Ryan Kennedy, a fellow THN staffer and generally good guy, and I make a trip (or two) to Buffalo every year to take in a Sabres game and collect quotes and info for various stories.
During our last trip – as Kennedy detailed in his roundup column – the energy in HSBC Arena, which was so rampant and almost palatable in seasons past and made taking in a Sabres game such a special experience, had dropped like Max Afinogenov’s 2008-09 production.
It wasn’t just a one-game anomaly, either. THN correspondent John Vogl suggested in his Jan. 11 issue team report that a distance has been created between the team and the fans as a result of free agents leaving town coupled with disappointing on-ice results.
“The arena, though near capacity, is often lifeless,” Vogl wrote. “There are just as many doubters as diehards. The Sabres must inspire their fans again.”
Well, with a death-lock on the Northeast Division, one of the league’s stingiest defenses (2.27 goals-against average), the current best goalie in the world (and leading Hart and Vezina candidate) between the pipes and a good bet for the Calder Trophy patrolling the blueline, inspiration is now as plentiful as cheese on a Chef’s ‘parmed’ sandwich.
With points in 11 of their past 12 outings, the Sabres aren’t showing any signs of slowing down in the second half, either. And it all starts from crease confidence.
Right from the get-go, Ryan Miller was spot-on, giving up only 15 goals in his first 10 games and sporting numbers as lean as his frame (1.64 GAA and .944 save percentage). Keeping up that pace was unrealistic, but the 29-year-old East Lansing, Mich., native hasn’t fallen off much with a current GAA of 1.99 and a .936 SP.
In the process, Miller wrested Team USA’s No. 1 job away from Tim Thomas, last year’s Vezina winner. Most importantly, Miller’s rock-solid play has allowed the Sabres to roll up front without fear of having to cover up in the back end.
On the topic of up front, Buffalo’s relatively no-name bunch – beyond Thomas Vanek – is Lake Erie-deep with three offensively dangerous lines. Things may actually improve, too, considering Vanek has ‘struggled’ so far this season with only 13 goals and 30 points after last season’s 40-goal, 64-point effort.
Leading an underrated D-corps that has contributed in a big way to Miller’s success is rookie phenom Tyler Myers (check out Ken Campbell’s video profile HERE. It’s worth watching if only to see Myers dwarf Campbell in the intro).
Playing a position that takes even the best of players a half-decade or longer to master, the 19-year-old leads the team in ice time and is fifth in Sabres scoring with 28 points.
The icing on the proverbial pastry? Eleven of the Sabres’ top 15 scorers are age 28 or under, six are 24 or under and no key forwards, besides Tim Connolly in 2011, are scheduled for unrestricted free agency, meaning this is a collection that will be competitive for years to come.
So why the reticence to get behind the team? Perhaps it stems from the fear of a playoff letdown, as the team suffered in 2006-07 when the Sabres finished first in the East, but bowed out in the conference final to Ottawa. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. But such is the nature of pro sports; there’s some faith that must accompany the facts.
Let’s hope the next time I return to Buffalo the energy has as well. For so many reasons, this is a team worth getting excited about.
Edward Fraser is the editor of thehockeynews.com. His blog appears Thursdays.
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