Buffalo, Dallas and Minnesota are all 5-0-0 but only seven of those 15 wins were decided in regulation time. “We might be the best example,” Wild GM Doug Risebrough said Monday. “We won two in the shootout, one in overtime, and one in the last minute of regulation.” The Sabres have three shootout victories and a one-goal nail-biter in regulation among their five wins.
“I think the gap between the top teams and the teams that didn’t make it in the playoffs has been narrowed,” Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff said from Buffalo. “You’re going to have to win close games. You’re going to have to take your points in overtime and win your share of shootouts.”
The Stars should know. They picked up an extra 12 points in shootout wins last season and they did it again Sunday at Anaheim.
“Those are very important points,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said Monday. “Sometimes they can inflate your standing a little bit but at the end of the day if you look at the parity in the league and how valuable those points are coming down the stretch, every one of those points is a very valuable extra point.”
Parity has reigned more than ever in the NHL’s salary-cap era so being able to cash in early in close games could make a big difference in the standings.
“Down the stretch or near the end of the season those are points that sometimes you look back and say: ‘If only we could have won that extra game at the beginning of the year to give us that extra cushion,”‘ Sabres centre Daniel Briere said from Buffalo. “Because we know we’re going to hit some patches where even though we’re playing well we may not get the wins.
“It’s nice that even though we’re not playing our very best hockey right now we’re able to put some points in the bank.”
To no one’s surprise, the speedy Sabres rule in the Eastern Conference, defeating Carolina, Montreal, Ottawa, Detroit and the New York Rangers to open the season.
“Three out of our first four games were against division champions,” said Ruff. “You’re thinking, ‘we’re going to have our hands full here.”‘
But the Sabres prevailed, including a 7-4 win over the Rangers on Saturday night.
“It’s a good feeling, especially looking at the teams we played,” said Briere, second in team scoring with seven points (2-5). “They’re all very good teams, playoff teams. So we didn’t expect to start 5-0.
“The funniest thing is that we don’t feel like we’ve played our best hockey, or had a solid 60-minute game yet.”
The Stars, meanwhile, entered the season in the shadow of more hyped division rivals Anaheim and San Jose but have opened perfectly despite only playing one home game.
“We knew it would be pretty tough slugging because of that schedule but we also knew we’d find out a lot about our team and how they’d fare in adverse situations,” said Tippett. “So far our guys have responded well.”
The Stars beat Colorado, New Jersey, swept a home-and-home with Los Angeles and won at Anaheim.
“We had a lot of things to prove, we’ve made a lot of changes,” said Tippett. “But I had a pretty good feeling about our team coming out of pre-season. Our group was coming together. It’s nice to see the results on the board.”
The Stars put their perfect record on the line at San Jose on Tuesday night. Buffalo hosts Philadelphia on Tuesday while Minnesota next plays Wednesday at Los Angeles.
“Now we’re hitting the road after starting the season with five games at home,” Wild centre Mikko Koivu said Monday from Minneapolis. “We have to learn to win on the road, too. But it’s a good start. Winning at home, hopefully it’ll be a tough place for other teams to play.”
The Wild, who missed the playoffs last season, were seen as a much-improved team after the off-season additions of Pavol Demitra, Kim Johnsson, Branko Radivojevic and Mark Parrish, in particular.
But what were the Wild’s honest expectations?
“I can’t say it was 5-0,” Risebrough said with a laugh.
“We had so many new players. I didn’t have any expectations other than to see how guys would fit in.”
While Demitra, Johnsson and Parrish have been as good as advertised in wins over Colorado, Nashville, Vancouver, Washington and Columbus, newly acquired defenceman Petteri Nummelin – a 33-year-old Finnish veteran in his second NHL tour of duty – has also impressed.
“When we acquired him, I called him and said: ‘Hey, I’ve seen you play a lot in the last couple of years and I think you’re getter better and I think today’s NHL is better suited to a player like you,”‘ said Risebrough.
Unlike the Wild, who entered the season a bit under the radar, the Sabres got most of the hype in the Eastern Conference. And that worried Ruff.
“I think there was some concern going into camp, going into the season, that there was nothing but praise for the way we played last year and the playoffs we had,” said Ruff. “The expectations kept growing. Sometimes you’re concerned when players are walking around town and the fans were so excited here and telling them how good they were, whether they were going to be ready.
“But the early indications in camp looked really good.”
That’s because they’re motivated to return to where they were last spring, where they lost a seven-game conference final to the eventual Cup champion Hurricanes.
“We were so close last year,” said Briere. “We were a period away from playing for the Stanley Cup final. It was so much fun that it made us realize that’s where we want to be again and get even further next spring. What happened (against Carolina) has made us hungrier. But let’s face it, even though we did really well last year and better than most people expected of us, we haven’t won anything yet.
“We want to get back and get that feeling of winning finally.”