We all like underdogs for different reasons.
Some people enjoy learning more about the less-talented teams, who rarely receive the ink or airtime the juggernauts do.
Some like the idea that heart/grit/nerve/drive/guts/spunk can overcome superior skills or bad breaks.
And some just plain hate the George Steinbrenners and Jerry Joneses of the world.
The NHL has more than a few underdogs this year, the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers two of the more prominent examples. But there is no horse darker, no onetime remote possibility growing less remote every day, than the mighty Sabres of Buffalo.
This is an organization that couldn’t lure any of the big-name free agents Â– and most middle-tier NHLers, too Â– to sign with them last summer. They were laughed at by most members of the media, including yours truly (and often, cluelessly). And while doubters keep waiting for their ship to sink, GM Darcy Regier, coach Lindy Ruff, and their players keep sailing along.
They should stop waiting, and start appreciating. The season is 50 games old, and this group of not-quite-there-yets, forgotten-abouts and counted-outs is for real.
The Sabres win at home (15-7-0-2), and they win on the road (16-8-0-1). They win with Ryan Miller in net (15-7-0), and they win with Martin Biron in net (15-6-3). Their scoring glory gets spread around – thirteen Sabres have game-winning goals. They are tied for 12th in the league in goals-scored, seventh in goals-against.
Steady. Reliable. When they talk about Â“team playÂ”, this is what they mean.
And it all starts at the top, with a GM who played just 26 games in the NHL as a tough, defensive defenseman. Their coach, who spent a decade playing with the Sabres, was a defensive forward renowned as much for his dressing room contributions as his on-ice dependability. To both Regier and Ruff, the expectations are the same whether you’re on pace to make the post-season or the draft lottery.
Hard work. Hard skating. Hard-boiled focus. That’s what has won the Sabres games this year.
That the team represents Buffalo Â– a working-class city that hasn’t exactly prospered in recent years Â– could not be more appropriate. These are blue-collar players playing for a blue-collar audience.
But even amongst their own, the Sabres have had trouble convincing people they’re worth the price of a ticket. Through the first 17 home games of the year, the team averaged per-game attendance of just 14,947 fans Â– nearly 4,000 under capacity, and just 343 more than they averaged in 2003-04.
Attendance has improved in recent weeks, but the truth is, in a town where the NFL’s Bills come first and everything else Â– including law, order and city governance Â– comes after, the Sabres have to scrape for every sound bite.
And the marketing department doesn’t have it easy. Even with the aid of a game program, it would be almost impossible to pick anyone on the roster out of a police lineup. Toni Lydman, Taylor Pyatt, Brian Campbell, Jochen Hecht, Ales Kotalik Â– honestly, who are these people?
The lack of recognition and respect runs from the bottom of the roster through to the top. Thomas Vanek, their flashy rookie, isn’t mentioned in the same breath as Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. Chris Drury, the Sabre with the best offensive numbers this season Â– and a guy cast off by the Avalanche and the Flames – has 40 points. That’s good enough for 67th place in league scoring.
Looking for a team that’s overcome adversity? Look no further. Co-captain and key offensive cog Daniel Briere is gone for the regular season after a sports hernia operation. The same injury kept J.P. Dumont out of the lineup for more than two months. And now Tim Connolly, who has scored a few of the NHL’s prettiest goals this year, will miss the next two months with a knee injury.
But there they are, just seven points behind the mighty Ottawa Senators. Still barely heralded. Still in the shadow. Which is probably how they like it.
Jim Corsi, Buffalo’s goalie coach, recently stirred up press row at a Sabres-Leafs game in Toronto. Furious with the quality of the officiating (and rightfully so), Corsi was whistling and bellowing at the top of his lungs, apparently believing he could be heard six stories down by the zebras. The man’s passion was palpable, and indicative of the hunger common to the entire franchise.
Â“Help us!Â” Corsi screamed late in the game, eyeballing a couple of reporters as he did. Â“Please, guys, help us!Â”
Jim, you don’t need any salvation from sportswriters, a.k.a. Â“Men With PunsÂ”. The guys wearing Sabres jerseys on the ice Â– the NHL’s ultimate underdogs this season – are providing all the assistance you need.
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