An NHL record-matching 10-0 start was not part of the plan. “Well, it’s not the goal,” Sabres co-captain Daniel Briere said after practice Friday. “I mean, it’s very exciting. I think we’re all proud of what we’ve accomplished so far. But at the end of the day, it’s not what we’re aiming for down the road.”
It’s going to take more than a perfect start to impress a team that’s dreaming of a Stanley Cup after losing Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final last season to eventual champion Carolina.
“We don’t put much stock into it,” goaltender Ryan Miller said of matching the Toronto Maple Leafs 1993 record for best start to a season. “It’s not going to define our season.”
Saturday, the Sabres, with tempered enthusiasm, will try to break the record when they play host to the almost-as-hot Atlanta Thrashers. Second in the Eastern Conference standings, three points behind Buffalo, the Thrashers (7-1-3) are off to the best start in their young history.
“If you think you’re a good team, this is the team to play against,” Thrashers defenceman Greg de Vries said. “Obviously, they’re the hottest team in the league. … It’s a great test for us.”
After winning three of its first four in shootouts, Buffalo has outscored its past six opponents 34-12, including a 9-1 rout of Philadelphia. And after erasing deficits in five of their first seven games, the Sabres haven’t trailed in a span of 207-plus minutes, dating to the second period of a 5-4 win against Carolina on Oct. 20.
Saturday’s game might be the toughest test so far for the Sabres, who already have defeated Carolina twice and beat the Detroit Red Wings, who had the NHL’s best record last season.
The Sabres have been unbeatable because of their speed, depth and goaltending.
Buffalo has enough play-making forwards to produce a balanced, three-line attack. It’s the only team with four players among the top 14 in league scoring, led by Maxim Afinogenov’s six goals and 10 assists.
The veteran defensive core has scored seven of Buffalo’s league-leading 49 goals, and Buffalo relies on the experienced goaltending tandem of Miller (8-0) and Martin Biron (2-0). Miller is coming off a 3-0 shutout of the New York Islanders on Thursday and has allowed six goals in his past four starts.
Buffalo returned this season with most of its lineup intact. The only free-agent addition was defenceman Jaroslav Spacek, whose two goals both have been game-winners.
Those crucial goals helped extend the Sabres’ winning streak to 15, including last season’s final five regular-season games. Buffalo’s 15-game winning streak is two short of the NHL record set by Pittsburgh in 1993, but the Penguins won 17 straight in one season.
Unable to find much fault in his team’s start, coach Lindy Ruff is using the streak as motivation.
“We’ve got a big target on our back right now and rightfully so,” Ruff said. “When you win 10 in a row, everybody around the league is looking and wondering, ‘Maybe we can be the first ones to knock them off.”‘
No one has succeeded yet, including Montreal defenceman Janne Niinimaa. His prediction of a Canadiens’ victory was dashed by Buffalo’s 4-1 win Monday.
“I think confidence is a big part of it,” Briere said. “We’re going out there believing we can win every single game. And that’s a lot of fun.”