This year’s Buffalo Sabres are the greatest NHL94 team of all time. They have a good goaltender and a top line that scores at a remarkable rate. If you’re playing without line changes on, every game is a blowout.
The NHL is not pixelated, though. You cannot make Gretzky bleed. This is a league broadcast in high-definition, with hundreds of players on 30 teams. Winning takes a lot more than repeating that same breakaway move over and over again.
Thomas Vanek was great again for the Sabres on Sunday. He scored and had a pair of assists, while Cody Hodgson put up the same stat line. Jason Pominville looked excellent as well. The video game Sabres would be incredibly fun to control, but even in the digital world you need more than one line to win. With changes on, the top line gets tired eventually and you have to cycle through to your checking line. Maybe you give up a bad goal and you wear your scorers out. You call a timeout too early in the game and can’t score in the late stages because your digital Vanek and digital Hodgson are too weak to cycle the puck. Even with greatness you can fail.
That’s what we’re seeing from the Sabres right now. It’s the top line making truly amazing things happen while the rest of the team flounders. The defense is tentative and lazy. A half-step behind, according to Lindy Ruff. I’d say it was more than that at times.
After the top line leaves the ice, the rest of the forwards continue to loaf. Marcus Foligno had a particularly awful game, but perhaps that was evident because he was on the ice for more than 21 minutes. Which, yes, is crazy. But that’s what happens when the health bar for Line 1 is essentially empty in the last 20 of the game.
Brian Campbell’s power play winner was less of a problem than the response from the Sabres in the game’s final 10 minutes. Come to think of it, the entire third period was a mess. Buffalo went without a shot for the first half, then played poorly when they needed a goal to tie. Maybe they wanted an invite to Campbell’s private Super Bowl party. I hope they got in.
The letdown in the third period wasn’t necessarily unexpected, but it definitely was a change in tenor from the game’s first two frames. Vanek gave the Sabres the lead less than three minutes in, and with Buffalo buzzing and up by a pair early in the second period, a fourth goal felt inevitable.
Just one more shift from Vanek’s line and the game would shift to blowout mode. Or, hell, maybe Foligno could finally pot one. Or Jochen Hecht could hit the net. Tyler Ennis finishing a chance would be nice. Even Mikhil Grigorenko had a point-blank chance in front. But no, outside of the top line everyone shot blanks for the Sabres on Sunday afternoon. Again.
Without that fourth goal, the Sabres’ early-season demons continued to haunt them. Already the victim of a goal off a lost faceoff, the bad defense narrative stayed on script when George Parros scored his first goal in nearly a year while Christian Ehrhoff and Alex Sulzer did their best emperor penguin impressions. Then Tyler Myers makes a mistake at the blue line with less than a minute to play, and it’s a tie game after 40.
You can’t overstate how well Vanek is playing on the top line. It’s amazing to watch, and every shift they take is incredibly fun. Eight goals and 19 points in 8 games is a remarkable run for Atlas, but Buffalo’s 3-5-1 record is deserved. This team can’t rely on him for every goal.
“I don’t think Thomas can keep up that pace,” Ruff said after the loss on Sunday. “That line has played really well. They’ve got great chemistry and played well, made great plays, but we do need other people to get on the scoreboard.”
Hoping Vanek carries this team forever is as unrealistic an expectation as expecting to win with a defense playing this poorly. A lack of secondary scoring is good for video game analogies and Vanek hagiography, but it’s definitely not helping this team in the win column. Line 1 continues to get it done, but in this league, no one will let you hit the start button and fiddle with the game settings.
Note: The concept for this post mostly came from this tweet. Hooray for the Internet, and proper citation.