Sabres on their way after two wins

Well that was a fun couple of days, no? A 5-2 beat down of the Flyers followed by a near textbook road win against the Leafs and the Sabres have gotten off on the right foot for this shortened 2013 season.

Sunday’s opener was about as sloppy as expected, as the Sabres and Flyers plodded through forty minutes of fairly average hockey before the Sabres third period explosion put the game away. The one takeaway from that opener was seeing the rust on both teams. Even with a game under their belt from the day before, the Flyers still looked sluggish in many ways along with their hosts who were playing their first game of the season.

The Sabres did do plenty of things right, however. They engaged physically from the opening faceoff, scored the game’s first goal and maintained composure after falling behind in the second period. Drew Stafford’s unexpected fight was pointed to as the spark that drove the Sabres into the third period and their scoring surge in the final frame got the job done.

Defensively there was plenty to improve upon in front of a strong outing from Ryan Miller – who benefitted from two disallowed goals. Special teams was a bright spot as the powerplay was clicking and the penalty kill did great work outside of allowing Claude Giroux to wire a one-time home for Philly’s second goal of the game. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

The Morning Skate: Another biggest game of the year

Yet again Sabres fans will be touting tonight’s game as the biggest of the season. In a way, they’re correct. However, they’re also putting too much weight on the singular aspect of tonight’s game against the Flyers.

Yes, if the Sabres do not win this evening they can all but kiss their playoff hopes goodbye. However, if they win, they will be playing in another biggest game of the year on Saturday. See how silly this is?

What made me realize this is the accusation that many Sabres players seem to receive regarding their status as big game players. Don’t confuse this with mental toughness. I’m just talking about those who are criticized for not showing up when their team needs it the most. Whether you’re talking about Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Ryan Miller or anyone else you wish to pick on. Saying these guys don’t show up when it counts is a load of crap. Every game is relative to the ones that come before and after it. There isn’t necessarily one biggest game, so to speak.

Look at it this way. Had Ryan Miller not gone on his torrid streak, the Sabres would be talking draft picks right now. The same goes for last week against the Caps. That was the biggest game of the season, to that point. Miller performed and the Sabres rolled. Derek Roy was the hero on Tuesday but was chastised much of the year for not stepping up when his team needed him most. I’m not saying that criticism of Roy isn’t warranted at points, the same goes for Miller and other players. Had the Sabres shown up last weekend, these final two games wouldn’t matter as much. So which game matters the most?

What you need to realize is that bitching about a player’s big game-ness is a futile task. Hockey is a team sport and is played in a marathon setting, not a sprint. The collectiveness of the whole effort is what matters most, not necessarily one player’s actions in one game.

Now, allow me to contradict myself. Tonight’s game is massive, there is no getting around that. The Sabres remain in do-or-die mode as they try to sneak into the playoffs.  They face a tough task playing a Flyers team that has owned them for the whole season and are still battling for home ice in the first round. The only thing to Buffalo’s advantage is that the Penguins have distanced themselves from the fifth-place Flyers by a bit and Ilya Bryzgalov is just returning from injury.

The Sabres have been a defensive train wreck these last three games and they desperately need to remedy this if they hope to skate with Philly. The Flyers have a potent attack that will dice the Sabres if they don’t play a responsible game.

Buffalo has been scoring goals lately, getting to Bryzgalov early will be important. He was yanked against the Rangers and will still have some rust to shake off tonight. If he is unsettled, the Sabres will have a glorious chance at getting two points.

Highlighted Matchup

Sabres’ defense vs. Flyers’ big guns. Philly boasts a number of potent scorers; Buffalo’s blueline has been depleted and has given up some glorious chances the past three nights. The Sabres need to be physical and engage the Flyers early to prevent scoring chances. Too often the Sabres have played soft on entries and offensive cycles which has allowed time and space for their opponents. Unless that is remedied it will be a long night for Ryan Miller.

Projected Goaltenders

BUF: Ryan Miller

PHI: Ilya Bryzgalov

Last Meeting

Sabres 2 – Flyers 7, Wells Fargo Center, 2/16/2012

The Morning Skate: Sabres nearing brink as road test in Philly looms

The Buffalo Sabres season is nearing critical mass as they travel to Philadelphia tonight. With only a few losses to give, the Sabres have dropped two-straight and are getting closer to “Fail for Nail” than the playoffs.

