We know all too well not to assume anything when it comes to the Buffalo Sabres. No one could have predicted the total implosion of the team after being at the top of the standings last year following a 10-game winning streak. That said, many people were vocal that they were winning games by overachieving, goaltending, and fortunate bounces that typically go the other way.
That said, being skeptical is human nature. Refusing to get excited about the team’s performance when it is just, is simply being a “Negative Stanley”.
The blue and gold have gained points to start the season in various ways. They had the dominating “W’s” against Pittsburgh and New Jersey. They grabbed a point in an overtime loss at the hands of the Blue Jackets and followed that up with a win in overtime against the Habs. In addition, in a shootout, the Sabres toppled Florida with beautiful highlight goal-scorer goals by Captain Jack [Eichel] and Casey Mittelstadt. Something they struggled with in the past.
Between the pipes, Linus Ullmark has gained his points the difficult way with an OT loss and a shootout win. He has been peppered with shots standing on his head at times with a .931 save percentage. His 2.86 goals-against average have come in two games where he was asked to be on his “A” game from start to finish. At times, he carried the load as the opponents outplayed the Sabres.
Carter Hutton enjoys the two wins in regulation and the OT victory in a more steady overall performance. Evident by his 2.32 goals-against average. Winning is the most important stat and that is where he excels. He has a .908 save percentage and has not been as busy in his games as his counterpart, having enjoyed being between the pipes in the first two games won by a dominating Sabres team.
The “Roaring Twenties” line of Girgensons, Larsson, and Okposo reminds me of the 90’s team coached to a shocking division title by Jack Adams winner, Ted Nolan. The team was often referred to as the “Hardest Working Team” as they were not loaded with superstars. They had Dominik Hasek standing on his head night after night supported by a bunch of extremely hard-working blue-collar players. This “Roaring Twenties” line that shines with chemistry was responsible for two of the goals in the win against Florida. It was only a matter of time that their dominating play would show up on the scoreboard. This line has spent most of the young season in the opposing team’s zone.
The hard-working line and solid goaltending are not the only reason for the Sabres best start since the 2009-10 season. That year resulted in a division title and a Vezina Trophy for goaltender Ryan Miller. This current team has a different type of Miller who in my opinion is the best defenseman at this point in time. In addition to his solid play, he has provided amazing leadership and mentoring to Rasmus Dahlin. Speaking of Dahlin, the power play has been simply amazing at times.
The Marcus Johansson signing has been a solid acquisition. Jeff Skinner has clicked with Johansson early on which is a great sign moving forward. That allows the Jack and Sam combination to stay in place. In previous seasons it seemed to be a tough decision regarding either playing the limited top offensive players together on one line or attempting to find chemistry creating multiple effective lines.
The Sabres at this point seem to be getting solid results on the Eichel line, the Johansson line, the “Roaring Twenties” line and even the Mittelstadt line. They have not been handicapped to only one power play unit. The typical line references as the first line, second line, third line and fourth line have not dominated the press. The team has been getting contributions across the board. It is unfair to continuously refer to the first line or top two defensemen when they are getting hard work and results from many areas.
I am by no means anointing the Sabres a favorite to snagging Lord Stanley’s hardware. I am aware of how quickly the team’s fortunes changed last season. However, I do think they have a better coaching staff. Part of that is the goaltending coach which should be able to keep the goalies focused and more consistent. I obviously think the core of the team is maturing. The roster changes have not been front-page headlines, but overall the roster is more talented. Some of the players underachieved last season.
The Sabres could still make moves in the trade department. Rasmus Ristolainen remains a talent desired by teams around the league. He is youthful at the same time experienced. He plays with a physical presence as well as being offensively gifted. Maybe those talents surrounded by winning will transition him to an all-star right here in Buffalo. On the other hand, the team is loaded at the blue line and he would be the most coveted available back-liner that would get the most back in return.
They will be tested in a matinee on the American holiday recognizing that explorer that sailed the seas of blue back in 1492. The team testing them will be one that broke the hearts of many in Buffalo causing tears and blues back in 1999. NO-GOAL! Never Forget.
This team looks like just that: A team.