In larger cities there is an excess of distractions for the average citizen to escape the monotony of a daily routine. For the residents of Buffalo, New York as the Bills and Sabres go, so does the demeanor of an entire city.
The idea that the two local professional sports franchises have such an impact on the city’s mood is more a testament to the passion of the fans rather than a knock on the other aspects of entertainment the city has to offer.
On a Monday afternoon after a Bills win there is a noticeable collective pep in the city’s step. A loss however, is almost certainly accompanied by the foggy drudgery of a devastating hangover, regardless of tailgating participation. The same can be said for the Sabres. With every winning streak the city buzzes with excitement, while consecutive losses resonate in the grumbles of groves of couch coaches.
Each team has entered this season with a completely different set of expectations. Their early successes have stoked the admiration of an entire city. So, as the city hangs over from a Bills loss and eagerly awaits another Sunday boost, the Sabres will attempt to rectify an inconsistent beginning to the 2011-2012 campaign.
It has been a tale of two teams so far for the blue and gold. When they’re on, they play an inspired team style that consists of quick puck movement complimentary to excellent team speed. From the defensive end through the neutral zone there is a high-energy sense of urgency which has netted some of the season’s most exciting goals off the rush.
On off nights they play a slower paced more individual brand of hockey. Over-handling the puck on the breakout and through the neutral zone has been a major concern early on. When the transition goes smoothly and passes soar tape to tape they often look unstoppable, but they have also been guilty of forcing pucks up the middle and lackadaisical effort. These lapses of focus have caused gads of turnovers, which have more often than not ended up behind Ryan Miller.
The Sabres have shown the ability to dominate the game in all three phases, but the issues of consistency have marred the team’s record, especially at home where they are 3-4-0. Despite not having played a complete 60 minutes of hockey yet, the team still sits 9-5-0, one point off the Northeastern Division leading Maple Leafs (9-5-1).
Although they rank in the NHL’s top ten, averaging 2.9 goals per game, the offense has come in spurts. Top-line wingers Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville have led the way with 18 points each. The duo has far and away been the Sabres most consistent players and as long as they keep putting up these numbers, they will give the team a chance to win night in and night out.
The inconsistency has come throughout the team’s depth. Aside from Luke Adam (11 points) and Nathan Gerbe (9 points), the next two high scorers among the Sabres attack, they have been a silent bunch.
It has been disappointing to watch the second and third line get outworked night in and night out by call-up Matt Ellis. Although he is a man playing for his right to stick with the big club, the rest of the regulars could take a page from Ellis’ Book of Consistent Effort.
The good news is; when they have lit the lamp, it has been through a variety of attacks. They can score pretty and ugly, off a low cycle or off the rush, shots from the point or bang in the rebounds, but early on the timing hasn’t quite begun to click.
One guy who has seemed to at least take in a few chapters of the Ellis’ novel is Derek Roy. Coming off a quad injury dating back to last season, Roy started slowly, but has picked up his offensive production with 5 points in the last 5 games. In order to stay hot, the shifty center must continue to move his feet and find the loose change around the net on the power play.
Christian Ehrhoff (9 points) has led the charge in defensive scoring, despite some defensive struggles.
Ryan Miller v. Jhonas Enroth has controversially dominated Sabres talk around Buffalo. Miller is clearly the number one goaltender, but Enroth has made such a strong impression early on that even coach Lindy Ruff has dubbed him “One-b,” rather than the team’s backup. Many fans have clamored for the team to stick with the hot hand, but it only takes one effort from Miller like he had in Montreal two weeks ago and he’s right back in favorable graces.
In all fairness to Miller, Enroth has been the better goaltender thus far, but has also gotten much more team support in his starts. It seems like the defense plays a little tighter, clearing rebounds and being aware of their defensive assignments. Miller on the other hand has seen an onslaught of odd man rushes and point blank opportunities early in his last two starts against Winnipeg and Philadelphia.
When a goal is scored the focus is almost always immediately on the goaltender because he is the last line of defense, but the opponents do have to get past five other players first.
Enter Tyler Myers, who has been arguably as inconsistent as Ryan Miller, but because he isn’t the one in front of the net when the puck hits the twine, so he doesn’t face nearly the amount of scrutiny. He has looked lost and slow at times in his own end, but has shown a talent offensively as well. It is a possibility that he is feeling the stresses of signing a big contract in the offseason, but look for Myers to step his play up as the season continues, as he did last season.
Each NHL team considers their three pairs of defensemen as a part of a unit. A 6-man group that has varying responsibilities depending on the head coaches defensive philosophy. Lindy Ruff for instance, likes to have his defense aggressive on the rush offensively, but also holds them accountable for a zone style defensive system when their opponents are on the attack. This system is predicated on knowing where the opposition likes to attack from and where your defensive partner and assisting forwards will be positioned to counter balance said attack.
Each particular defenseman has a unique skill set which is used in specific matchups to help magnify their strengths and exploit the opponent’s weaknesses. As the season progresses, the team will continue to gel defensively as each defender becomes more comfortable with his pairing and where he’s supposed to be.
In the case of offseason addition Christian Ehrhoff, there may still be a process of finding a comfort level in the system. His career plus-69 shows that he can play a solid defensive game, but a meager minus-5 is very telling of how he has begun a 10-year deal with the Sabres.
Steady veteran Robyn Regher took a few games to get acclimated to playing in his new digs, but since the first five games, he has been the Sabres most consistent defenseman, delivering some bone jarring hits worthy of the Carubba Collision along the way.
Sabres Special Teams
The aspect of the team that has made up for many of the even strength gaffs so far is the special teams. The Sabres power play ranks 9th overall (20.4%) in the NHL and the penalty kill ranks 2nd (92%). For the power play it all starts up top, Gragnani and Ehrhoff on one unit, Myers and Roy on the other, they have been getting pucks to the net where the forwards can crash and bang home rebounds.
On the kill there has been a great team mentality of blocking shots. They even created some offense on the man-disadvantage against Winnipeg. Pominville pick-pocketed the puck from a Jets defenseman and sent it to Gaustad in the neutral zone, then joined him 2-on-1. When the defenseman inched closer to Goose as he entered the zone #28 pulled off a spin-o-rama. The puck flew across the hashes to a crashing Pominville, who potted the beautiful pass behind Ondrej Pavelec, for by far the prettiest goal of the year.