In hockey, there are usually patterns or tends which share similar results when one or multiple components come to fruition.
When your starting franchise goaltender gets off to a slow start, your season should be in trouble.
When the defense in front of said goaltender plays below potential, and the reigning rookie of the year looks like he’s taken major steps back, team confidence should be shot.
Lastly, when your scoring and locker room leader goes down with a season ending injury just when your team is just starting to turn the corner, comeback hopes should be crushed.
On November 24, the Sabres were 27th in the league overall, only 6 points ahead of the last placed New York Islanders. Ryan Miller was struggling and the defense was still trying to find their groove after losing two veterans [Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder]
during the off-season. The offense, which had been prolific last season, could not bail out the struggling back ends and the Sabres struggled to maintain a .500 record.
A month later, while they had gained two places in the overall standings, the Sabres suffered a major loss to their offense. Derek Roy, Buffalo’s leading scorer and alternate captain, suffered a torn quadriceps tendon and on Christmas Eve was ruled out for the remainder of the season. The Sabres finished the 2010 year with a 15-8-4 record and sat in 11th in the East.
Rumors of the team being sold to Terry Pegula by B. Thomas Golisano and Larry Quinn began to surface just before the Sabres lost Roy for the year. This added some tension, confusion and even some nervousness to the fan base as they were unsure of how this would affect their team.
A few weeks later, after the calendar turned over to 2011, the Sabres began to find their groove.
The reinvigorated Sabres rallied for a 7-3-1 record during the month of January. By the end of the month, they had not only climbed into 9th place in the East, but had registered victories against the Boston Bruins twice, and San Jose Sharks, Phoenix Coyotes and Montreal Canadiens each once.
On February 3rd, the Sabres officially announced the Pegula take over and the team’s confidence seemed to only build from there. Pegula made one thing perfectly clear to the organization, the fans and the city of Buffalo: he was in this to win a championship. During his press conference, he stated, “From this point forward, the Buffalo Sabres’ reason for existence will be to win the Stanley Cup.” The quotation can be found in numerous locations throughout HSBC Arena, most prominently outside of the Sabres locker room and at the public entrances.
Previous owners had also shared similar goals, however, some did not believe as much in the old adage of you need to spend money to make money. To put doubters of his commitment to rest, Pegula told WRG 550, “If I wanted to make money, I would buy an oil rig. I want to win a title here in Buffalo.”
It is one thing to say an organization will do everything to be competitive versus actually taking that step forward and enacting upon those promises. Pegula right away gave General Manager Darcy Regier something he did not have in the past, freedom to bring in cap space in order to improve the team.
Regier took advantage of this opportunity and on February 27th, he acquired Brad Boyes from the St. Louis Blues in exchange for a 2nd round draft pick. In the past, bringing in $4 million in cap space for the rest of this season and next would be almost unthinkable due to financial restrictions.
The investment paid off immediate dividends and has continued to do so as the Sabres close out their regular season. In 19 games with the Sabres thus far, Boyes registered 11 points including a goal in each of his first two games with the team. This move added even more firepower to an offense which saw Drew Stafford emerge as a potent goal scoring threat in Roy’s absence. Stafford was joined by Thomas Vanek earlier this week as the team’s two 30+ goal scorers.
Overall, the Sabres have 11 players with 10 goals or more, and one player Cody McCormick who is within two goals of also reaching the same plateau. 18 players, including Boyes, have 10 or more points, further proving how the team rallied together to overcome the loss of the 4 time 20-plus goal scorer Roy.
On Friday night, the Sabres faced the Philadelphia Flyers with a chance to return to the post-season for the 2nd year in a row.
They needed to battle back from falling behind twice with Nathan Gerbe scoring both equalizing goals during the second and third periods. By forcing overtime, the Sabres clinched their playoff spot, but they would not settle. They had a major opportunity to send a message at home to a potential first round opponent with a win in overtime period.
Thomas Vanek intercepted a blind pass from Scott Hartnell and went end to end, splitting two Flyer defenders down the middle and beating Sergei Bobrovsky stick side for the game winner. The goal prompted Buffalo play-by-play man Rick Jeanerete to call “if that isn’t some Austrian icing on the cake, I don’t know what is” due to Vanek finishing off what he helped start with his two assists earlier in the night.
The message to the Flyers was clear, but rest of the league has undoubtedly taken notice: the Buffalo Sabres are catching fire at the right time. Winners of their previous 3 games and 7 of their last 10, the Buffalo Sabres are confident, they certainly believe and their fans, of course, believe.
Their general manager, Regier, has built a team that from top to bottom can hurt the opposition. Their coach, Lindy Ruff, is one of the best in the game and has been down this path before, with a number of players who were with the team during their back to back conference finals runs. And there may be no bigger vote of confidence than the one they receive from the man up in the owner’s box, Mr. Terrence Pegula.