This is the line that beat the New Jersey Devils tonight. Then again, maybe not.
It’s no secret that the Sabres have been tougher this season. Mike Grier has been great, Tim Kennedy has played hard every night, and there seems to be very little letdown from the first down to the fourth. When guys like Gaustad and Kaleta are scoring goals nightly, you know the team is clicking on all cylanders. But let’s look at that Gaustad goal again, shall we?
One of the most difficult things about sports is figuring out where your team’s strengths begin and the other team’s weaknesses end. Or vice versa. It’s human nature to place the blame on the team you know better: anything out of the ordinary is to blame on the hometown team simply because you have an expectation that isn’t getting met. A fan on the other side, however, is often thinking the exact same thing. For every defensive giveaway there is a forward smartly anticipating the pass, for every goal is a missed save.
Last night is a very good example of this paradox. The Sabres got off to a hot start, with Clarke MacArthur getting free in front for the game’s first goal. Tim Kennedy puts in some nice work and surprises Marty Brodeur with a shot, and suddenly it’s 2-0. Sure the Sabres came out flying, but the Devils were also plain awful. MacArthur should never have been free in front, and Kennedy barely got bumped on the way to his first NHL goal. The Devils played one of the worst periods of hockey I’ve ever seen from them, and the 2-0 hole was deserved.
The second period, however, was a complete turnaround. Suddenly New Jersey gets some life, narrowing the margin to one on a great power play goal. Great passing, good zone play, and a smart read to beat Miller high on the far side. All of a sudden everything clicks and New Jersey is right back in this game. Or did the Sabres’ power play fail?
Now here I want to give the Devils credit. They played a good period, battled back, and put the Sabres on their heels for a good length of time. Ryan Miller continued his strong play and fended the attack off, and in the Sabres went into the third period with a one-goal lead.
And then Paul Gaustad was left alone in front to make it 3-1.
This is where I want to swing all the blame right back on New Jersey. Goose simply can’t be left alone like that, and the defense is to blame for giving the game away in the third. Sure, Ellis makes a great pass, but that pass goes nowhere if Gaustad is tied up in front.
As you can see I’m struggling to find the midpoint with all this. I’ve tried very hard to judge the Sabres as critically as possible to start the year. The last two seasons and this summer in particular has given me no indication that things will drastically change this year, and so everything is taken lightly until the snow starts to fall.
You can peg some games this season as wins against bad teams, but this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a “good” team come out flat against the Sabres. Detroit did it a few weeks ago, and we were just as frazzled by the result. “Good” teams don’t do that, they can fight through their bad nights and pull some points out of a weak effort.
The more we see the Sabres frustrate “good” teams the more it looks like we should put them in the “good” category as well. Forget power rankings, those are for pundits and nothing more. What we have seen out of this team isn’t enough to call them the best team in hockey, but it’s enough to raise expectations quite a bit.
The defense is working out, the offense is surprisingly balanced, and Ryan Miller has been the best goaltender in the NHL. That’s a winning formula, no matter how you slice it. It’s still very early and the quality of competition is going to rise, but at some point it has to stop being the other team’s fault.
It appears that, sooner or later, I’ll have to blame the Sabres for their wins.