It’s hard to say what was most impressive about Saturday night’s win against Phoenix. Ryan Miller got a shutout, Tim Connolly continued to impress, and the defense held despite yet another injury. Miller is and should be the story of the game, but what I’m looking for in these games is something a bit different. Mainly, signs that this team is ready to make a playoff run. On Saturday I saw a team do a lot of things right, but the most important thing they did was get back up off the mat.
If you want a recap of the first period, the pictures say it all:
It may be a bit of hyperbole, but the Sabres got it taken to them in that first 20 minutes. They were outshot 15-6 and were physically outplayed all over the ice. If not for a big period from Ryan Miller the game would be well out of reach before the first intermission, but he continued his great play and kept this team alive. Despite all the lost battles and big hits, Buffalo was still in a game on the road.
I think the moment happened when Vanek was run into that goalpost. At the time I said that the Sabres needed to fight back, that they can’t let that happen to their best player with no retaliation. If things went a bit differently I may still be upset that a Coyote didn’t taste metal on Saturday, but Buffalo got back in an even more impressive way.
Tim Connolly fought back, but he did it by paying the price to change the scoreboard. For all the times we’ve seen a Sabre avoid confrontation and play it safe, watching Tim Connolly crash the net to poke that puck in is exactly what you want to see. The top line may have been knocked around during that first period, but they had no fear on Saturday night. That’s a confidence you love seeing from your team, and against a physical opponent you need that confidence to overcome that threat. This Buffalo Sabres team will never physically dominate a playoff game, but they can’t be intimidated by a team when they get there.
Let’s face it, when you see Derek Roy sacrifice his body to get that pass to Paille you know things are going well. Roy has taken a lot of flak for taking the easy way out, but to see two guys like Timmy and Derek make plays like that has to make you feel good about where the Sabres are headed. For all the hits and injuries they faced, Buffalo didn’t back down at all.
Saturday we saw the Sabres beat a playoff team by doing all the little things right. Miller was excellent, the defense came through when it mattered, and the penalty kill was fantastic. Phoenix was missing some critical elements, but the Sabres blueline was hurting once again. It was a good effort despite a lot of things going against them, and seeing that kind of resiliency out of the Sabres is a great sign for the stretch run.
Everything seemed to go Buffalo’s way on Saturday. The teams around them lost, their goaltender continues to play out of his skull, and the offense came through when it mattered most. On the road trip cited as so important by many, Buffalo is starting to give us reason to think an extended season isn’t impossible after all.
There’s a long way to go, but you have to feel good about the road we’re on so far.