Sabres Week One: So It Begins…

Canalside Fireworks following the Ducks game may have been the highlight of the Sabres' week.

Canalside Fireworks following the Ducks game may have been the highlight of the Sabres’ week.

I feel a headache coming on. It’s not a migraine – it’s not the intense, tear-out-my-eyeballs, must-bury-my-head-beneath-the-covers-and-sleep-until-June type of headache; it’s just that dull pain that blankets your head and makes thinking more difficult. It dulls the senses just enough to be more than a little annoying. This headache is the 2014 Buffalo Sabres.

The Sabres kicked off their season at home last Thursday night against a crew from Columbus who come out of the gate with the reasonable expectation of making the playoffs. The 3-1 score betrays the story of the game, in which the Blue Jackets applied extended offensive zone pressure, peppering young Enroth with 40 shots – nearly double the shots taken by the hometown boys. After the game, Coach Nolan addressed the play, saying, “I didn’t like our effort tonight. I think it was OK at best.” Veteran mistakes caused the Sabres to face 4 power plays, which could explain why some of the players seemed fatigued.  From a more positive perspective, it was great to see development from some of the younger players. Zemgus Girgensons had a great play on the Sabres only goal, splitting the defenders, shielding the puck from a poke-check, and wristing it past the Jackets netminder. The play of the third line was a highlight – Girgensons, Marcus Foligno, and Chris Stewart have really come together; barring injury, I think these guys stay together most of the season, which should delight Sabres fans. Defensive behemoth Tyler Myers continues to show improvement – he has been actively joining the play in transition, and it is nice to see him use his size and take the body more often.

Zee slices through Columbus on his way to the Sabres' first goal of the season.  This is the second consecutive season he hass scored the team's first goal.

Zee slices through Columbus on his way to the Sabres’ first goal of the season. This is the second consecutive season he has scored the team’s first goal. Photo from lockerdome.com

Saturday, the team travelled to the mid-west for an evening with one of the more storied franchises of the past five years. Chicago came out fast, going up by two in the first three minutes, to leaving the Sabres reeling. Slowly, the Sabres picked themselves back up, increased the physicality, and by the end of the first period, they had tied the Western Conference juggernauts, with Zee getting his second of the season, and Tyler Ennis netting a nifty short-handed goal. The second period was one of the best periods the Sabres have played in a long time. For the first time in recent memory, the Sabres looked like a quality NHL team; they matched the Blackhawks speed with clean physical play. They fact that they were largely able to stay out of the penalty box demonstrates that they were playing well – they didn’t need the extra stick-work or additional clutching and grabbing to slow down the ‘Hawks skilled forwards. The third period was a different story all together. A pretty goal by WNY native Patrick Kane seemed to have undone the Sabres, who were unable to capitalize on successive power plays, giving up a short-handed goal on the second advantage. A cheap play in front of the net led to a retaliation penalty on Tyler Myers (Myers did the right thing. Unfortunately, it’s almost always the retaliation that gets called,) and the Blackhawks scored on the ensuing power play. They would put one more by Enroth before the horn ended the game. It was good to see Girgensons on the scoresheet again, and it was good to see Myers stand up for himself. Much like the previous game, 40 minutes of solid play wasn’t enough to defeat a team that has already gone through the turmoil the Sabres are facing and are a reflection of what the Sabres hope to be in three years.

myers

I feel like there is a metaphor here, but I’m not sure if we’re Myers or Shaw… Photo from fansided.com

Monday, the team returned home for a special Kids Day celebration against the Anaheim Ducks. The 3pm start came a day after owner Terry Pegula and his wife Kim were officially introduced to the city as the new owners of the Buffalo Bills. Spirits were high, despite the Bills’ loss – the weather over the weekend had been great, and the Harbor Center Fall Festival was coming to a close with a free showing of the game at the nearby Canalside. Sadly, the celebratory feel of the day did not last long. For third time this season, veteran mistakes lead to costly penalties, with the Ducks getting four power play chances in the first period. Michal Neuvirth got his first start of the season, and was solid in the first, allowing only one goal on the four chances. Despite only being down 2-0 by the end of the second, the Sabres looked tired and lost, chasing the West Coast perennials around the zone with little success. Whether it was fatigue or a lack of effort, the Sabres could not put a complete game together and a shoddy third resulted in a third consecutive loss. Nolan was not pleased with the result. “That was like an NHL team playing against a peewee team. They dominated us from start to finish. They did all the right things. Everything that we could do wrong we did do wrong.”

Neuvirth did the best he could, allowing only one goal on six Ducks power play chances. photo from miamiherald.com

Neuvirth did the best he could, allowing only one goal on six Ducks power play chances. Photo from miamiherald.com

The matchups this week are more favorable; Tuesday, we face Carolina – another team who is the race for last. Friday, we should be able to compete with the Panthers, who seem just a step ahead of us developmentally. Saturday, we close out the week hosting Boston, and could keep it close if we’re riding the momentum of two straight wins. Despite our highest of hopes, we came into the season knowing the odds we were facing. There is no doubt that even in these dark times, some positives are developing. Grigorenko is doing well in Rochester, as is Armia, so we could be seeing them soon. Girgensons is emerging as a solid forward who is not only physical, but clean – he doesn’t take bad penalties, but he will separate the man from the puck, he will grind, and thankfully, he’ll score a couple of goals while he’s doing it. It seems that Myers has grown into his body and his confidence is starting to show. It would be great to see him repeat the success of his rookie year. The first and second lines are starting to come together, and if we could stay out of penalty trouble, we may just see what these guys can do.

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