I love late night hockey.
It helps that I’m a bit of an insomniac, but even when I was younger I always loved staying up late to watch (or listen to) the Sabres on the left coast. There is something about that extra three hours before gametime, when the game pushes past midnight and you just know a lot of people aren’t going to make it to the end. Some see it as a rite of passage for fans, a badge of honor to wear after the road trip when others wonder how they looked in third period.
For me, however, the Great Road Trip is more of a rite of passage for the team itself. It’s not always a make-or-break stretch of games, but the extended time out West does mean quite a bit when you consider the talent out there and the length of the trip itself. No matter how good a team is, flying cross-country to play a lot of games in a small stretch of time is difficult, and the results can tell you a lot about the team itself.
So what have we learned? First of all, we know that the Sabres are going to remain competitive in every game this year. Despite a sub-par 2-3-2 finish, Buffalo was in every game until the very end, including a game they started by giving the Ducks a four-goal head start.
In fact, that Ducks game may have been the bright spot of the trip. Despite Patrick Lalime looking rough and the Sabres looking even rougher in front of him, they bounced back with an impressive second period with their franchise goaltender between the pipes. It’s been said elsewhere by a number of people, but if the two previous versions of this team played that game it would be a big, big loss. Think of the 8-2 Kings game in 2007, Jonathan Quick’s first win, no less. The playoff-less Sabres teams go out West and get blown out when things start bad, but this time that didn’t happen.
Call it what you will, but without a few bad breaks and shootout impotence this trip was very, very good. However, Miller struggled to make saves in the skills competition, and the veritable hodgepodge of shooters couldn’t seal the deal when it really mattered. It won’t matter in April, but right now the Sabres are letting points slip away while a few teams behind them start to surge. It’s a cause for concern, but not much can truly be done right now. No team in their right mind acquires a player just for their shootout needs, and I promise that Darcy isn’t going to be that guy.
What was good to see is that the Sabres lived up to the hype, so to speak. It’s not often we know just what other people are saying about the team, but with the other team’s announcers each night we got a chance to hear their thoughts on the Sabres every night. The most common themes were obvoius: speed, Tyler Myers’ height, Ryan Miller, and the balanced scoring and line juggling we’ve seen this season. Lindy Ruff was a fixture as well, but the thing I liked hearing most was that almost every broadcast came away impressed by this team. Two broadcasts in particular, San Jose on Saturday and Vancouver on Monday, really did their research on the Sabres and came away with good things to say. Buffalo didn’t beat either team but stayed competitive, and a blown call by Kerry Fraser changed everything about Monday’s game in the end.
Still, when it comes down to it Buffalo couldn’t handle teams like San Jose and Vancouver. More and more the weakness of this team seems to come to the forefront: one great line can outscore the Sabres’ balanced attack most nights. The Sedins put on a virtuoso performance on Monday, and the Sabres just didn’t have an answer for them. Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf did similar things in Anaheim, and the Sharks’ big guns were great on Saturday as well. Take away Buffalo’s seven-goal explosion in Phoenix last Monday and the Sabres’ goal totals look a lot less impressive on the trip.
Oh, and Ryan Miller is slowly falling back down to earth. He started five of seven on the road trip and played another 50+ minutes in Anaheim, giving up an unusual amount of goals and looking bad in the shootout. Perhaps it is road fatigue or nerves or a case of the furries, but Miller hasn’t been the same goaltender that Buffalo relied on so much over the first half of the season.
Miller will be fine, but if you ask me the scoring issue is still there. Chris and I have said it a number of times: the current Sabres roster is going to make the playoffs, but to go far in the postseason some changes need to be made. If we’ve learned anything over the last two weeks it is that big scoring threats make all the difference on a good hockey team, and the Sabres continue to lack one. Tim Connolly’s point streak is nice and the praise he is getting is well deserved, but he is only a part of the solution. Vanek showed shades of Atlas during the course of the trip but he doesn’t seem to be all there just yet, either.
Dan Paille may be gone and long forgotten, but the truth is this: the Sabres still have too many mid-range scoring threats and not enough big guns. It hasn’t cost them just yet, with Miller there to bail the Sabres out when they can’t light the lamp. Still, the lack of a true top line is an alarming thought with the trade deadline looming, especially with so many teams in the mix. There will be sellers (Chris plans on writing about those) for sure, but with so many teams looking at the top eight there will be plenty of buyers as well. The Sabres will most certainly be in that category after the Olympic break, but just what they do will make all the difference for this team. Flipping a few players for one big gun isn’t a must, but a big rental or two just might be the boost this team needs to go two or three rounds deep this spring.
Watching teams like San Jose or Vancouver roll out the big guns was nothing short of terrifying. No one wants to play the Canucks when Luongo and the Sedins are playing well, and at times Buffalo looked downright helpless on Monday night. Say what you will about balance and teamwork, but no one will be saying that about Clarke MacArthur and company down the stretch.
It’s not a bad thing, and it certainly isn’t a sign that the Sabres aren’t a good hockey team. They are, but the gap between good and elite seems to be a great goaltender and an unstoppable scoring line. Miller is absolutely that goaltender and Vanek and Connolly can be a part of that great line; but it feels like something is missing from the equation. The good news is Buffalo has the pieces necessary make a move to fill that role, and in good enough shape in the standings to justify it.
Whether they do it or not is another story, but I think the seven games out west showed us a lot about this team. They clearly have what it takes to play any team and play them well. Winning, however, is something that may require something more.