The season is young, but you can already tell there’s something different about this Buffalo Sabres team.
It’s not easy to embarrass the Detroit Red Wings on national TV, but that’s just what the Sabres did tonight.
Before the puck even dropped you could tell something special was going to happen tonight. Detroit started their top line (Henrik Zetterberg-Pavel Datsyuk-Todd Bertuzzi) and Lindy Ruff countered it with four grinders in Matt Ellis, Paul Gaustad and Patrick Kaleta.
When play started, it was the Sabres who earned the first shot on goal with strong pressure in that first shift. Why? Because they’re not afraid to get a little dirty.
That first shift set the tone for the rest of the night. It wasn’t like last year’s match-up, when the Wings waited for Buffalo to make a mistake before unleashing their magic Swedish goal-scoring, puck-possession powers.
This time around the Sabres took the fight to them. And they played with a confidence we’ve rarely seen since 2006-07.
While the core is still pretty much comprised of the same group of underachievers we’ve suffered through the last two seasons, the new faces have made a significant impact.
Whether it’s Mike Grier (a relatively new face) being calm and cool on the back check, Steve Montador being so good you never notice him, Tyler Myers being so good your jaw drops every time he touches the puck or Tim Kennedy sticking his nose in front of the net, it’s the new faces that have, so far, changed the complexion of this team for the better.
We haven’t talked about Ryan Miller much yet this season, but he may be playing the best fundamental hockey of his career in this short stretch. Expect to see Patrick Lalime sometime this weekend and Miller has earned the rest. He’s simply been lights out.
And a lot of that success has been because of the surprising play of the defense. Craig Rivet is leading a group that’s playing sound, mistake-free hockey. Each defenseman is pushing his partner to be better as well.
Chris Butler looks like he’s been in the league for five years. He’s been smart and especially good on the power play. The Sabres are getting an early look at the future of the power play when he and Myers are playing the point together on the second unit.
And suddenly Henrik Tallinder looks pretty good when he’s paired with Myers. It’s probably a combination of him being stronger and healthier and playing with a stud like Myers that’s got him moving in the direction of a top four defenseman again. Whether or not Tallinder can keep the momentum going is yet to be seen.
And Toni Lydman returned to the ice tonight. Paired with Montador, they was very little to complain about. Barring any more injuries, there’s no reason the Sabres defense shouldn’t be able to keep doing what they’re doing — holding opponents to 1.5 goals per game.
Speaking of injuries, Vanek being out for “weeks” is never good news. The offense sputtered when he was out of the lineup last year and it’ll be up to players like Drew Stafford and Jason Pominville now to pick up the slack. Stafford finally found the back of the net tonight, but Pominville needs a jump start. And fast.
The biggest question for the Sabres now is can they keep playing this well?
Consistency has been an issue the last few seasons but if they can continue to roll four lines that generate quality scoring chances, they should be in pretty good shape. And that’s the difference.