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Right-handers ease Sabres' blues

Certainly most people have heard about dancers with two left feet. They stumble around, trip over themselves and pretty much make a mockery of salsas, tangos and merengues. The Buffalo Sabres had their own version of that on the blue line. It involved defensemen with two left shots. One would fumble for a pass with his backhand, twist himself trying to scoop the puck off the boards and pretty much turn an easy play into a misadventure.

Teppo Numminen and Craig Rivet have arrived to make things right.

One of the many reasons the Sabres are 3-0 with only three goals allowed is the improved play of their defense. The blue-liners have dramatically reduced their mistakes from last season, a trend they hope continues tonight when Vancouver visits HSBC Arena.

Numminen and Rivet have become indispensable parts of that corps, but not just for the obvious reasons. Sure, they provide leadership, poise and grit. But they have something else the Sabres lacked: right-handed shots on the blue line.

The Sabres leaned more to the left last season than the biggest liberal. Brian Campbell, Dmitri Kalinin, Toni Lydman, Nathan Paetsch, Andrej Sekera, Jaroslav Spacek, Henrik Tallinder and Mike Weber were all lefties. It meant that one member of the pairing always had his stick away from the boards, where many pucks are retrieved. The player had to recover with his backhand, which created trouble from two angles:

1. He had to take time to move to his forehand, which allowed defenders a split second to get closer or clog passing lanes.

2. If an opponent was nearby, the defenseman had to attempt a backhand pass, which is slower and weaker than a forehand and more susceptible to interception.

With the additions of Numminen and Rivet, two of the three pairings have players who are always on their forehand side. It allows for smoother puck movement and fewer mistakes.

"It's easier to go from partner to partner, it's easier to use them as outlets because you're always on your forehand," coach Lindy Ruff said. "With all left-handed defensemen, we've been kind of in a tough place. It's a luxury to have two right-handers right now.

"Teppo is just a very smart player . . . and Rivet is a very smart player. So the makeup of our defense has changed, and you change a third of it with those two guys coming in, and I think it's made a big difference."

The Sabres' pairs have Rivet to the right of Tallinder and Numminen to the right of Lydman, with Spacek and Sekera remaining as dual lefties. The holdovers feel much more comfortable with this season's setup.

"We can make clean breakouts," Spacek said Thursday. "If you play offside, it's kind of tough because you've got to use your backhand more often. I think Reggie [Sekera] is the only guy who's playing offside, but he's a smart kid so he can use that stuff a lot.

"With those two, Teppo and Rivs, it's perfect."

Easier passes out of the defensive zone are just one benefit to mixed pairs. It helps when the team is already on offense, too.

"When you're making that D-to-D [pass] on the blue line and your stick is on the outside, it's harder for the forwards to step in that shooting lane when you can take a step outside [on your forehand]," Lydman said. "It's easier to pass it along the blue line and stop the puck coming around the boards. Left-hander playing on the right side, sometimes it's tougher to keep pucks in. Even if you stop it on the blue line, then you're on your backhand and you basically just have to throw it back down every time.

"I think that's one of the things that we can move it quick, throw it on the forehand pretty much everywhere you want to pass it to or throw it on the net."

There were questions about the Sabres' defense coming into the season.

No one was heralding them as the NHL's top corps; the Hockey News, in fact, had the blue-liners ranked 21st in the 30-team league. But with just a couple of tweaks, they've left their blues and are on the right track.

"We knew we had better 'D' than what we showed last year, plus we got Teppo back this year and Rivs as a new guy," Lydman said.


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