Climbing the Ladder

by Ryan

I’m struggling with what I want to say about last night’s game. I think we all know how important that win was, and what it does for the Sabres in the standings. Still, who was the star of the show? What was the main story? In a 3-2 victory, what was the one thing people want to talk about?

I suppose Ryan Miller is one of those things. His shutout streak ended last night, but if not for 15 saves in the first period Buffalo wouldn’t have had a chance to win this game. Miller has been so good for so long this season it’s hard to keep talking about him every night. Still, it should be noted that what we are watching is the Ryan Miller we may see for the next five years. Is anyone else excited about that?

Another thing worth mentioning is Lindy Ruff. I know we may somehow go down as “the blog that wanted to fire Lindy Ruff”, but that’s pretty far from the case. Since late December, Ruff has done a great job coaching this team, and I give him all the credit in the world for what we’ve seen. I’ll expand upon this sometime next week, but putting Nathan Paetsch on the 4th line is just another example of Lindy understanding his team and what it’s capable of.

Rob Ray nailed it in the broadcast last night. The Ellis/Mair/Paetsch line was fantastic and provided a big boost to the team in the wake of Gaustad’s injury. They worked the boards, got pucks on the net, and gave the top two lines a break by matching up with Montreal’s best for a few shifts. They even got a goal, the result of great work off the faceoff and behind the net. You could see it on Nathan’s face, he was so happy to finally be able to contribute. If you can get that out of your seventh defenseman, you’re in pretty good shape.

Overall I thought the defense played well again. Butler got himself into trouble in the corner on the Koivu goal, but he and Weber had a pretty strong game when it all was over. I think being able to trust the younger guys helps players like Teppo and Jaro because they don’t have to do too much to soon. When players are coming back from injury they need to work at their own pace, and if you don’t have to cover 3/4th of the ice to compensate for a rookie it’s hard to get comfortable out there.

We keep looking at the Sabres as a damaged team earning wins, but they are starting to get healthy as time goes on. Slowly they are turning into a team getting near full strength, and I think the effort we’ve seen from them reflects that. Even with Goose out there was no let up on the way they hit, go to the boards, or defend their teammates. Kaleta had another good game, and Hecht played relatively well in Gaustad’s spot. He won’t bring as much grit to that line, but if he gets going with MacArthur they could be a decent third scoring threat.

Which brings us to the main scoring threat these days: Tim Connolly.

What I really wanted to talk about was Tim Connolly, but I know he’s not the whole story. I know everyone’s swooning over Timmy these days, but I have to say I’ve been so impressed with his game since returning from injury. Let’s forget his goal right now and talk about a play that yielded no result.

Vanek/Connolly/Stafford is on the ice, and Stafford attacks the puck carrier to the right of the net. Another Hab comes over to support the D, so Vanek collapses down to take him out. The puck is bounced around, and slides into open ice as Connolly wheels in from the other side of the net. The right defenseman for Buffalo moves into the slot, and as Connolly curls around he slides a no-look pass right into his wheelhouse. The shot goes wide.

But here’s what got me going about this play: Connolly never looks into the slot. I watched this a half dozen times on replay, Connolly looks through the net for a brief second to watch the D move down from the point. After that he looks right at the point along the half-wall, freezing every Hab on the ice and moving them all to the imaginary point man. Before anyone can react the shot is already hitting the glass, not even the camera man able to react properly.

I was watching this with someone who mentioned a great point: this play is exactly what makes Tim Connolly a liability. With vision like that, Connolly put himself in a position to get blindsided by a defender that catches on. If his fake doesn’t work, he reads the play to the slot and finishes his check, probably sending him to the IR and ending his most recent run of brilliance. Connolly has always said he will sacrifice his body to make plays, and this is the kind of magic he has in mind. It didn’t work and it didn’t get him hurt, but this is a great example of what Timmy does and the potential consequences.

Still, there’s reason to say it’s all worth it. Mainly, the goal he did score. When that puck bounced off the side of the net, there was no doubt in my mind that Connolly would bury it. That’s the kind of faith I have in Timmy when he’s healthy, and what makes him different from so many players on this team. If Hecht scores on that breakaway he had earlier I would be pleasantly surprised, but Connolly’s goal is just what he does.

What he’s doing is finally giving us a contract year, and I couldn’t be happier.