Sabres' mix of speed, grit and talent fuels hot start
Posted: Friday October 27, 2006 6:56PM; Updated: Monday October 30, 2006 12:13AM
Chris Drury is leading the NHL with 10 goals. But as the Sabres' quiet captain, he has brought total balance to an undefeated club.
With their 3-0 win against the New York Islanders Thursday night, the Buffalo Sabres jumped to 10-0 and tied the NHL record set by the 1993-94 Toronto Maple Leafs for the most consecutive victories to start an NHL season. The Sabres will try to break the record against the Thrashers at home on Saturday night. There are many reasons to think that this year's club is for real. Here are 10 things we love about the 2006-07 Sabres:
Behind Buffalo's bench since the 1997-98 season, Lindy Ruff is now the longest-tenured NHL coach. Yet the ex-defenseman has adapted to the changing NHL as well as anyone. When he first took over behind the bench, Ruff seemed to prefer players like him who played his style: old school, rough, steady. (How many teams had a Brad May, RobRay AND Matthew Barnaby on its roster?) The team took few chances and defensemen rarely rushed the puck. As mobile defensemen such as Alexei Zhitnik joined the roster, Ruff opened up when it was appropriate. He is now employing a style that is perfectly suited for the post-lockout NHL.
Sabres general manager Darcy Regier has a knack for finding talent and being patient with players he believes in. He told anyone who would listen that forward Ales Kotalik would fit in with the Sabres and he was right. Regier also isn't afraid to make unconventional moves. He let free agent Jay McKee get away to St. Louis because, frankly, the Sabres didn't have McKee, a solid defenseman, rated as highly as other teams. This leads us to reason No. 3 ...
The team does not have one franchise defenseman; rather, it has six players who do everything well and fast. They can join the rush, make quick outlet passes and get back to break up odd-man rushes. At 38, Teppo Numminen, always considered a finesse backliner, is now the slow one of the group. Brian Campbell, Toni Lydman, Dmitri Kalinen, Henrik Tallinder and Jaroslav Spacek are not quite interchangeable, but all have speed and understand the needs of Ruff's modern system.
SPEED, SPEED, SPEED
Earlier this season, Rangers forward Jaromir Jagr, who knows a few things about the speed game, compared the Sabres' forwards to race cars. "If you put in a Ferrari, very good gas, it's just going to go," Jagr Said. "They just play so good together. When the defense gets the puck, two guys are just flying up the ice." Buffalo forwards have scored at least breakaway or odd-man rush goal in all 10 of its victories. Watching Maxim Afinogenov split the Islander defense on consecutive shifts Thursday night was akin to watching a broken game in which some pieces are operating on low battery, while another runs on hyper speed.
The Sabres are ahead of it. It is one thing to have speed and another to know what to do with it. When an opposing team turns the puck over the Sabres move up as a unit of five, with defensemen joining the rush and forwards able to criss-cross with precision. It's the closest thing the NHL has seen to the Soviet Red Army since the Edmonton Oilers of the early-and-mid-80s. As Gretzky's Oilers were the template for teams of their generation, the Sabres have adjusted more quickly to a league in which forwards can't hold up their checks in the neutral zone, defensemen can't nudge charging forwards towards the sideboards and teams' abilities to transition from defense to offense is paramount to success. Ever watch John Madden, the Devils' aggressive penalty-killing forward when his team creates a turnover?