While there is still a chance that the Sabres could climb out of the hole they sit in, it is far more likely that they end up with a lottery pick for this year’s draft. That isn’t to say that fans should lose hope, but don’t expect the moon based on the team’s current situation.

Sadly, the season has been lost. Whether it was truly the injuries, poor chemistry or a stale message; the 2011-12 campaign will likely go down as one of waste. There have been some bright spots and room for improvement remains.

What is important to remember for the remainder of the year is to not give up in the team, but to hope for achievable goals. If Darcy Regier makes a few trades at the deadline and the roster begins to trend in the right direction, all will not be lost.

The same goes for every game from here on out. There is no reason not to hope for a victory every night, that is why you’re a fan. Tonight’s game is a winnable one, believe it or not. If this collection of players can finally find the net on a consistent basis, they will win some games. Hope for goals and hope for wins, that may be all that is left at this point.

Highlighted Matchup

Buffalo’s second line. I’m not sure exactly who will comprise this trio against Philly. I’m hopeful that Tyler Ennis will be centering Thomas Vanek and Drew Stafford. But that’s just me. Regardless, there needs to be another scoring threat beyond Jason Pominville and Vanek. If moving Vanek alongside Ennis and another winger is what it takes, so be it. The Sabres need scoring and it needs to come from someone other than the players wearing #29 and #26.

Projected Goaltenders

BUF: Jhonas Enroth

PHI: Sergei Bobrovsky

Last Meeting

Sabres 4 – Flyers 5, First Niagara Center, 12/7/2011

The Morning Skate: Flyers present stiff test as homestand begins

The Sabres’ current run of games – in which they play 12 of 15 at home – has not been too kind to them. Saturday’s victory in Nashville was just their second in their last five games.

Buffalo closes this stretch with a five-game homestand, it will be crucial for the Sabres to finish this run with a high points percentage. They certainly won’t get many breaks, beginning tonight. The Flyers are in town for their second, and final, visit to the First Niagara Crypt Center just over a month removed from when they came and exerted their will on the Sabres early in November.

All accounts say James vanRiemsdyk will be back in the lineup for Philly. However, they will be missing their captain as Chris Pronger sits with a bum knee. No matter, on paper the Flyers have the make up of a team that can push the Sabres around. If Buffalo is to start slow again, it will be a very long night. If they expect to get by on less than 20 shots on goal, they have another thing coming.

This very well may serve as a statement game for the Sabres. If they can give the same effort they did against Boston in the “atonement game” – well at least their first period effort – they will skate right with the Flyers. If they come out flat, like they have so many times this season, they will get booed out of the building.

Highlighted Matchup

The Sabres youth vs. the Flyers youth. Both teams have an abundance of young talent. JVR and Matt Read are talented and Claude Giroux is scary good. The Sabres youth, unfortunately is of a different brand. The rash of injuries to this lineup have forced numerous call ups and there is a serious lack of experience throughout the Buffalo line up. The Sabres will need their rookies to play above themselves in order to stay competitive tonight.

Projected Goaltenders

BUF: Ryan Miller 12GP 6-6-0, 2.78 GAA, .912 SV%

PHI: Ilya Bryzgalov 18GP 10-5-2, 2.83 GAA, .900 SV%

Last Game

11/2/11, First Niagara Center, Sabres 2 – Flyers 3

Mike Weber inserted into lineup, will skate with Regehr

In addition to Ville Leino’s shift to center on Buffalo’s top line, the Sabres will have another lineup change this evening against Philadelphia.

Mike Weber will indeed be inserted in the Sabres’ lineup and will skate with Robyn Regehr, this according to Bill Hoppe. Tyler Myers will skate with Andrej Sekera, reuniting a pair that saw quite a bit of time with one another last season. Marc-Andre Gragnani will be the defenseman who is scratched this evening.

Inserting Weber was likely an easy choice. Not only was Marc-Andre Gragnani not getting results on the power play – the main reason for which he was dressed – but he was also just terrible in his own zone. While Weber won’t man a power play point he will bring plenty of stability to the Buffalo blueline. That stability will hopefully cut down the massive number of shots the Sabres have been allowing lately.

While the issue of allowing countless shots on goal has plagued the Sabres, the only potential solution to the problem – establishing a more responsible in-zone presence – hadn’t been addressed. Dressing Weber addresses the problem. Having Weber skate with the veteran keeps Regehr on a true lockdown pair but adds even more toughness with the addition of Weber.

