Posted: Monday October 9, 2006 11:35AM; Updated: Monday October 9, 2006 3:54PM
Winger Jason Pominville (29), a second-round pick in 2001, is one of 14 homegrown Sabres who have opened the season.
Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images
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The Buffalo Sabres won all three of their games in the NHL's first week of action, including a strong showing in the place where it all ended for them last spring. Unlike last season's heartbreaking 4-2 loss in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, the Sabres won the return engagement to Raleigh in a shootout over the Hurricanes. Small consolation, sure, but it seemed something larger than a mere victory was in play.
There is a sense that the Sabres are supremely motivated by coming so close last season. They've dealt with the disappointment and taken the positive from their near-miss with such a depleted lineup. No sour grapes. No woe is us. Just a reinforced, refocused collective belief that they are the team to beat.
Indeed, that mental maturation and the Sabres' superb talent should take them far this year. They skate fast and furiously, with a sense of purpose on offense and passion on defense. Their puck support and passing is dizzying in its relentless precision. They play five men up and five men back, looking to push the pace when they have the puck and apply pressure to get it back as quickly as possible when they don't.
Their roster went through some minor turnover, but the addition of Jaroslav Spacek to the defense is a perfect fit. The veteran rear guard is an excellent outlet passer and a nice option in manning the point on the power play. Mostly, though, the Sabres' plan is similar to last season's -- give more opportunity to guys who've grown up in the organization. Their opening-night roster featured 14 of their own draft picks. By contrast, the defending Stanley Cup-champion Hurricanes had but five of their picks suited up.
For the Sabres this season, then, it means defenseman Brian Campbell plays in more varied situations. Centerman Jiri Novotny gets quality minutes on the penalty kill and in other defensive situations. On offense, the Sabres aren't looking to just one guy to lead them. Instead, Ales Kotalik will see increased ice time, with Derek Roy and Jason Pommenville -- guys who provided timely playoff tallies -- penciled in with the notion of having more and bigger goals ahead of them.
Making it all hang together for Lindy Ruff -- last season's Coach of the Year -- is the goaltending of Ryan Miller and Martin Biron. Miller was sharp in his two wins to start the season, and Biron impressed in his first outing, a 34-save, 4-3 win at Ottawa on Saturday. So while as many as 10 teams hope to establish a new No. 1 netminder in the Eastern Conference, both of the Sabres' netminders already have wins.
All in all, it was a fast start -- both in the standings and in style of play -- by the Sabres, who are fueled by a spring they are determined to reprise, albeit with a much more positive result.