The 2011 Compuware NHL Premiere took place in Europe this past weekend, and the Buffalo Sabres won on back to back nights, returning to Western New York with a 2-0 record. The Sabres defeated the Anaheim Ducks 4-1 in Helsinki, Finland and the Los Angeles Kings 4-2 in Berlin, Germany. During the European tour, four teams in all played as both coasts were represented in the Sabres, New York Rangers, Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings. Following the two decisive victories in front of energetic crowds, Buffalo has left the impression that they will be strong contenders in the Eastern Conference.
Here are 10 observations from this weekend’s games:
1. Luke Adam- where’d he come from? He goes from barely making the roster to scoring as many points as team Captain Jason Pominville, and only one less than team scoring leader, Thomas Vanek. Adam had 2 goals and 2 assists, both scores coming from his aggressive play by charging the net and strongly punching the puck home. It was great to see since this guy is young and fast, showing he has great potential. It’s no surprise Adam was the AHL’s Rookie of the Year last season, with 29 goals and 62 points.
TheHockeyWriters.com’s very own Brendan Ross made some good calls about Adam before the season began. I totally left him out of my observations in my previous article, but he may be the guy to keep an eye on over Tyler Ennis, Nathan Gerbe (who always needs to be paired with Paul Gaustad), or even Brad Boyes. We were looking for all three of those guys to break out this season, and we’re still watching, but now the focus may be shifting to Adam. All weekend he played on the starting line with Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville, which only worked to his benefit. I can think back to early on in Vanek’s career in 2005-2007, when he would often be paired with the high powered goal scorers on the team, Danny Briere and Chris Drury. Vanek, the young upstart at the time, fed off their energy and talent, and it resulted in a 43 goal season at one point. Now Vanek and Pominville are the veteran players, and Adam is obviously taking his cues from them. It’s very early on yet, but not too early to realize this guy may be a diamond in the rough.
2. Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek show grit and leadership. Pominville is wearing the “C” in style, netting 1 goal and 3 points on the weekend, proving to his team that he will not only lead, but produce. Granted, his goal was only insurance but two of his assists were key, and his displayed productivity on the ice builds momentum for his leadership abilities. We saw that when Pominville was on the ice the Sabres were a better team, and we should take solace in the Captain having already found the back of the net in game 1. Thomas Vanek is being very productive as well, scoring 2 goals and 3 assists. He scored at opportune times for his team, and his scrappy play in front of the net was phenomenal. That’s the place Vanek is most dangerous, and it’s adrenaline pumping watching him cash in on that skill. The crowd in Germany was all about him, too, as head coach Lindy Ruff said, “I know there was a couple thousand Austrian fans here for Thomas, so that swayed the building in our favor tremendously.” A German reporter asked Ruff in the post-game conference why Vanek was logging so few minutes of ice time. He had 16:01 vs Anaheim and 16:02 vs Los Angeles. Personally, I don’t necessarily agree with the reporter’s observation considering most of the Buffalo forwards logged about the same amount of time. Tyler Ennis had the most at 17:15 against the Ducks. Ruff responded differently though, stating that the team was on the penalty kill often and fatigue played a factor, but the most interesting point was that he believes Vanek has found great success with the ice time he’s had. Playing him less maximizes his productivity because he never really gets a chance to be tired. It’s something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
3. Lindy Ruff plays chess. Actually, I have no idea if Ruff plays chess, but he certainly gets the strategy award for how he coached his games this weekend. At first, I was taken aback that the Sabres took their foot off the gas pedal in the third period against Anaheim where they didn’t register a single shot. That’s the first time Buffalo had a shotless period since a 3-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes on March 29, 2003. On a similar note, it’s worth noting that Buffalo only registered 4 shots in the 3rd against L.A (granted, one of those was a goal). That’s not good. However, fatigue and attempting to limit its effects probably played a factor in the lack of 3rd period production against the Ducks. Ruff felt his team had things under control and decided to protect the lead. Usually I’m not a proponent of prevent defense because typically the only thing it ends up preventing is a win for the team employing it, however, Ruff wanted to see how his newly revamped defense handled having the game put in their hands. I think they passed. Also, with a 3 goal lead, Ruff was probably thinking ahead to the game in Germany the next night versus Los Angeles, and didn’t want to unnecessarily wear down his team. It makes sense, and the way things turned out in that game, it was a good play. Ruff also kept the same line up for both games, so take note on how these guys mesh throughout the month.