Moving Myers from the top pairing is somewhat perplexing only because he has been good in his zone with Regehr. While he has had some errant outlet passes, his overall defensive game has been sound. Perhaps Ruff saw too much defense and not enough offense from Myers. Ruff has mentioned he wants to see more offense out of Myers, perhaps in a role where he is “carrying” the pairing Myers will be more apt to lug the puck. That isn’t to say Sekera is chopped liver – he has actually been Buffalo’s best defenseman for most of the year – but based on Myers style of play and their chemistry last year, Sekera may serve as the best partner for Myers for the time being.

How long these pairs last is anyone’s guess. They could remain the same for much of the season, or be changed after one period, that is just how Lindy Ruff operates. Regardless, by limiting the number of offense-first players on the blueline, the Sabres should see positive results from the move.

The Morning Skate: Sabres vs. Flyers

The Buffalo Sabres have their first chance to exact revenge on the Philadelphia Flyers after their first-round playoff loss last season.

Both teams have significantly different rosters but still have a familiar core that will remember the seven-game epic that dispatched the Sabres and left the Flyers gasping for air before their second-round series. Ville Leino will play against his former team for the first time and Ilya Bryzgalov will give the new Flyers media rules a test after his 5-1 win against Carolina.

The Sabres have had a rough week and a half after busting out of the gates with a 5-1 record. Buffalo is 1-3 over their last four games and it appears that their struggles on home ice have carried over from last season.

Still, they are currently in the Eastern Conference’s top eight and are in a three-way tie with the Flyers and Panthers with 13 points. Of course, it is very early to be discussing the playoff picture.

Both the Sabres and Flyers will be searching to gain some stability with this game. Ryan Miller had a sizzling start that matched his team’s success. After a couple so-so outings, Miller is in need of a bounce back game. The same can be said for Philadelphia’s big money goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. After signing a monster deal in the offseason, Bryzgalov’s numbers aren’t matching those going into his bank account. However, he had a fine showing against the Hurricanes and has had plenty of rest entering this game.

Lindy Ruff made some interesting line changes prior to a grueling work out on Monday. He followed with a special teams specific practice yesterday. The additional preparation time should put Buffalo in good shape for a strong showing tonight. If nothing else they should come out trying to prove a point after getting bagged by their coach.

Highlighted Matchup

Ryan Miller vs. Ilya Bryzgalov. There are going to be plenty of things to watch for tonight, but the showdown between the big money goalies will be intriguing. Despite the fact that a goaltender’s performance is 100% independent from that of his counterpart, the many critics of both will be watching with a keen eye. If one plays with a better edge expect his team to win.

Projected Goaltenders

BUF: Ryan Miller 8GP, 4-4-0, 2.14 GAA, .930 SV%

PHI: Ilya Bryzgalov 9GP, 4-4-1, 3.16 GAA, .880 SV%

What To Watch For

1. Ville Leino has not only inherited Tim Connolly’s responsibilities, he also inherited his critics. The prized free agent hasn’t found his groove through ten games and multiple line changes. His newest role is centering Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville. This will be an all-or-nothing venture for the playmaking Finn. I would expect him to succeed with the team’s two best scoring weapons. Keep an eye on Subway Line 2.0.

2. The sixth defenseman. It would appear that Mike Weber is poised to make his season debut. Who better to play him against than a muck and grind team like Philly? Weber will take the place of Marc-Andre Gragnani, who was replaced by Derek Roy on the top power play unit yesterday. It would be shocking if Weber doesn’t play after than move by Ruff. Gragnani wasn’t contributing as a power play specialist and was awful in his zone, seems like an easy decision.

3. Luke Adam, Derek Roy and Drew Stafford may quickly click or the latter two may continue to struggle. Adam is coming off the Sabres’ top line in hopes of sparking the two veterans. If this shuffle doesn’t prove effective – plus the Leino experiment – the Sabres could be in serious trouble offensively.

2010-11 Season Series BUF 2-2-0

10/26/2010, Wachovia Center, Sabres 3 – Flyers 6

1/11/2011, HSBC Arena, Sabres 2 – Flyers 5

3/5/2011, Wachovia Center, Sabres 5 – Flyers 3

4/8/2011, HSBC Arena, Sabres 4 – 3 OT