While the temperature in Western New York gradually cools, the Buffalo Sabres are cranking up the thermostat down at the newly renovated First Niagara Center.
After a flawless trip across the pond that netted the team four points and two gritty wins over tough Western Conference opponents, the Sabres used a week off to prepare for a home contest versus Carolina, Friday, only to hit the road to Pittsburgh, Saturday.
Throughout Friday night a few trends from the European trip seemed to establish themselves as reality. Immediately apparent, is the legitimacy of Luke Adam as the Sabres first line axis, between the recently announced captain Jason Pominville and the team’s leading scorer Thomas Vanek.
Not only is ‘Lucky Luke’ playing a solid two way game even strength, but he is proving his worth on the first power play as a serious threat to bury and a playmaker to boot.
It is a direct benefit to Adam, that Vanek has been consistently playing with the sort of grit and intensity that has been his Achilles heel in the past. Although he is the team’s most consistent scorer over the past two seasons, he has stepped up his aggressiveness so far, which has created lanes to the net and caused havoc once he has gotten his big body in there.
Adam isn’t the only early surprise for the Sabres as former first line wing and center tandem; Derek Roy and Drew Stafford are now paired up with Nathan Gerbe on the third line. Despite the change in roles seeming like a demotion, each line has been evenly distributed by head coach Lindy Ruff so it plays out more like a 1a-1b-1c situation.
The effect of more depth within the top three lines will only result in greater competition and offensive unrest. That unrest will begin this week when Jochen Hecht becomes available to step back into the lineup. However, Lindy has said that he won’t be plugged in immediately; rather he will have to wait until there is a player in the lineup struggling consistently. Unfortunately for Hecht this is a move that is best for the team and it may be a tough pill to swallow, especially with the legitimate chance this team has to contend.
As of right now, the two players that should feel Hecht’s shadow looming over their shoulder are; Brad Boyes and Patrick Kaleta. It may seem like nitpicking, but Lindy Ruff will have a very small margin for error should this team not produce W’s and with Hecht ready to step in, Boyes or Kaleta could be out of a spot.
Another place on the depth chart that deserves attention is the defensive situation. Mike Weber should be in the line up over Andrej Sekera, plain and simple. Despite Sekera’s solid play throughout the young season, Weber brings a net front presence and steady stay at home game that better compliments the young, offensively talented Marc-Andre Gragnani.
Gragnani will remain in the lineup because of his knack for finding open outlets on the power play and his puck moving ability on the rush. Unfortunately, Sekera brings a similar skill set that is being overplayed by Lindy with both of them on the same D-pair. Lindy’s trust in his vastly improved goaltending situation probably has something to do with giving up a little more on the back end for a little more offensive skill, but Weber led this D-core in plus-minus last season and will provide a solid presence if given the chance.
Top of the Crease:
Depth is never a bad thing, especially between the pipes. This has been a position that the Sabres struggled to find depth over the past few seasons. Jonas Enroth has certainly shored up that need and he backed up that sentiment Saturday night in Pittsburgh. Making sound save after sound save in key moments, Enroth earned his first victory of the season as first star of the game.
While watching the contest at a local establishment, there was a contingency of Sabres fans clamoring for the replacement of Miller. I have heard this sentiment echoed before here in Buffalo and find it to be absolutely asinine. Many pundits claim he’s ‘overrated,’ ‘over-paid’ and even while watching Enroth stand on his head in the game Saturday I heard one Miller detractor state; “Miller is a backup goalie at best.”
While it is often difficult for me to hold my tongue in the presence of such ignorance, I did so in order to bring my beef to the web. I am of the opinion that Miller is a top 10 goaltender in the National Hockey League. He has the size, athleticism, and vision needed to continually contend for a Vezina trophy year after year. Does he have the propensity to allow the occasional softy? Of course, no one is perfect – Miller included. However, his sound technique often makes the kind of goaltending he provides look unspectacular. While Enroth’s shorter stature makes him more of a scrambler that Dominik Hasek was.
Although the Hasek name and brand is a fan favorite here in Buffalo, make no mistake, Miller is the catalyst that this team is built around and without him the Sabres value as a contender diminishes significantly. Enroth may provide the Sabres with an outstanding handcuff and daily practice competitor to Miller, but he has yet to prove his longevity in the league.
With that rant out of the way, the Sabres are off to Montreal for a divisional battle with the Canadiens tonight, who have struggled out to a 1-2-1 start. They’re not a team to be taken lightly however, as last season the two teams split the season series 3-3 with the Sabres taking two of their three wins via the shootout.