Climbing Our Way Out of Hell
Wednesday, November 17th, 2010 5:43 pm by mrenninger
It’s been a trying first quarter of the season to be a Sabres fan. I purchased NHL Gamecenter at the beginning of the season so I could catch every game from my current location in Northern New England and felt like I had been taken by the NHL like Peter was by that volcano insurance salesman in an episode of “Family Guy.” I was left to brainstorm of bandwagons that I could join to make the purchase somewhat less fiscally irresponsible (I’ve ALWAYS loved the Flames, I swear!) before grudgingly acknowledging that Bettman had won yet another round. The team had played over a month without winning a game at home, had put up a 3-9-2 record, found itself in dead last in the league and the talk had grown louder than a whisper that Lindy’s time in Buffalo was up (more on that later). The problem wasn’t just that they were losing- every team hits rough patches, although the beginning of the year certainly focuses more attention upon that- it was how they were losing. That always seems to be the complaint about this collection, especially in a market as hockey educated as this one. While Tim Connolly’s dogging it could go undiscovered for months or years in a place like Atlanta, Tampa or Sunshine (the alligator infested swamp the Panthers stuck their arena), it was only a few weeks before someone hung up the most fitting banner seen at HSBC in years. Their performance was an affront to all those that paid money to see them play, to those who tune in every game and whose days are better or worse based on their performance. We were all beginning to settle in for the longest winter imaginable, one in which the Sabres were irrelevant.
A Crisis of Confidence
The self-confidence of this team is more fragile than that of a thirteen-year-old cheerleader. Thomas Vanek is a millionaire many, many times over because the powers that be think he is a very talented hockey player worth many millions of dollars to showcase those skills in a Buffalo jersey. Yet when he goes four games without scoring he seems to think he’s going to be sent to Portland if he doesn’t pass the puck at EVERY opportunity. It wasn’t an issue of playing “pass-first” with his options, it was playing “pass-only.” Numerous odd-man rushes resulted in nary a shot on goal because Vanek would spend the rush staring directly at his teammate the entire time, enabling the goalie and the defenseman to know exactly where the puck was going. It was like pitching to Cerrano after his Buddhist conversion at the beginning of Major League 2. The fact that both of them needed a push to regain their form (Cerrano getting called out by the Asian player for not having marbles, Vanek by getting picked as a top-3 shootout player when such a decision was questionable at best) is absurd. I’m willing to let it slide in Cerrano’s case because the Asian guy was hilarious. In Vanek’s case it’s unacceptable. That being said, it’s amazing how this team automatically becomes a threat to anyone when Vanek gets going. Say what you want about underachieving and his psyche but when Vanek is bringing it, the Sabres are as good as any team in the league, and easily one of the most fun to watch.
If they were going to have a recovery it was going to have to be like this, wasn’t it? It was going to take more than one or two big wins to get me back believing the lofty expectations I had set a month and a half ago. It was like a girl I loved just started treating me like crap for a month, ignoring my texts, hanging out with randoms I didn’t know, starting fights for no good reason, showing all the signs of having an affair, then suddenly, like the rain in the Forrest Gump it just stops and everything is back to normal. Basically you’re 90% sure she just hooked up with some dude and realized the err of her ways, but do you embrace that person with open arms? Of course not. Them being sweet to you again isn’t enough, just like beating the likes of Toronto and a putrid New Jersey team weren’t enough: You’re supposed to do that anyways. Returning my texts isn’t showing me you really care, it means you’re exhibiting common courtesy for someone you’re dating. Beating two terrible teams is exhibiting behavior that a division champion should be doing anyways. I needed more. And while giving the cold shoulder to a professional sports organization is slightly more one-way than doing the same to a girlfriend, the Sabres were definitely getting the cold shoulder. Then they did what they needed to do- they showed heart. The players who are paid to score started to score. They made their own luck. Ryan Miller once again looked like Ryan Miller. And oddly enough, the arena is beginning to get loud again, the buzz becoming a factor for opposing players, the walk out much more jovial. The endings of the last two games are two of the best I have seen in recent memory, up there with Myers’ shootout goal against the Lightning and the furious two goal, two minute comeback against Montreal a year ago, except this time those who came through in overtime had lofty expectations attached to them. These were the moments they were supposed to deliver. It’s what Calder winners and 40-goal scorers are supposed to do. And somehow, after all this, they find themselves within a game of a playoff spot. I think that’s enough for me to fully take back the team that may have been a little callous to the hearts of their fans earlier in the season. I think they may have seen the err of their ways.
Was Lindy a Problem?
