How Do The Sabres Do It?

The Buffalo Sabres, a young team prone to cracking under pressure due to inexperience?

That was what everyone said about this team going into the playoffs. At times during the season perhaps that was true, but not in the playoffs so far. Now with game 5 and their 2nd round series over, I’m fairly certain they’ve answered a few questions people had about them going into the playoffs. People counted them out against Philadelphia, people counted them out against Ottawa, and I’m sure people will say either Carolina or New Jersey will handle the Sabres too. True, all 4 of those teams are capable of willing a series against the Sabres, but Buffalo exploited Philly’s weaknesses, and exploited Ottawa’s weaknesses. I’m willing to bet they will be trying to find weaknesses to exploit in Carolina or New Jersey.

How did the Sabres beat Philly? Using their speed around the defense and beating Esche who aside from game 1 did not play very well. What weakness could be created in the mighty Conference winning Ottawa Senators? Their offense was the best in the league, and their defense dominated this year. Their goaltending was the only question mark going into the playoffs with Dominik Hasek predictably sidelined with a groin injury. Ottawa’s collapse began before the playoffs, they didn’t play a single meaningful game for the last month of the season aside from barely winning the division. The desperate teams that needed wins went into Ottawa and took them. Ottawa handled a relatively weak Tampa team that fought their way into the playoffs on the strength of Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards. They weren’t really ready to face the Sabres, and I’ll tell you why.

The Sabres won many 1 goal games all year in all types of situations. Winning games coming from behind going into the 3rd, breaking ties in the 3rd period, or holding leads to win games. They played with playoff intensity well before the playoffs ever began. They overcame adversity with Danny Briere and J.P. Dumont going down for 3 months each with groin injuries, and Ryan Miller’s broken thumb. Players like Derek Roy and Jason Pominville were put in the lineup and produced when the team needed it. Ryan Miller was a clutch goaltender and always bounced back with strong performances after rough games, or just losses that he believed should have been wins. And finally, Ottawa’s leaders did not lead the team in the series against Buffalo. Spezza and Fisher were probably the hardest working players on the team, not the expected leaders like Heatley, Havlat, or captain Daniel Alfredsson. Zdeno Chara and Wade Redden were relatively invisible defensively, Brian Pothier worked harder than either of them. At times during the regular season the Senators looked to be in a class all by themselves, totally untouchable. But that wasn’t the case in this playoff series. Ottawa could have won the series despite the Sabres’s toughness if these key players had stepped up when the team needed them the most. Heart was the one thing this amazing Ottawa team appeared to lack, and that was what won the series for Buffalo.

Sure I’m biased, I’m a Sabres fan regardless of how the next series ends, and I’m proud of this team. They’ve been counted out all year and have really stepped it up to a new level with every challenge they faced. This is the best Sabres team I’ve ever seen, and I want to see them go all the way. Even the 1999 team was not as strong as this one, that team relied on a checking defense and an all world goaltender who no one could score on. The offense clicked at the right time for them, but they relied on a few key players (Satan, Peca, Varada, Woolley etc). This team has balance throughout the lineup and all 4 lines can be dangerous. The defense contributes offensively and still plays solid defense, and while Ryan Miller is not yet an all world goaltender like Dominik Hasek was, he appears to perhaps be on the way to it.

While I think Carolina will be the team Buffalo plays, New Jersey could win another game and stretch the series. Carolina is just like the Sabres, they have great speed, strong offense, and a solid young goaltender in Cam Ward. Their defense can be beaten, but the Sabres defense is not invulnerable either. If Erik Cole were going to play in that series it would be hard to say the Sabres can win. But Carolina is a lot like Ottawa, just a little bit tougher, younger, and more experienced I think. I am excited to see who it’s going to be, but I’m hoping the Canes and Devils beat the crap out of each other first.