Don’t ask why or how, but a few days ago I had lunch with Rick Jeanneret. It wasn’t just the two of us, but more like 40 people asking dopey questions with me sitting there drinking a bottle of water. No matter, Rick was as lively as ever and telling stories while we all sat there, just happy to be around.
What we learned that day was that, much like a lot of people in this area, his favorite Sabres team of all time was the 05-06 team that lost to Carolina. Jeanneret described how much fun it was to watch that team go from zero expectations to the Eastern Conference Finals. He said that every day was an adventure, and as a fans of that team I think we all agree with that.
It’s no surprise, then, that the best story he told involves that team. Rick said he and Jim Lorenz were sitting at the bar of the hotel in Carolina and Lindy Ruff gets off the elevator. It’s the night before Game Seven, and they were surprised to see him. He looks drained, and takes a seat at the bar next to the two. He says that he just has to laugh because he doesn’t know what to do anymore: they just lost McKee.
It’s funny that Vogl mentioned something similar on Sabres Edge yesterday, because I’ve been thinking about that story ever since. The absurdity of that season never fails to amaze me. I’ve never seen a team so snake bitten when it came to injuries, let alone all at the same position. If there is a benchmark for crazy injury situations and heartbreaking losses, that’s it.
The point is that we’re nowhere near that this season. Miller’s injury is huge, and so far Vanek’s jaw seems to have had a much greater impact on this team offensively; but we’re far from the tipping point of absurdity that dooms a season. There will be struggles and a few tough games, but Vanek has a timetable and Miller will have one soon. There are a lot of issues with this team, but there isn’t a tragic flaw just yet.
Last night was a great example of the things this team has going for them, as well as what could bring them down. The Sabres played a very strong game overall, got a great performance from their backup goaltender, and played strong defense all night. Their penalty kill was fantastic, they were aggressive and hit hard, and they defended the goal crease. They played good, solid road hockey and took a point on the road.
But they scored once. Pat Kaleta scored the only goal for the Sabres, which means their top two lines were quiet once again. Tim Connolly suddenly doesn’t have a goal in ten games, and Jochen Hecht continues his league average season. Pominville, Roy, Stafford. Nothing. That’s not a direct criticism of any of those players, but they were held scoreless again last night. For a team desperately in need of someone to step up and score goals, we still seem to be looking for that player to do it.
They certainly had their chances though, and a lot of that frustration has to come from a stellar game by Cam Ward. The Sabres were thankful they got a good effort from Lalime as well, who looked much more comfortable in the starting role. Right now this team’s big problems do not lie in goaltending or defense. Lalime has done his job and the defense was fairly excellent last night, but to win games the Sabres need to give Patty more than one goal to work with.
That’s not to say I’m completely disappointed with the effort. Buffalo gave a much better showing than they did the last time they faced the Hurricanes, and perhaps that means they understand what’s at stake these days. With your two stars out of the lineup, the big thing you want to see from this team is growth. Perhaps you look for it a bit too much, but I liked what I saw last night for the most part.
I liked that Bayda and Conboy got face washed when they got near Lalime, and I really like the penalty kill I saw last night. The box was great, rotation was perfect, and they blocked a ton of shots all night. Defense will be key down the stretch, and this team looks healthy and ready to play on the back end. That’s progress, and if scoring goals becomes the issue with this team it’s probably the most fixable problem a team like this can have.
Tied for 8th may not be the most comfortable of seats this time of year, but I can live with it for now. Again, it has become about survival, not advancement at this point. The good news is that Buffalo got some help last night, and a win on Saturday can tie them with the Rangers and put some points between Buffalo and Carolina. This isn’t the most ideal of situations, but I’d say it’s still doable.
11-9. That’s the big picture, and all you can really ask for. The fate of this team still lays at their feet, and last night there was some indication that they intend on making it happen.