Coming off the first official road trip of the season, the Sabres’ brass has to be pleased with the effort and results the team produced over the four game span.
Taking 6-of-8 points on the road is outstanding, but combined with the recent trip to Europe (where the Sabres were technically the home team in Finland) to kickoff the season, the Sabres have taken 10-of-12 possible points all away from the friendly confines of ‘Hockey Heaven.’
Sitting one point behind the division leading Maple Leafs shouldn’t leave Sabres faithful too high, nor too low, especially considering the Leafs played 5-of-7 games in the comfort of the Air Canada Centre in downtown Toronto.
Jhonas Enroth got the Sabres road trip rolling last Saturday, turning in a stellar performance against the Atlantic Division leading Penguins (6-2-2). Although coach Lindy Ruff wanted to give the backup another start at some point throughout the trip, starting goalie Ryan Miller took the ball in Montreal (1-5-2) on Tuesday and ran like the Bills Fred Jackson off the edge.
Miller surrendered the first goal of the game at 2:08 of the second period, but remained flawless for his next 122 minutes of hockey. After stealing a 3-1 win against Les Habitants with a 40 save performance, Miller amassed 53 saves en route to a 3-0 shutout win in Sunshine, Florida versus a streaky Panthers (5-3-0) club.
He then kept a potent Lightning attack off the board until Pavel Kubina snapped a quick point shot through a screen that found the back of the twine early in the second period, Saturday.
A major concerning factor from the Tampa Bay contest came on Tyler Ennis’ second shift. He went hard to the net on the rush stopping just shy of the top of the crease. Back-checking Lightning forward Ryan Malone came in late and knocked Ennis off balance, sending him awkwardly into Mathieu Garon’s goal, wrenching his ankle in the process.
When Ennis could not return, Ville Leino moved into his spot on the wing next to Roy and Stafford. Despite the line showing an affinity for possessing the puck in the offensive zone, they couldn’t create much traffic towards the net.
A little over eight minutes into the third period the Sabres seemed to be rushing out of their defensive zone with numbers, but Leino held onto the puck too long and Vincent Lecavalier took advantage.
Lecavalier slid the puck to Martin St. Louis who hung behind the Sabres rushing defense. All alone, St. Louis made a silky move in tight on Miller to put the Lightning up 2-0.
Unfortunately for Miller, the Sabres offense couldn’t figure out how to beat Garon and with less than two minutes to play defenseman, Victor Hedman iced the Sabres chance at a late comeback with an empty netter.
Leino wasn’t the only one who looked pedestrian in the loss to the Lightning, the Sabres power play went 0-for-3. Looking sloppy on the offensive zone entry and setting up in-zone.
Aside from the top line of Vanek-Adam-Pominville, the offense is clearly still gelling and Jochen Hecht’s chance to chisel his way into the line-up is growing stronger.
On defense the Sabres have been solid, but hardly spectacular. Regher seems to be finding his comfort zone, while Myers has been lack luster thus far. Ehrhoff is proving he is an offensive dynamo, but slightly unreliable in the defensive end. Gragnani and Leopold have been quietly consistent as playmakers on the point and in their own end.
One Sabres defenseman who has continued his hot play is Andrej Sekera, who in the first seven games has recorded two assists and is plus-6 which is good for top-10 in the NHL. Sekera has continued to prove why he deserves to be in the lineup over defensive stalwart Mike Weber.
The Sabres kickoff a stretch where they play 7-of-8 at First Niagara Center tonight against Tampa Bay. Tyler Ennis will be out of the lineup with that ailing ankle. Matt Ellis will take his roster spot and skate on the fourth line with Cody McCormick and Brad Boyes.
Look for McCormick and Paul ‘Goose’ Gaustad to get some retribution on Malone and the Lightning tonight when the puck drops at 7:30pm.
Since the Sabres tumultuously let Danny Briere and Chris Drury leave via free-agency, the first line has lacked a significant punch. Derek Roy, Drew Stafford and Thomas Vanek have been equally responsible for the lack of a bona-fide star upfront.
Inconsistency has marred the talented group in years past, leaving many Sabres faithful to wonder if the team should look outside of the organization to get a forward that can be a constant offensive force.
Instead, Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff have stuck to their “develop from within” philosophy and simply mixed up the components around Vanek on the top line. Now paired with Jason Pominville and rookie pivot Luke Adam, Vanek has found a comfortable environment where he’s looked anything but inconsistent.
Vanek has always been a 5-tool player, which he put on display at HSBC Arena in 2003 as a Minnesota Golden Gopher, where he won a NCAA National Championship and the Frozen Four’s Most Outstanding Player Award.
Vanek is a heavy clapper with innate hockey sense, unteachable size, awkwardly quick hands and deceptive speed. Those traits convinced the Sabres to choose him 5th overall in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.
Throughout his pro career Vanek has had tiffs with head coach, Lindy Ruff and shown flashes of greatness, only to disappear for games at a time. His draft status combined with a 7-year $50 million contract put him under the critical microscope of fans and franchise alike.
So far this season, Vanek has lived up to the expectations and put this team on his back. As Vanek and Miller go, so do the 2011-2012 Buffalo Sabres. If Vanek continues to bring the consistent intensity that complements his toolbox as the season progresses, he can finally become the superstar the Sabres drafted him to be in 2003.