4. No rust for Ryan Miller. Miller wasn’t challenged too badly this weekend as he stood strong in net, letting in 3 goals on 63 shots (Buffalo was 8 for 51 against goalies). His job was easy largely in part due to the success of the offense which gained cushioned leads. All Miller had to do was preserve them. His defense played very well in front too, bullying guys out of the crease and blocking shot lanes. Toughness from the defense will only benefit Miller in the long run. When his team failed to register a shot on goal in the 3rd against the Ducks, Miller did his job by stopping all 11 pucks thrown his way. Many people were surprised at Lindy Ruff’s decision to start Miller for both games on back to back nights. The Kings went with their second option, but Ruff felt confident that Miller could handle the second game. My only criticism is that he let in some late goals against L.A., but they weren’t entirely his fault. Anze Kopitar was responsible for the pair at 19:21 of the 2nd and 15:46 in the 3rd. Miller does have a history of letting in late goals, but I wouldn’t be worried about these two. The Kings contest was his 400th career game, and he’s now only 91 short of the Sabres goalie who currently holds the record for the club, Dominik Hasek.
5. No sleep? No problem. Lindy Ruff’s decision to essentially rest his offense in the 3rd period against Anaheim may have paid off in an unexpected way. Apparently the Sabres experienced a bit of a fiasco getting from Finland to Germany Friday night. They immediately left Finland following their victory over the Ducks, but didn’t arrive in their German hotel until around 4:30am. According to Paul Hamilton of WGR550 who was on the plane, the airline had trouble fitting all the players’ equipment onto the aircraft, and some of it ended up in the back of the passenger section so it could all travel with the team. The delay lasted hours, and Ruff canceled the morning skate on Saturday allowing his squad to rest. The Kings ran into similar problems with their flight, arriving to their hotel only 2 hours before the Sabres. This is a good sign going forward that back to back nights shouldn’t be a problem for this team, given their commanding win against Los Angeles. The true test though, will be this weekend when they play Carolina and Pittsburgh on Friday and Saturday night.
6. The power play has power! Sounds silly, but Sabres fans know that scoring on the power play has been a lingering issue with this team for years. This weekend they went 3/9 with the man advantage, but only one of those goals actually mattered in the outcome of the game. The other two were just adding fuel to the fire. Comparatively, the Sabres only let in 1 goal shorthanded on 8 chances for their opponents. Christian Ehrhoff is a huge force on the man advantage as his high powered and accurate blasts from the point nicely set up plays. His lone point this weekend was on a Vanek PP goal, but he also set up the Sabres first score of the season (also scored by Vanek) on the PP. He wasn’t credited for that effort since he was the first guy to start the play, but stands to reason that Ehrhoff is going to do some damage this year for Buffalo’s special teams.
7. Ville Leino. How good does it feel that Leino scored his first goal as a Sabre in his debut game? That goal against the Ducks, which turned out to be the game winner, was huge. If game 10 rolled around and Leino still hadn’t found the back of the net yet, it would be ugly for his confidence, and cast doubt on the move to acquire him this offseason from the Philadelphia Flyers. Luckily, that worry needs not exist for now, as Leino is already showing he can make plays and be a serious boon for this offense. He only notched 1 point all weekend, but it was a great goal to score. Despite netting the game winning goal, Leino was the unsung hero of the crowd in Finland. While local legend Teemu Selanne and national-team veteran Saku Koivu of the Ducks were getting all the accolades prior to the game, nobody was talking about Ville Leino. He spent one season with the Finnish team, Jokerit, where he scored 28 goals and 77 points. A local newspaper even ran the headline, “27 Miljoonan Paineet,” which translates to “27 Million Reasons to Feel Pressure,” and is a comment on the $27 million contract Leino signed with the Sabres this past summer. Real nice. However, it’s Ville Leino who made the highlight reel in Finland, not Selanne and Koivu who each were -1 on the night.
