Thirty five seconds into the hockey game, Paul Gaustad translated a message sent by the front office directly into output on the ice. It may have landed him in the penalty box, but it set the tone for what may turn out to be a huge game for this team in the end.
The game right after the trade deadline is always very interesting, and it’s difficult to say where a team is headed because of all the emotions involved in the day. A player appearing somewhere for the first time always seems to make a big splash, and a team may play over their heads for a bit based on the extra bit of confidence a major move can give them. And if a team doesn’t make a move, they may not react well to the lack of help their GM gave them.
Tonight the Sabres didn’t have a new player in the lineup, and despite Montreal staying put they didn’t come out weak at all. In fact, Buffalo got into penalty trouble early and Montreal looked to be on the brink of taking over this game. At one point shots in the first period were 18-3, and chances 9-0 for Montreal; but there was Patrick Lalime continuing to come through for this team.
One power play for Buffalo, and it was 1-0. You didn’t know it at the time, but it was all over after that. The box score will show the Sabres getting badly outshot, but they outplayed a very good Montreal team tonight. The Habs got plenty of chances and were oftentimes bested by Lalime alone, but there was something very different about the Sabres team we saw tonight.
Simply put, Buffalo refused to get outplayed tonight. Everyone on the team was skating hard, checking harder, and making the most out of their opportunity to play hockey. Teppo made a few very nice plays. Hank and Lydman were relatively mistake-free. Dan Paille was very strong, and Maxim Afinogenov also justified his existence tonight; making plays on both ends and picking up an assist. The players given a chance in the lineup came through, and that’s something Buffalo has missed for the past few weeks.
What we saw tonight was something that we haven’t seen from this team in a long time. Tonight the Sabres showed some swagger in their game, and I don’t think it was just because Thomas Vanek was on the ice. He played surprisingly well and complimented Connolly nicely in his return, but every line played with some serious jump in a game that everyone in the league knew mattered for their playoff hopes.
This swagger could be the result of a number of things, many of which may be temporary. It could be the post-deadline boost, or maybe a bit of deflation from Montreal that caused the game to wind up so uneven. Once their power play failed to convert the Habs played like they were in a ton of trouble, and that turned out to be the case.
Still, it’s a performance once again gives you hope that Buffalo can get it together. We’ve seen flashes of good things from this team with Vanek and Miller out, but what we saw tonight was a dangerous hockey club. The Sabres looked like a playoff-caliber team while still missing their best player, and if they can skate like that every night until Miller gets back I don’t see how they don’t make up the gap and get back into the top eight.
There was a lot of tension around these parts over the last few weeks, and tonight I think a lot of fans finally had the chance to release some of it. The Sabres clearly did it and the results were pretty stunning, but the next step is making it happen again. I think the best thing we saw tonight was the reaction from the players when Lalime lost the shutout. Even at 5-0 they wanted that shutout for Lalime, and I love seeing the little things matter to them again.
No matter how much worth you put into this game there’s one thing that’s clear: the pieces are still here to make a playoff push, and those pieces look like they’re ready to do just that.