The Buffalo Sabres are in trouble. I know it. You know it. Everyone seems to know it. The team is down 2-0 in their series with the Ottawa Senators and history is not on their side. The Sabres are 0-16 all-time when losing the first two games of a best-of-seven series. But history has not seen these Sabres yet. This team jerked fans around so many times in the last two years that it’s impossible to ever count them out.
They’ve done it before, from Briere’s late goal on Friday to Drury’s miracle against the Rangers, back to that game in Boston on November 2 when the Sabres rallied back from a three goal deficit mid-way through the third period. They came back in stunning fashion in the Game One of the second round last year when Tim Connolly scored on Ray Emery with less than a minute remaining in regulation. There’re probably at least a dozen more comebacks that have all since blurred together. If anyone can pull this thing off, it’s this team. And if not? Well then, it’s been fun, but we’ll have to deal with the fact that the ride’s over.
“Over? Did you say ‘over?’ Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no! And it ain’t over now. ‘Cause when the goin’ gets tough…the tough get goin’! Who’s with me? Let’s go!” -Bluto Blutarsky, Animal House
Who will be the Sabres’ Bluto Blutarsky? Who’s going to step up and take over tonight and get the job done?
—Daniel Briere finally had his clutch moment. Although he’s averaging about a point a game, his play before Friday just simply wasn’t good enough. Being reunited with Jochen Hecht and Jason Pominville after some rocky games in Manhattan seemed to rejuvenate him and he definitely elevated his play in Game Two. Briere needs to continue to skate hard and create offensive opportunities if the Sabres are going to win four out of five games.
—Dainius Zubrus has been invisible since the Rangers series, where he played his best hockey in a Sabres uniform. He controlled the boards and was the hardest working Sabre on the ice. He took the body to Jaromir Jagr and frustrated the Rangers’ captain to the point where he hit Zubrus with a gloved punch. Was the agitator role out of character for Zubrus? Why not try those tactics on Daniel Alfredsson, who up until this year was the poster boy for playoff failure? Get inside his head and maybe he’ll regress to the choker we all know and love.
—Henrik Tallinder might just be the warrior the Sabres need. He took a cheap shot from Alfredsson in the first overtime of Game Two and was down on the ice for a few minutes, writhing in pain. He got up nursing his shoulder and returned later on to literally finish the game (he was on the ice for Joseph Corvo’s second overtime winner).
Now, Lindy Ruff says it’s possible that Tallinder may miss tonight’s game. Granted, he might legitimately be hurt. It was a brutal hit and, as Ruff said, it would probably warrant a suspension if it had happened the regular season. But come on, Hank! This is the playoffs and your team needs its best defenseman now more than ever. The blue line truly fell apart when he broke his arm last year. It’s frightening to think of what will happen if he’s out of the line-up now: more ice-time for the heart-attack pairing of Dmitri Kalinin and Teppo Numminen.
While they played well in the early parts of the post season, this Ottawa series has been most unkind to the Teppo-Tri duo. Kalinin can’t handle the puck and Numminen looks like he’s 70, or ten years older than he actually is. The Numminen turnover on the Game One winner was the worst pass a Sabres defenseman has made all season. These guys do anything in their power to avoid getting hit. It’s almost embarrassing to watch and anyone with high-blood pressure needs to turn away from the TV anytime they’re on the ice.
If Kalinin is put on the top penalty kill unit, then Dany Heatley must be licking his chops. With the man advantage, Heatley must have burned Kalinin 239,084 times during the regular season. Kalinin is a good defenseman, don’t get me wrong. He flourished when playing with Alexei Zhitnik on the number one pairing before the lock out, but since then, Tallinder and Brian Campbell have blown by him on the depth chart, and Nathan Paetsch might just be next. Kalinin is signed through next season but his time to prove himself as a top defender is running out.
And then there’s the obvious reason as to why Buffalo is down in this series: the power play has been horrendous. Atrocious. Downright terrible. It’s been bad all year, dating back to the team’s first game of the season. The Sabres went 0-9 with the man-advantage against Carolina in the season opener. So it’s not like this is a new problem. It’s all about execution and it’s a mystery as to why such skilled players can’t put the puck in. Maybe teams are just better penalty killers now against the Sabres system, taking away the low cross ice passes that used to be Buffalo’s bread and butter. But it’s mind-boggling to figure out how a team that scored 308 goals in the regular season can only go on to have only the 17th best power play in the league.
Now, the power play is only operating at a 12.7-percent success rate through 13 playoff games. Six teams that have already been eliminated sit above the Sabres in post-season power play percentage. Of teams remaining, Ottawa has the second best penalty killing unit, and if they continue to take penalties against the Sabres, and it seems reasonable to believe that they will only climb to the top of that list.
It’s also reasonable to believe that the Sabres can win this thing. Ruff has reminded his players that Carolina rallied from a 2-0 hole against Montreal last season. I know how that ended. You know how that ended. And the Sabres definitely remember how that ended. They feel that the Holy Grail was taken from them last year and this season has been sort of a revengeful sequel to what happened in 2006. It’s time for them to show that intensity and that desire they all say they have about winning it all on the ice. Ruff and general manager Darcy Regier have finally been given the tools to finish the job. It’s time they used them.
The Sabres have done things the hard way for two years now. The only thing to stop believing is that they’d take the easy route now.
KEYS TO TONIGHT’S GAME FOR THE SABRES (7 p.m. Versus and CBC)
- Skate, skate, skate. Play the full 60 minutes like the first period of Game Two. Don’t let up on the gas like in the second period on Friday, when Ottawa was able to climb back into the game.
- Just get the puck on net. Danny Briere may be the Cookie Monster, but Ray Emery is a Rebound Machine. He never seems to be in position for the second shot and if pucks just keep coming at him, he’ll eventually crack.
- Ryan Miller. ‘Nuff said.