8. Defense! Defense! Defense! My enthusiasm is tempered because we’re only two games into the season, but the defense looks much improved over last year. The Ducks and Kings are considered to be Cup contenders this season, and Buffalo pretty much kept their offenses under wraps. Anze Kopitar cut loose a little for L.A., but that has to be expected from the superstar player. The pairings of Robyn Regehr with Tyler Myers and Christian Ehrhoff with Jordan Leopold is looking like a solid move. Regehr is giving Myers the leadership he needs to develop, whereas Leopold (who scored 13 goals last season with 35 points) and Ehrhoff (14 goals, 50 assists) will provide a scoring edge… hopefully it won’t result in too many risky turnovers. That remains to be seen, but Ryan Miller has already voiced his support of his new defensive corps, “I thought they did a really nice job. They had a couple good blocks, some good sticks. Christian got a couple penalties there for being hard, but I think they were going down a little easier. He was playing hard and Robyn was playing hard, and when you keep that up guys don’t want to come to the front of the net so that was good.” Leopold and Ehrhoff are logging the most ice time of any Sabres player per game, so don’t get your panties in a bunch that he was -1 on the weekend (see above, “The power play has power!”).
9. A new fan base? If you were at any of the 4 European games this past weekend, I’m interested to know your thoughts and if you’ll continue following any of the teams you witnessed throughout the remainder of the regular season. Was the Compuware NHL Premiere a success? Immediately you’d have to say yes. At least during the Sabres games I watched, the fans were into it, chanting loudly, reacting vocally to breakaways and awesome saves, and cheering like fanatics when goals were scored. Call me a homer, but the Sabres easily put on the best show of all the teams who played overseas this weekend, and hopefully, their efforts will translate into some European support for Buffalo. This may sound silly to some, but understand that Buffalo is a small market team, and it’s not typical to see Sabres (or even Buffalo Bills) jersey’s outside of Western New York. They aren’t the Pittsburgh Penguins, Calgary Flames, or Washington Capitals, so the prospect that they may have garnered a few more fans abroad is exciting. I for one, would love to see more Buffalo jerseys in Germany and Finland!
“This is the second best home crowd I’ve played in front of. It was like a home game.” -Lindy Ruff on the German fans
“It was a good feeling to be cheered like that.” -Christian Ehrhoff on the German crowd
10. Don’t get cocky. A great start is always welcomed, but this team can’t rest on their success and get overconfident this coming weekend, where they play the Carolina Hurricanes at home and the Pittsburgh Penguins on the road in back-to-back nights. They need to keep attacking and not start out sluggish, since keys to their early victories were scoring first (and early) and preserving the lead with a lock down defense. I expect a victory against Carolina in front of the home crowd, but the following night against Pittsburgh has lots of question marks. Depending on how Friday plays out, the Saturday game could be a huge trap for Buffalo.
Despite the Sabres’ early success, Ruff is keeping things humble. When a German reporter asked him if he thinks the Sabres are the favorite for the Stanley Cup this year, Lindy sharply replied, “No. No. I think it’s great to have expectations. At the same time I realize it’s a long season. This league is really close. I consider us one of the teams that should be able to contend if we can be a consistent hockey team throughout the year. One thing I continue to tell the team is we need to get better.”
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Sources: NHL.com & WGR550.com. All photos courtesy of Micheline (email@example.com)