It’s been a fairly tough and disappointing season so far for the Buffalo Sabres who find themselves last in the Northeast division and out of the playoff picture with seemingly hungrier teams just ahead of them in the standings. It’s not just a struggling offence, but a sagging defence that has Lindy Ruff’s boys on the outside looking in. Now the trade rumours are starting to roll in, and since many seem to have the Sabres better players on their way out of town, it would seem, on the surface anyway, that the Sabres are looking to pack it in and look at retooling for next season.
Not all is dismal, though. Miroslav Satan, Daniel Briere and Jean-Pierre Dumont are all having fair enough seasons offensively thus far. In fact, the Sabres should be able to put out a couple of at least balanced lines on the attack, and a first line that should be able to create some strong opportunities.
Also on the positive side is Jochen Hecht, acquired from the Oilers for two second round picks just prior to the 02-03 season. Whereas most of the Sabres can look at negative numbers in the plus/minus category, Hecht is a surprising +11 and is skating for almost twenty minutes a game. When your numbers are that good on a team that’s struggling this much, you have to be doing something really well. Shame he plays in Buffalo, mind you, or some of the rest of the league might have heard about him.
Prized pickup Andy Delmore has spent as much time in the minors as he has in the NHL itself, and though he’s a wonderful powerplay specialist, his defensive work leaves something to be desired. The Sabre defence on the whole is youngish and, with some aggressive forechecking, prone to mistakes. Alexei Zhitnik is their leader, playing over 25 minutes a game, and a good puck-moving player, but even he is prone to error when pushed in his own zone.
After being looked at as a solid replacement for Dominik Hasek, the fortunes of Marty Biron have gone south lately, his name being one of the top mentioned in the trade rumours. His numbers aren’t horrible, but in today’s NHL they’re substandard, and when you’re a struggling team, your last line of defence has to sparkle. Mika Noronen has not fared much better lately; his own fortunes on a slide equalling his four game personal losing streak.
A positive for the Habs is that they won’t have to deal with Eric Boulton, injured in a fight against the Hurricanes this past weekend. Generally games against the Sabres have been tough affairs, but with the major heavyweight out of the lineup, the Habs will be able to concentrate more on the game and less on protection.
Special teams have been hit and miss in Buffalo this year, with a powerplay ranking 26th overall and a penalty kill all the way up to 7th overall. The difference in the game may just be dictated by Montreal’s vast improvements lately in this area of the game.
The last ten games for the Sabres have been something of a microcosm of their season, it could be said. With a record of 4-5-1, they’ve been shut out twice and have managed to score more than 3 only twice. Their last three games, however, look slightly better with two wins, including one against the Bruins, and their only loss, by shutout, to the Flyers.
It should be noted that this will be the first game at home for the Sabres after a lengthy five-game road swing. As is generally known, the first game back is quite often a lethargic affair for the home squad as they settle in with their families and relax into routines, so the Habs need to come out on fire and put the Sabres down quickly and take advantage of this factor.
Finally, the first goal is key with these two teams, as both have dismal percentages when down after one period of play. Therefore, it’s doubly important for the Habs to score and take control of the game heading into the second period.
Oh, and beware of Maxim Afinogenov who’s been struggling lately, but has enough talent that, when he breaks out, will break out with a bang.