New division, same challenge face Sabres under realignment

Funny how 12 months, an intense labor debate and relatively happy returns from fans can change how things work in the NHL.

When realignment was brought up last season, the NHLPA shot down the proposal citing a number of issues surrounding travel and questions about the playoff format. After burning a major portion of the season to a lockout, the NHL and PA put through a realignment plan for next year that was nearly identical to the one that was vetoed last season.

There are some significant changes to this plan compared to the last proposal. Both Detroit and Columbus come East, leaving the league with unbalanced conferences; a wild card option has been instituted to keep a competitive balance for the playoffs; lastly, the recently approved plan ensures every team will appear in every arena over the course of the year.

The Sabres will welcome three new division rivals to their yet-to-be-named division dubbed as “Division C” in the most recent league graphic illustrating the new conferences. In addition to their current Northeast Division rivals, the Sabres will welcome Florida, Tampa Bay and Detroit to their new division.

The Bolts and Panthers ended up being the black sheep of the entire realignment as they’re geographically hamstrung compared to the rest of the Eastern Conference. Short of splitting them between the two divisions (an unrealistic option), the NHL had limited options with their two Sunshine State franchises. Detroit (along with Columbus) made good on the reported promise made by the league to get them into the Eastern Conference, away from 10:00 starts and into a division with relatively limited travel.

Buffalo will play five games a year against division opponents, three games a year against the other Eastern Conference teams and 28 total against the West.

While the new division alignment doesn’t stack the odds against the Sabres, it doesn’t necessarily favor them either. Finding success within their division may not be as much of a challenge for the Sabres as remaining above those teams from the other Eastern division.

Continue reading

Double Minors: Another point escapes against Panthers

Regardless of how this season ends for the Sabres, the inability to score goals will be the keystone of this season’s issues.

Say what you will about the goaltending – yesterday’s wasn’t phenomenal – but continuing to miss on chances has been the biggest issue for the Sabres all season. Yesterday’s 3-2 shootout loss to Florida was just another perfect example.

Ryan Miller didn’t have a first period to remember, allowing goals on the first two shots of the game, but he locked things down from there. In fact, he was very strong in the shootout, despite getting the loss. Miller stole a whole bunch of games in February, it is time his steam responds in kind. He yielded two goals against Florida, that should still be enough to win.

Place the blame for this wasted point on the forwards. Seven shooters and only two dekes. Brad Boyes did beat Theodore on his attempt, but hit the post. The rest had very average attempts against a small goalie who would struggle with nearly any deke attempt.

It would appear that closing games out has suddenly become an issue for a team who desperately needs regulation or overtime wins over their last ten games. Add in the questionable mental toughness of the roster and the home stretch could end up being a long journey. Continue reading

The Morning Skate: Points at a preimum in East race

The Sabres last second screw up on Wednesday could end up being the game the team points to if they miss the playoffs by a point or two. Of course, the same was said about their third period meltdown against Nashville last season and the team managed to battle back from that massive letdown.

The fact is, Buffalo is in a tight predicament as the Washington Capitals continue to win games. Last night was an exception, as Winnipeg managed to pull out a 3-2 regulation victory. The win thrust the Jets a point ahead of Buffalo for the time being, but the sole focus of the season is now on the team occupying eighth.

As of now the Sabres need a win this evening in Florida. It would give them 77 points and temporarily place them one point out of eighth. Buffalo will be playing game number two without Tyler Myers and Nathan Gerbe. Missing their defensive skill was tough on the team against Colorado. On the bright side, The Buffalo News reports that Andrej Sekera will return this evening. Hopefully he can play effective minutes as the defensive corps looked thin without him in the lineup.

Highlighted Matchup

Vanek/Hodgson/Leino. Three players in the spotlight for similar but different reasons. Ville Leino has been roasted for not putting up major numbers this season, although he has been playing very good hockey lately. It is rumored that Thomas Vanek has been battling a shoulder injury and his offense has suffered because of it. Cody Hodgson showed some great offensive skills in his first few games, but no goals or assists has moved him from savior to bust with some of the more rational fans in Buffalo. I like the idea of this line, hopefully they instantly click.

Projected Goaltenders

BUF: Ryan Miller

FLA: Jose Theodore

Last Meeting

Sabres 2 – Panthers 1 OT, First Niagara Center, 12/9/2011

Double Minors: At long last, a win at home

Friday’s overtime victory certainly wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done. Two points on home ice is what everyone had been asking for. That is exactly what they got.

