A quirky bounce off the glass gave New York Islanders forward Shawn Bates a chance in front. Miller turned aside the slap shot – and the other 28 pucks that later sailed his way – in backstopping Buffalo’s 10th straight victory Thursday night, tying the Sabres for an NHL record to open the season. “That’s a little, ‘Hello, how ya doing?,”‘ Miller said. “That was a bit of a wake-up call.”
Well, if the rest of the NHL hasn’t taken notice of the surging Sabres, they’d better do so quickly.
Maxim Afinogenov set up Ales Kotalik’s first-period goal and scored one in the second for Buffalo. Miller did the rest for the Sabres, who joined the 1993-94 Toronto Maple Leafs as the NHL teams to start out 10-0.
“We don’t want to put too much emphasis on it,” Miller said. “No one is getting too ahead of themselves and too cocky.”
The Sabres weathered a rough start that featured turnovers and sloppy play on both sides – mostly because of Miller, who was sharp when the rest of his teammates weren’t. He stopped nine shots in both the first and third periods and 11 more in the second.
Now Buffalo goes for the best start in NHL history when it hosts Atlanta on Saturday.
“We all know it’s there,” co-captain Chris Drury said. “It’s not something we’re talking about much as a group or at all. It would be nice. It’s not going to be easy. Atlanta is a great team.”
The longest winning streak in a single season is 17, set by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1992-93 season. The Sabres, who fell one win shy of the Stanley Cup finals last season, have a team-record 15 consecutive regular-season victories.
By the time Jason Pominville stretched the lead to 3-0 early in the third period, the sparse crowd of 8,861 at Nassau Coliseum had already grown frustrated with the home team. Boos and groans were heard, as were the many saves that thumped off Miller’s pads and blocker.
The Sabres have quickly become the flashiest offensive team in the NHL, posting 49 goals in their first 10 games. But they used a methodical attack against the Islanders, scoring once in each period to back Miller’s strong goaltending. The 26-year-old American improved to 8-0 and posted his third career shutout.
“We gave them some good opportunities early on turnovers, and Ryan Miller made some big saves that really got our game in gear,” Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said. “We could’ve been down early.”
Ted Nolan, the man Ruff replaced as coach of Buffalo in 1997, was impressed with his former team in his first matchup against the Sabres. Nolan had to wait until this summer to get another NHL job after he and the Sabres parted ways nearly a decade ago.
“They’re good. They have a tremendous amount of speed,” he said. “We made a few turnovers, and everybody knows they capitalize on mistakes.
“Emotionally, we were not as well as I thought we’d be. We didn’t compete as hard as I thought we should. We played OK, but OK wasn’t enough.”
The Islanders (3-4-2) hadn’t played since Saturday’s overtime victory over Carolina, the team that eliminated the Sabres from the playoffs last season en route to the Stanley Cup title.
Kotalik provided the only offence Buffalo would need with a power-play goal in the opening period.
Jaroslav Spacek and Afinogenov worked a two-man game on the right side of the Islanders zone. Spacek then slid a crossing pass to Kotalik, who ripped a shot from above the left circle past Rick DiPietro that smacked the back of the net and caromed back out at 6:09 – 47 seconds into Buffalo’s 5-on-3 power play.
The only downside for the Sabres was they converted only one of seven power plays. Buffalo came in with the league’s seventh-best man-advantage unit.
“At the end, we gutted it out,” Drury said, “which is a good sign.”
New York outshot Buffalo 11-6 in the second period, but each Islanders scoring chance was thwarted by Miller, who improved to 4-0 on the road this season.
Buffalo doubled its advantage with a trademark burst of speed. Sabres defenceman Toni Lydman banked the puck off the boards past New York’s Brendan Witt, who dropped his head and turned to chase it.
He was no match for the quick Afinogenov, who tracked down the puck, cut in alone on DiPietro, and made a forehand-to-backhand move to get the goalie out of position. DiPietro did the splits and made a desperation reach with his stick, but couldn’t stop Afinogenov from scoring his sixth goal at 4:12.
Pominville then finished off a 3-on-2 rush by steering in Daniel Briere’s pass 3:27 into the final period.
That clinched Buffalo’s latest win and ended any hope the Islanders had of continuing their streak-busting history.
New York snapped Vancouver’s team-record, 10-game winning streak in December 2002, and ended Toronto’s 16-game point streak the following year on Long Island.
“What we’re doing now is carrying momentum,” Miller said. “I think it will serve us well in the future, but right now we just need the points.”
Notes: Afinogenov, the NHL’s No. 1 star last week, has 15 points (five goals, 10 assists) in the past six games. … DiPietro, who earned a victory Saturday after missing four games with a groin injury, fell to 1-4. … New York, which held a 29-27 shots advantage, was 0-for-3 on the power play. … Nolan was the NHL coach of the year in his second and final season with Buffalo.