You can’t read a national website or hockey magazine that has the Sabres within a sniff of a playoff spot this year. Most sites peg them for the bottom five in the league, and that was before the Florida Panthers – a new Atlantic Division cousin, remember – went out and added a huge X-factor guy in goaltender Tim Thomas.
You may be a bottom-line person but there’s no way to be that way with this team. Not this year.
Yes, Terry Pegula talked Stanley Cup when he walked in the door. Yes, Darcy Regier has more lives than any other GM on the planet but he’s not going anywhere, so there really shouldn’t be any more breath or newspaper ink wasted on that subject. What’s the old saying? It is what it is.
This season can be fun. You really don’t have to suffer. The assumption is you will when you look at the standings, and punches to the gut like Friday’s 1-0 heartbreaker against Ottawa certainly stink. Fair enough.
But you’re looking deeper when you go to Orchard Park. Why can’t you do it when you come downtown?
The Bills have been wild fun so far until, of course, EJ Manuel forgot he was supposed to be a quarterback and run out of bounds Thursday night in Cleveland. They’re 2-3. They could be 5-0. They could be 0-5. Their season is gauged in progress more than wins and losses, at least for this year. Especially now that it’s all about a wounded knee.
The Sabres’ season can be viewed through the same prism, especially since there’s no telling how long Ryan Miller or Thomas Vanek will be here.
Miller and Ottawa’s Craig Anderson played Friday’s home opener like they were in the UFC cage battling for the Team USA starting job in Sochi. Everyone else on the ice wasn’t worthy. Rarely can a scoreless game through 58 minutes be so much fun. Does that make me some sort of cockeyed optimist or apologist? Nah.
The coaches, of course, hated it. Ottawa’s Paul MacLean said a lot of guys on each bench “played for both teams,” in a funny reference to all the turnovers being made.
Sabres coach Ron Rolston wasn’t laughing. At all. And I get it.
“It’s a simple game,” a clench-jawed Rolston said. “We don’t have enough guys playing the right way right now early in the season so we’re back to square one.”
He’s right. The power play is an 0-for-11 train wreck with too many players allergic to winning battles for the puck with the man advantage. Drew Stafford has played 39 minutes in the two games and has two shots on goal. (Memo to Marcus Foligno: Please get healthy so Stafford can join me upstairs).
Rolston didn’t want to hear much about Mikhail Grigorenko, who had a strong enough offensive game that he spent time on the second line. He did say that the line of Kevin Porter between Zemgus Girgensons and Brian Flynn was the team’s best. That’s true and the Sabres aren’t winning many games if that’s the best trio.
Rolston’s ire was clearly directed at his veterans. Thus far, I’ve been about as much a No. 1 center as Cody Hodgson has. Not much from Tyler Ennis either. Vanek had nine shots on goal but also had some terrible giveaways and made a fatal mistake in coverage on Erik Karlsson’s winning goal.
On one sequence in the second period, old friend Clarke MacArthur outworked a pair of Sabres to gain control of the puck and help his team clear it – even though he had given his stick to defenseman Chris Phillips and was simply kicking at it with his skate. Can’t happen.
The good news is that the recent No. 1 draft choices are playing to their labels. Rasmus Ristolainen is, quite simply, a stud on defense. And it’s pretty obvious to see how Mark Pysyk was a top pick and captained a championship team in junior hockey. Just a heady, heady player.
Ristolainen made a great maneuver on an Ottawa two-on-one break in the second period, cooly standing his ground in the middle of the ice to stop the pass and allow Miller to make a save. How many two-on-one’s the last couple of years have produced easy tap-ins? Far too many because the Buffalo defense would stray too early.
Girgensons had the only goal Wednesday in Detroit and has been bouncing his body around like he did during the playoffs last year in Rochester. He almost had the winner Friday, too, as Anderson whipped him with the glove on a laser from the slot with 2:07 left.
Hockey can be a game of mistakes. Watch how the kids bounce back from them. They’re doing well in that area so far. Some veterans could take a hint.
“I think our young guys can take a lot from tonight,” said co-captain Steve Ott. “It was a great learning experience. Even though we lost – and we hate losing – we’re sticking with one of the best teams in the league playing chance for chance.”
Barring major surprises, the Sabres aren’t likely to win a ton the next six months. That’s well-established. Look for small nuggets. They’re there. You don’t have to suffer for every second of 82 games.