The Sabres and Panthers were content to let the other team roll through their system for the evening, yielding a low number of shots and fewer scoring chances. The Panthers, who beat Boston 2-0 the night before, didn’t force the issue during regulation. Their only two great chances came from Sabres turnovers. Their only goal came on a five-on-three resulting from a couple of borderline calls.

Buffalo couldn’t have generated more than five chances all night, two were goals. Both came on breakaways. Despite the lack of action, both goals were rink-long beauties.

Brayden McNabb pulled a Pominville on a harmless breakout but the rookie recovered well, took the puck off a Panther and kicked it to Tyler Ennis – all of this without a stick. Ennis connected with Drew Stafford who sent Derek Roy in alone. Jason Pominville’s winner came on a nifty feed from Paul Szczechura and Jordan Leopold.

The action between Roy’s first period tally and Pominville’s winner was certainly lacking. The Sabres did a good job bottling up a fatigued bunch and the Panthers were content with collapsing in zone and protecting the house.

Special teams were practically moot. The Sabres power play was disjointed – no surprise considering the number of skill players missing – they were 0-for-5 and could barely set up in the attacking zone, let alone generate chances. The penalty kill was sound, yielding the five-on-three goal was practically an inevitability given the time on both penalties. Although the special teams arrow pointed to the Panthers at the end of the day, it barely mattered given the way the contest played out.

  • Ryan Miller made 22 saves. Few were difficult tests, but it was a sound home effort. He had two beauties on the Panthers’ best opportunities; a partial breakaway in the first and a rebound chance on a three-on-two in the third. Good effort from your starter.
  • Marc-Andre Gragnani kept digging his grave with the F’N Center faithful. He had a few early gaffes, particularly on the power play, and looked tentative at many points. He had one bad turnover that was rang off the crossbar by Stephen Weiss. Gragnani is looking more like an AHLer than many of Buffalo’s call ups.
  • Paul Szczechura is one of those Matt Ellis-type players. He has some NHL tools, but there are attributes that hold him back. Regardless, he has three points in three games this year. I like what he brings to the table, definitely a serviceable extra forward.
  • Brayden McNabb was described as the best player on the ice for the Sabres by his coach. McNabb’s meteoric rise since his second-last year of junior is exciting. He is developing into a nasty force on the back-end and possesses the skating and puck skills to be a solid two-way threat. He looks like a player cast in the mold of Mike Weber/Robyn Regehr, just with more puck prowess.
  • It is easy to overlook Jordan Leopold, but he is a calming force on the ice. He plays such a simple game defensively and is beyond capable of contributing on the front-end. What a great signing he is turning into.
  • The walking woudned list may get a little longer. Corey Tropp missed most of the game after being labeled in the first period and Jochen Hecht missed the latter portion of the game after blocking a shot.
  • Something needs to be done about the Sabres’ top line. Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville have gone silent with Jochen Hecht as their center. If Lindy Ruff has to put Derek Roy between them, so be it. The top scorers from early in the season need to be shaken from their recent slumber.
  • Sadly the First Niagara Center resembled a library yet again last night. The music levels seemed low – which could have been a result of my seat location – and the choices were quite varied. The new intro video is fantastic, but the continued use of KISS 98.5 music choices is crowd killing. The use of  #Sabretunes is smart, but it needs to stop if it is the source of some of these questionable songs.

Three Stars

1. Jason Pominville

2. Derek Roy

3. Jason Garrison

NHL Links

Game Summary

Event Summary

The Morning Skate: Sabres still searching for solution on home ice

The Sabres seem to be slipping farther and farther into a coma on home ice. They managed to squander a 3-0 lead on Wednesday after taking every bit of momentum from the Flyers over the first 19:58.

Many point to the general lack of mental toughness on the Sabres roster. Although that is a difficult weakness to pinpoint, per say, many recent events point to anything but mental toughness as a major flaw with the roster. How that can be addressed is also a difficult task. A coaching change may yield some positive results, but eventually the same players will fall back to the same practices. While completely blowing up the team is out of the question, some transactions may prove effective.

Without turning a pregame story into a Steigerwaldian rumor-fest, some change is necessary on this roster. They proved that to be true on Wednesday and another loss tonight would push the needle further into the red.

Florida comes in tonight on the second half of a back-to-back set, they are not the same Panthers form years past. The two teams have split the season series thus far, but the Panthers are within striking distance of the top spot in the East. In fact, a win tonight would vault them to first place.

The Sabres, still clawing away in the sixth through ninth party, desperately need a good showing for themselves, the fans and their position in the standings. Buffalo has been lucky not to sink too far despite their inability to string together victories, they need to start a run of their own and it needs to start soon.

