions”. This game will be one that many will draw evidence from to determine if Grigorenko should stick for the remainder of the season.

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