The Buffalo Sabres coach is trying his nitpicking best, but fighting a losing battle in an attempt to find fault with his team’s perfect start. At 9-0, Buffalo is one win short of matching the NHL record set by Toronto in 1993 for best start to a season, a feat the Sabres can accomplish when they play the Islanders at Long Island on Thursday.
To hear Ruff tell it, his team is a work in progress.
“You’ve got to find the little things to make you even better,” he said Wednesday. “We’ll just keep nitpicking.”
And yet, for every problem Ruff attempts to identify – and he’s down to complaining about Buffalo’s forecheck in an otherwise efficient 4-1 win at Montreal on Monday – there are a half-dozen or so things that leave him impressed.
“There are moments where you look at the plays, you look at some of the goals, you look at the effort, you look at some of the blocked shots, you look at the desperation, and you say, ‘Boy, they did a lot of good things,”‘ Ruff said.
With a win against the Islanders, the Sabres would have an opportunity to break the record when they host Atlanta on Saturday.
The NHL is recognizing the streak even though the Sabres have won three games by shootout, which the league instituted last season to eliminate ties. The Maple Leafs in 1993, by comparison, won nine games in regulation and one in overtime.
Little of this matters to Sabres players, some of whom, such as defenceman Henrik Tallinder, weren’t aware the team broke its franchise mark of 8-0 set in 1975 or was even approaching a league record.
“You know what, I really wasn’t paying attention to all that,” Tallinder said. “I don’t see it like a big thing. But records are made to be broken, so why not break it if we can.”
The Sabres’ ho-hum attitude belies what has otherwise been a determined, workmanlike approach for a team already pegged as Stanley Cup contenders. The high expectations are a result of Buffalo returning most of its team intact after losing Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals to eventual Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes last season.
Over the course of their streak, the Sabres have won in almost every imaginable fashion: from scoring six times in a period, as they did in a 9-1 win over Philadelphia last week, to overcoming two-goal deficits on three occasions.
Eight of their wins have come against teams that made the playoffs last year, including two victories against Carolina. They’ve defeated three division champs, including Detroit, which had the NHL’s best record last season.
And they’ve contributed to the NHL’s first coaching change, Philadelphia’s Ken Hitchcock was fired last weekend in part because of his team’s loss to Buffalo.
The Sabres have actually won 14 straight regular-season games after winning their last five last season. And, for those counting, the only blemish on their record in the past two months was a 4-1 loss to Columbus in Buffalo’s second pre-season game.
“It’s pretty impressive. And I hope we’re not done yet,” said defenceman Jaroslav Spacek, the team’s only off-season free-agent addition.
To put the Sabres’ streak into perspective, among North America’s top four pro sports leagues, there have been only 13 teams that have gone 9-0 to start a season since 1993, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The best start of the bunch is the NBA Houston Rockets, who went 15-0 in 1993.
While only one of those teams, baseball’s Kansas City Royals in 2003, failed to make the playoffs, only four of them – the Rockets in 1993 and 1994, the Chicago Bulls in 1996 and Denver Broncos in 1998 – have gone on to win their respective championships.
The Sabres are well aware that early season success doesn’t guarantee anything.
“Yeah, I think it would be pretty neat in the midst of an 82-game season, but it’s not something we were or are thinking about,” co-captain Chris Drury said of breaking the record. “The old saying, ‘You’re only as good as your last game.’ Our motto is: You’re only as good as your next game.”