Highlighted Matchup

Special teams. Florida has gotten major contributions from Stephen Weiss and Brian Campbell this season. Both were somewhat afterthoughts in recent years, but have come on with increased minutes this season. Kevin Dineen has the Panthers power play clicking and the Sabres will need ot win the special teams battle in order to take two points.

Projected Goaltenders

BUF: Ryan Miller 13GP 6-6-1, 2.96 GAA, .907 SV%

FLA: Scott Clemmensen 3GP 3-0-0, 2.33 GAA, .916 SV%

Last Game

10/29/2011, First Niagara Center, Sabres 2 – Panthers 3

Ruff shakes up lines, Leino to center Vanek and Pominville

Lindy Ruff has decided that it is time for a change.  With a 1-2-0 record though the first three games of a five-game home stand; the Sabres were in need of a wake-up call.

The shake-up hit the top two lines as Luke Adam has been flipped for Ville Leino. Leino is back at center between the Sabres’ top two scorers. It looks as if Ruff wants Leino to play out of the funk he is in, definitely the best approach. While there is certainly a possibility to derail the early success Vanek and Pominville have had, Adam wasn’t a direct factor in their torrid start. If anything, Leino’s slickness will add an extra wrinkle to the already lethal wingers.

Adam will now skate alongside Derek Roy and Drew Stafford. Reports say Adam will be on the wing with the two veterans. This move won’t help or hurt a line that was largely in effective before Leino was moved to their wing. Adam has had a strong start to the season and has benefitted from his time with Vanek and Pominville. However, he wasn’t the only factor to their success. In fact, their continued success on the power play shows that they aren’t fully dependent on their center to produce.

Based on the limited ice time the Leino has been receiving, it is obvious Ruff hasn’t liked his game. Ruff is also aware that sitting a player on the bench won’t do much more than pile on the negative reinforcement. By placing Leino with Buffalo’s two best offensive weapons, Ruff has created the potential for Leino to utilize his tremendous playmaking ability with two players on hot streaks.

The key for Leino will be to make quicker decisions. It seems that he has been over handling the puck and thinking too long in regards to finding passing lanes or getting pucks to the net. If he is able to “simplify” his game there should be a marked improvement. Having two line mates who have been successful thus far is another added bonus. Continue reading

The Morning Skate: Sabres vs. Panthers

The Buffalo Sabres may still be searching for their first “60-minute” effort at home, but they are no longer searching for their first home win.

Lindy Ruff may have said it best when he said they needed to get a win for the new room and get that out of the way. It is always fun when Ruff shares those candid thoughts. The Sabres will be looking for home win number two this evening against the Florida Panthers.

The Sabres will have played half of their contests against the NHL’s two Florida teams after tonight. After dropping their home-and-home against Tampa Bay, getting two points tonight would give Buffalo an even split in the four games.

Buffalo has started to find a bit of scoring support outside of The Subway Line. Brad Boyes has goals in two-straight and the grind line of Gerbe, Gaustad and Kaleta have become productive in their own right. While Buffalo’s second scoring line of Leino, Roy and Stafford remain in a funk but will prove to be a dangerous compliment to Buffalo’s top line of Vanek, Adam and Pominville.

A lot is being made of the lack of production coming from Leino and his line mates. However, it still seems early to be labeling Leino as a bust and overpaid. He and his line mates likely need a game in which they get a goal or two to get things rolling.

The only evident change in the Panthers’ lineup will likely come between the pipes. Jose Theodore suffered a minor injury and Jacob Markstrom has filled in admirably. Markstrom is a blue-chip prospect who takes up a lot of net. Where Theodore is a smaller, athletic goaltender; Markstrom is a big body who will play a technical game similar to Henrik Lundqvist.

Some fans in Buffalo seem to think there is a goalie controversy brewing, if anything Jhonas Enroth is developing into a 1B goaltender to compliment Ryan Miller. While Enroth’s performance on Thursday was outstanding, it probably doesn’t merit a second-straight start. Suffice it to say, he will certainly see time next week.

Highlighted Matchup

Buffalo penalty kill vs. Florida power play. Florida’s power play has had a solid run to start the season. This is due, in large part, to the numerous new acquisitions they made in the offseason. The Sabres have done a great job killing penalties this season, it is likely the greatest strength of the team at this point. When the Panthers power play has clicked they have succeeded, the Sabres will be tasked with shutting the unit down.

Projected Goaltenders

BUF: Ryan Miller 7GP, 4-3-0, 2.01 GAA, .933% SV%

FAL: Jacob Markstrom 4GP, 2-2-0, 2.11 GAA, .945 SV%

Last Game BUF leads series 1-0-0

10/20/2011, BankAtlantic Center, Sabres 3 – Panthers 0