A View from the Roost: Game in Hand

by Ryan

There were plenty of things that made Tim Connolly’s four point night happen.

I suppose it’s only rational to begin with what Tim Connolly did for himself, so let’s start there. Simply put, the shift he had to set up the first goal was absolutely phenomenal. He goes hard into the corner, lays a hit on the defenseman to cause a turnover, then takes a pass and brings it out front for a shot that gets blocked.

He could give up and drift out of the zone for a change, but that’s not the end of it. The defense keeps it in, and he slides back into position down by the net. Jaro’s shot comes through, and brings his stick all the way across his body to get the tip on Spacek’s shot. A spectacular sequence that was only possible because of where he puts himself and his ability to chip a puck while adjusting so severely.

Sekera’s goal was all Connolly, too. He talked to Andrej before the draw and told him what he was going to do, then went out and did it. It’s as simple as that. That’s one of the cleanest faceoff wins you’ll ever see, and a Coyote was screening the goaltender so Bryzgalov never had a chance. Sekera was put in a position do score only because of what Connolly did, and it’s one of the purest assists in the game.

Connolly’s second goal, of course, all depends on his ability to get lift on the puck while falling backwards. The truly awesome thing about Connolly is that he makes very difficult things look so freaking easy, and that’s exactly what he did last night. The tip, the faceoff win, and the shot in front all were impressive athletic feats that not many hockey players can do so easily.

However, for as great a physical specimen Timmy was last night, there was a lot of his teammates behind him. Sekera’s vision and awareness is what lets him see Jaro coming off the bench, and Jaro’s vision is what makes him shoot to Connolly instead of Bryzgalov. As awesome a goal it is for Connolly, it has everything to do with the personnel being able to get it to him.

The same goes with Sekera’s goal, as he was smart enough to listen to his center and be ready for the shot when it came. He also did look at the net to make sure it would get through, something not many defenseman find time for on shots like that. Sekera may have been pointing to Connolly after the goal, but he was the one that capitalized on a chance that many times we’ve seen go down as a blocked shot or missed net.

The point is that for as locked in as Connolly was last night, this team was right there with him. The lines worked well together, they were excellent on the penalty kill once again, and Patrick Lalime was there to keep them in it at important times. Again. I don’t think you can say enough about Lalime’s performances since Miller’s injury. To see a veteran guy step in and keep this team afloat is downright impressive, and that includes a period when Buffalo wasn’t giving him any help on the scoreboard.

People who watch this team closely have always respected the way he has handled playing the role of Miller’s backup and cheerleader, but I have enormous respect for the way Lalime has played as the starter. He hasn’t missed a beat, and this team has needed a rock between the pipes. No fan dare say Miller’s return isn’t important, but I think at this point they are confident in what Lalime can do while Ryan gets healthy. That’s a good spot to be in for sure.

Last night the Buffalo Sabres dominated a hockey game they absolutely needed to win. The funny thing about a “game in hand” is that you have to win it for the phrase to apply. Suddenly this team is doing just that after a stretch where beating the Islanders felt almost impossible. The lines are clicking, the defense looked much better, and they are relatively healthy all things considered.

More importantly, they stood up for each other last night. It was another physical game that most of the team didn’t back down from, and when trouble came about there was no backing down there, either. When Maxim Afinogenov goes down in a heap, Craig Rivet and Paul Gaustad were there to make someone pay. Remember that this is a player who demanded a trade just a few days ago. He didn’t want anything to do with the Sabres until he learned that literally no one else wanted him, but there are the two biggest leaders on the team standing up for him.

Now I have less of a problem with the hit than I do the knee to the face afterwards, but like most things in hockey it’s about principal. Still, I loved Rivet flipping out and challenging Shane Doan to a fight. The misconduct and interference by the officials was sickening, but that’s for another time. The fact of the matter is that when Max was on the ice the Sabres didn’t just skate away. No matter what take you have on events in the past, this was a good sign that we saw tonight.

This applies to Pat Kaleta later on as well. I have no problem with his hit on Turris, but Scottie Upshall clearly did. Kaleta sold that elbow pretty well, but the Sabres were there again to make sure someone knew they didn’t appreciate Upshall taking liberties. When people talk about “toughness” and “grit” they don’t mean that everyone checks players through the Plexiglas; they mean situations like this. At this time of year you can’t show weakness, and there was no lack of grit last night.

It’s also worth noting that when the opportunity arose, the Sabres dropped the hammer on Phoenix. Two goals in less than a minute closed the door on any chance of giving away points, and it was good to see the power play come through when it mattered. Who would have imagined the line of Stafford/Gaustad/Afinogenov would combine for one of the prettiest passing plays of the season? Everything was working for the Sabres last night, and as the clock was winding down they were still looking for more.

On a night where there was so much to like, what I enjoyed most of all was what happened after the final horn sounded. The teams spilled out onto the ice to congratulate and console, but something else was brewing. Jovanovski was talking to an official, and Shane Doan clearly didn’t like what Pat Kaleta was doing all night.

Suddenly the head nuzzles stopped and the two teams were staring at each other at center ice. Nothing was going to happen, and it didn’t matter because they won’t play each other until next season. Still, everyone was just standing there, and Gaustad and Rivet and Roy were screaming right back at the Coyotes players while the linesmen tried to cut the ice in half. After a while it became obvious that Buffalo wasn’t leaving the ice until the Coyotes were gone, and so they slowly filed off the ice to a chorous of boos before the building erupted for the Sabres’ triumphant exit.

The Sabres weren’t leaving their home ice first, and I wasn’t leaving until I could give Timmy one more cheer.