We don’t talk about Mike Grier enough.
When he signed on for a second stint with the Sabres in August, I’ll admit, I was a bit skeptical, but thought the potential benefits of bringing Grier back outweighed the risks.
In Grier’s last season with the Sabres (2005-06), Buffalo finished the regular season with the second-best penalty killing unit in the league. He left for San Jose and in the three following seasons, the Sabres PK finished 20th, 14th, and 11th overall, respectively.
Grier returned and, no real surprise, the Sabres were once again the best penalty killers in the Eastern Conference.
The Sabres forwards started playing better defensive hockey in general this season as well. In one-goal games, they weren’t collapsing (see Jason Pominville against Atlanta last March), but excelling — being able to win those tight games is just one of the reasons why they won the division.
The last 20 seconds of Game One was vintage Grier. He skated up on the left wing in the neutral zone and went one-on-one with the reigning Norris Trophy winner, Zdeno Chara. Grier knew he couldn’t deke around him — he’s not talented enough and he recognizes that — so he tested Chara’s reach and positioning. He banked the puck off the boards and tried to muscle himself around the giant (don’t worry, we’ll have nastier things to say about Chara soon enough).
Chara, caught a bit flat-footed, stumbled and took a dumb penalty as he fell to the ice. Grier, racing towards the empty net, saw the ref’s arm go up and met up with the puck in the corner. Instead of trying to force a shot, he pushed up against the boards and kept the puck in his skates, killing all the time he could.
Boston eventually touched the puck, but they weren’t left with enough time to do much of anything, even if they were able to win the ensuing faceoff.
Why is Mike Grier such a valuable player? It’s in the simple plays like that. Never mind that he finishes nearly every check and is relentless on the forecheck. In a one-goal game, the Sabres needed to run out the clock and in a pressure situation like that, Grier’s instincts took over. Calm, cool, patient, smart.
Watching Grier against the Bruins in Game One was a great reminder of why the 2006 Sabres were the best team in the playoffs that year. That team was smart with the puck and made wise decisions. They were able to lock down on defense and didn’t need to score their way out of bad situations like the 2007 squad was forced to do so often.
This Sabres team is very capable of playing defense against the best teams. It’s why they should become more and more dangerous as the postseason wears on. Game One wasn’t pretty, but it was the type of game the Sabres will need to be able to play consistently if they want to make a deep run.
It was a Mike Grier game — minus any stone-handed breakaways.