The latest sign that Teppo Numminen has fully recovered from life-threatening heart problems last year came Sunday afternoon even though the Buffalo Sabres defenseman skipped an optional workout in the Amherst Pepsi Center. Victory this time can be found in the form of an oversight.
Sabres assistant coach James Patrick was marveling over Numminen's work through the first eight games, in which he has recorded four assists and a plus-2 rating. The 40-year-old defenseman remains one of the Sabres' most intelligent players, best passers and a calming influence along the blue line.
"We've always known he's one of the smartest players -- smart vision, smart passing, smart positioning," Patrick said. "As an older defenseman, when you lose that gear, it's pretty tough. He still skates fast enough. He doesn't put himself in position to take big hits. He's great at reading off his partner and moving the puck."
Not bad for a guy who had open-heart surgery, huh?
Patrick wasn't even thinking about the operation. He was complimenting Numminen's work based on performance alone. Fourteen months after cardiac surgery wiped out all but the final game last season, Numminen is playing so well that his medical problems are no longer a required part of the discussion.
"Amazing," Patrick said. "As coaches, we forget about that. I was just saying that [he was playing well] as an older player. [Saturday] night was a perfect example. We lose a defenseman and go down to five, and we didn't miss a beat. We've been assured from real good doctors that he's safe. He's comfortable doing it. It gives you peace of mind, and you stop worrying."
Numminen took a well-deserved breather Sunday afternoon after playing 22 minutes, 17 seconds Saturday night in a 2-1 shootout loss to the Colorado Avalanche. It marked the fifth time in six games that he has logged 20 minutes or more -- he's averaging 20:27 per game. He'll be back in the lineup tonight against the Ottawa Senators, savoring every shift.
"You go through something like that and life moves much slower," he said. "Just going through something and not knowing how things will go, it's going to affect your life. Playing a professional sport wasn't a [concern]. It was just feeling healthy again. You're so glad when you think about playing again. It's been amazing."
It's been good for the Sabres, too, because they've needed him this season. Henrik Tallinder missed the final two periods Saturday night after getting clipped by a skate and suffering a gash on his ankle. He stayed in the dressing room as a precaution and should be available tonight against the Sens. Captain Craig Rivet will likely be sidelined another 10 days after undergoing minor knee surgery.
So it's not as if Numminen eased his way back into the lineup.
"That's why I'm here," Numminen said. "I think I'm playing the same way I was after the lockout. I feel good. I feel comfortable on the ice. I feel better and better as the season goes along. The more I play, I get better and better."
The Sabres certainly don't have any complaints. Buffalo (6-0-2) and Minnesota (5-0-1) are the only two teams in the NHL that have not suffered a loss in regulation this season. The Sabres are the NHL's stingiest team, allowing just 1.62 goals per game. Ex-Senators goalie Patrick Lalime could get the start tonight.
Ottawa has been struggling since the second half of last season. The Senators were among the NHL superpowers last season before their chemistry fell apart. They almost missed the playoffs and were gone after the first round. The same problems, starting with the goaltending, resurfaced this season.
"They're struggling to find themselves right now," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "We've had good goaltending. You lose a little confidence, tough ones start going in and you're catching up all the time. But they can turn it on in any game. They have the talent to turn it around."
Buffalo's goaltending has been superb, but its team defense has also contributed to the fast start. The Sabres have been efficient in getting the puck out of their own zone, and Numminen does the job better than anyone. He's also economical with his ice time and almost always makes the right decision.
That's precisely why the Sabres signed him to another one-year deal. Some wondered why the Sabres would re-sign him when there were younger defensemen available who weren't coming off heart surgery. The Sabres were convinced his health issues were solved and wanted a dependable player, a respected leader and a thinker.
"We knew what we had," Ruff said. "We knew we had a real smart player. You can always go looking for something better, but you don't know exactly what you're going to get. Usually, if that guy is available, there's something you have to work on. We've tried hard to stay with our own guys. We knew what we had."
Centers Paul Gaustad (thumb), Tim Connolly (back) and Jochen Hecht (finger) continued making progress Sunday. Gaustad and Connolly had progressed so much that Ruff refused to rule out either player for tonight's game.
However, there seems a better chance both would remain on the sidelines because there is no reason to hurry them back. It's early in the season, and the Sabres are winning without them. Ruff would need to take someone out of the lineup, which is difficult to justify when a team is undefeated in regulation.
"We've got decisions," Ruff said. "We want to make sure they're ready. The effort that the guys have put into the game, it's tough to take guys out right now."