House of Cards

by Ryan

If the end justifies the means, then all is forgiven when it comes to Drew Stafford. Somehow a hockey game that began with this:

Ended like this:

An improbable conclusion to an unusual game, and the sort of performance we haven’t seen from this team in quite some time. Over the last two seasons we have said time and time again that this hockey team can’t expect to win games like they did the first two years coming out of the lockout. The game had changed, their personnel had changed, and this just isn’t the same team anymore. It’s something I’ve heard from a lot of different people, but every so often they go out and win a game like this.

The team preview that never got published was going to talk about Dallas as an interesting case study. Injuries and shaky goaltending have turned a team two games away from the Finals last season into one ambling at the bottom of the Western Conference. A better team as of late, it was an opponent the Sabres would be capable of pushing around if they felt like it.

For the first half of the game it appeared they didn’t feel like doing much of anything. Buffalo was outclassed in all aspects of the game, outshot 12-5 in the first period and outscored 2-0 thanks to two Drew Stafford penalties. Chris Butler was exposed badly on the second goal, a breakaway pass from Modano setting up Ott for the power play goal. The second period brought the deficit to 3-0, and it looked like a replay of Wednesday night’s Blackhawks game if you squinted just right.

But all of a sudden, Buffalo fought back. The turning point was at the 4:47 mark of the second period, with Paul Gaustad getting a bit too aggressive around the Stars net. A few Stars take exception, and Goose does what role players do when his team needs a jump: he drops the gloves.

It was defending himself, of course, but anyone who knows the game understands what Gaustad’s trying to do there. The message is clear as day: I’m not giving up on this game. When a team trails 3-0, some fights happen out of frustration or to even some other sort of score. This one was a message to both teams that this game wasn’t over, and after the performance in Chicago from the night before that message had to get through to the bench.

Less than ten minutes later Paul Gaustad tips a point shot to put the Sabres on the board. A power play goal, it came just after a near miss with the first power play unit. Vanek sets up the chance and heads off on a change, with Gaustad replacing him as the man setting up the screen in front. It’s an immediate downgrade at the position, but Goose gets just enough of Rivet’s point shot to get it by Turco and suddenly Buffalo has a pulse.

Still, it’s a 3-1 game heading into the third. The Sabres faced the same deficit after two the night before, and less than twenty seconds into the third period Chicago would score to put the game away. Buffalo laid down and gave that game away, but this time looked to be different. They had controlled play for much of the second, and carried that into the third when Jochen Hecht scored just three minutes in.

It was a play just nice enough to get you thinking about a comeback, but 48 seconds later Brad Richards makes it 4-2. Bam. Time to lay down again, right? So many times this year that kind of goal has been the dagger, but Buffalo didn’t slow down there. The forecheck continued, the defense got more involved, and Miller kept them in the game. It all paid off when Goose gets in front again, cashing in just as the power play expired. He was everywhere tonight, and another big two goal game for Gaustad keeps this one within reach.

Before you can look at the scoreboard and check the clock, Jaro lets the shot go from the point.

Tie game.

MacArthur got a stick on it and started the forecheck, but credit Jaro for taking a shot when he had an open shooting lane. So many times over the last few games have the defenseman waited for bodies to clog up the lanes. The Sabres don’t necessarily need to take more point shots, they just need to take smarter, faster ones. You want bodies in front, but you want the puck to get there in the end. Both Jaro and Rivet created goals with smart shots from the point, and that was the big difference between Wednesday and Thursday night.

Another big difference? The Sabres kept pressing. They smelled blood in the water against a bad team, and instead of sitting back and waiting for overtime they kept the pressure on looking for the winner. It didn’t happen, but there was no letting up off the pedal once they found it. There is plenty to criticize about the first half of the hockey game, but once they got it going they did everything right.

Once it got to a shootout it was only a matter of time before Lindy found a guy who could put it in. The Stars’ shootout magic is gone, just like their powerhouse status in the West. Turco has struggled too much and Miller was just too good, stopping all but one shooter. Roy made a fantastic move to keep the Sabres alive, and Pominville got to be a hero on a big night. Two points on the road after thirty minutes of relative disaster.

It’s the kind of win that can be the turning point of a season, but it still shouldn’t be taken lightly. There were a lot of bad signs in that first half of the game, but the performance we saw in the second half was quite impressive. It can’t become habit, but it’s nice to see a flash of that ability every now and then from a team that used to make it look so ordinary. The difference is that two years ago a win like this was based on talent. This time around it’s a resiliency we haven’t seen enough of this year.

It could be just another flash in the pan, but the potential is there for it to be a pivot point in a season full of straight lines leading nowhere. This team needs to find its bearings, and last night a Goose may have knocked them back on course.