Culture Change Paying Early Dividends For Buffalo Sabres
Picture courtesy of Bill Wippert/Getty Images.
By: Connor Nielen (@ConnorNielen)
For all of Ryan Miller’s career domination versus Toronto (a 27-14-0 record, .922 SV%, 2.44 GAA coming into this season), he found himself surprisingly unable to lead his Buffalo Sabres to victory at the Air Canada Centre on any of the team’s three attempts during the 2011-12 campaign.
Playing the tail-end of a back-to-back in which Buffalo first defeated Philadelphia 5-2 to open its season, the team’s enigmatic leader was his usual brilliant self once again on Monday night. A questionable penalty against forward Patrick Kaleta led to a late scare, but Miller (stopping 34 of 35 shots faced) was there to ultimately slam the door en route to a 2-1 win that effectively put an end to the Sabres’ recent string of woes in Toronto.
Moreover, the result gives Buffalo a very encouraging 2-0 win-loss record to begin its abbreviated 48-game schedule. “Getting out of the gate” strong and starting a season on a positive note has been something that has stymied the franchise in previous years, especially on home ice. Ahead of Sunday afternoon’s tilt with the Flyers, the last time they had won their initial game at the First Niagara Centre (formerly HSBC Arena) was in 2008 and even that required a shootout in doing so.
Albeit in a very small sample-size, what we are seeing from this edition of the Sabres is a collective team-oriented approach that has simply not been established in season’s past. Escaping the trend of mediocre early-season home-ice performances is all the more crucial in a lockout-shortened one.
Newcomer Steve Ott has brought with him a capacity to instill a refreshing hockey culture across an organization that has long coveted the kind of particular aggression he plays with. Ott’s presence has already shown signs of having an immediate impact on the entire roster. Take winger Drew Stafford dropping the gloves to defend teammate Tyler Ennis after he was blinded along the boards by Flyers’ agitator Scott Hartnell, for example: perhaps you cannot attribute Stafford’s scrap entirely to the acquisition of Ott, but you can safely say without hesitation that that would have never happened before this year.
Make of it what you will, but there is an undeniable sense of camaraderie emerging within this current Buffalo roster, the likes of which has not existed in said city for a very long time. Whether this newfound ‘nastiness’ will translate into long-term success remains to be seen, but for now fans of the team should colour themselves with the direction in which things are headed.
The Sabres will begin a home-and-home series with rival Carolina on Thursday night in Raleigh. A bitter distaste for the Hurricanes still very much remains for the majority of Sabres supporters in the wake of the 2006 Eastern Conference Finals. So of course, one should expect that this contingent (as is true for all Buffalo fans) would enjoy nothing more than to see their team continue to build on this initial momentum by trouncing the ‘Canes in this upcoming pair of meetings.
Something to look for will be how coach Ruff chooses to utilize his goaltenders, either by sticking with the red-hot Miller for both games or by opting to give back-up Jhonas Enroth his first start of the season. As well, it will be interesting to see how Ville Leino (assuming he is healthy enough to play) fares in his season debut, likely beginning it on a line with 18-year old rookie Mikhail Grigorenko and the feisty Ott.