The attitude of this team as a whole will likely never be what the fans want it to be, not as long as Tim Connolly is suiting up in that locker room. Pominville will remain the cause of apoplectic rage, Hecht of indifferent sighs of “he sucks,” at local bars. There is not a coach in this league that would cause any of those three things to not be so. The prevailing logic during the mess that was October was that it was either the players or the coach, and the team couldn’t keep both of them. Well, who’s won more? Who’s been more consistent in his success over such an array of teams? Because Tim Connolly has no heart you’re going to fire the coach? See if James Patrick can suddenly get him to take pride in his play? He’s an empty vessel. I don’t care if you take Herb Brooks from Miracle, Tony D’Amato in Any Given Sunday, and Gary Gaines from Friday Night Lights and rolled them together into one supercoach, you’re not getting Tim Connolly to do squat. He’s in a contact year for gods sake, his last chance at a big payday, you think the problem is it’s the wrong middle aged white guy screaming at him? Please. I have my issues with Ruff, usually on line choices and not benching the right players (Stafford over Ennis on the top line to start the season was atrocious) but dammit, the guy has won. If this current collection wins a playoff round he should get coach of the year in a walk. You shouldn’t need a “motivator” at this level, you should need a guy who can institute a system that will take advantage of the opponents soft spots and lead to scoring opportunities. Ruff is a master at the latter and he’s always been pretty good at the former even though he shouldn’t have to be. This is professional sports. If the players have tuned out, then the players should be shipped out. But luckily that conversation is moot- for now.
I’ll Keep Making This Argument Until He’s gone
Patrick Lalime in Buffalo: 9-24-5 (0-3 this season)
Jhonas Enroth this season: 2-1-1
Ryan Miller’s backup is the first guy while the second guy is in Portland. I don’t care if your stats are slightly better. For all the talk in the locker room about how much they love Lalime, they certainly have little problem not scoring in front of him. #40 has been benched once this season and seems to be nothing more than a mascot in goalie equipment. I’m still waiting for Leopold to shove him away during one of these overtime celebrations and yell “you didn’t do anything!” Meanwhile Enroth’s sitting in some apartment in Maine shaking his head. Call me crazy, but with a star goalie who has already missed several games this season, shouldn’t we have the guy that the team gets up in front of? I’m just saying.
- If Chris Butler was a Colombian soccer player, someone would have shot him a long time ago.
- Also, is it time for me to stop hating Steve Montador? I don’t think so but being the league leader in +/- definitely earns you a moratorium for a few games. I’m friends with what has to be the only non-relative fan of Montador in all of Sabreland and he seems to see this as some sort of vindication to his “I like Montador” platform. But until recently Tyler Myers was the worst in the league at +/-. Does this mean I think he sucks or is suddenly one of the worst defensemen in the league? Of course not. It’s easy to take a certain sample of games to prove your theory one way or another (Patrick Lalime started 14-0-2, he’s great!!!), I feel Montador will come back to earth just as Myers is beginning to show flashes of last season finally. But for now I’ll lay of the swearing tirades if Monty turns a puck over.
- Myers’ goal Monday was one of the most exciting plays I’ve seen in a long time to end the most exciting overtime I can
remember. It’s that spontaneity that reminds me why I love hockey so much. One second the pucks about to be cleared, the next it’s in the back of the net. As I was watching that clip on repeat before bed I couldn’t help but think of how amazing it would be to have a play like that end a playoff series in Buffalo’s favor. No matter how grounded and pessimistic I find myself during a trying season- and this has been the epitome of a trying season so far- I can never help myself from having a vivid perception of what playoff celebrations feel like and that addict’s urge to feel that again. I may sit here and snidely critique the team’s performance, but I can guarantee you that when I’m home for the holiday’s the drunk conversation will somehow meander it’s way to what we would do and what it would be like to win a Stanley Cup. It happens several times a season and will happen again during 2010-2011. And I look forward to that.
- Congratulations to Mike Grier and 1,000 games. He’s certainly not going to win you games by himself but if he starts clicking while the stars are clicking, look out. Love his play lately. Do work, son.
- I love watching Tyler Ennis. I had a couple concerns at the beginning to this season, namely that Tim Connolly had managed to steal his mojo and turn him into an animatron in order to cover up his own apathy, but suddenly he looks like the Calder finalist I think he will be. Of course I should give credit where credit it due: thanks Drew Stafford for getting injured and allowing Ennis to move up to the top line, it may be your best contribution this season. Do you see a little Briere in Ennis? I do, even if I’ve been trying to see Briere in everything since 7/1/07. Regardless, I will have a Tyler Ennis jersey before the all-star break.
- Check out Ryan Miller being hilarious.
This is an incredibly important stretch of games coming up. Not necessarily because of the opponents, although they are nearly all near the top of the standings, but because of what message this will send to the team and the fans going forward. They sit on the precipice of .500 and the eight spot in the conference. After all of this they might as well be 0-0-1. A 6-3-1 stretch here would put them above .500 and show the league that they would be a force to be respected as the season evolves. A 3-6-1 stretch and HSBC will revert back the cacophony of boos it was for first month of the season, the heat will be back on the coach and most of the fans will have chalked up the recent hot streak to a fluke. After the Vancouver game my friend posted a status rhetorically asking if these were the real Sabres. I’d like to think so but something tells me we’re not going to know who the “real” Sabres are for a very long time. Either that or the real Sabres are a lot like an elderly man who is in great shape, can manage real estate and take care of his family but will inexplicably choose go down to the basement to yell at his grandson and twenty of his friends for being too loud in nothing but his underwear. Of course even if that’s the case, we still might have a hell of a lot of fun this season.