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The Northeast Division Gauntlet

Have you had enough of Northeast Division opposition for a while?

Throughout almost the entire month of November, the Buffalo Sabres have played against their divisional rivals—Ottawa, Montreal, Boston and Toronto. In fact, there were nine straight games against the Northeast, in what was an odd scheduling quirk.

Earlier this month, the Sabres were well aware that they could earn divisional bragging rights and seeding in the standings with a successful performance in this stretch. “We know what the challenge is ahead of us,” said coach Lindy Ruff back on November 2, following a particularly dreary loss at home against the Florida Panthers.

As the Sabres geared up to travel to Montreal to begin these games, a number of players were looking forward to the challenge. “There is no better way to separate the contenders from the rest in the division then by going right after them,” said Brian Campbell.

“Yeah, it’s going to be a test, and we’re going to get to know these guys very well this coming month,” added Toni Lydman.

The first week of the gauntlet did not look too kindly towards the Sabres, as they went 1-3, with their lone win an overtime affair against the Boston Bruins at home. An offensive drought resulted in being shut out twice, at the hands of Montreal and Toronto. Following the loss to the Leafs, Lindy Ruff lamented about the bad breaks that seemed to be cursing his team. “We’re hitting posts, we’re hitting legs and we’re missing open nets,” said Ruff. “I’m disappointed the puck isn’t going into the net.”

By the middle of the month, the defending President’s Trophy squad found itself in a spot no one had imagined—dead last in the NHL—yet Ruff continued to insist that through all the losses and lack of scoring, he saw signs of continued improvement.

“You can see it in the effort that they [the players] believe it,” he said.

By the time the Sabres returned home to face Montreal on November 16, they were looking at some ugly statistics: They had surrendered the first goal in each of 14 straight games and had an appointment with destiny, the league record being 17. The team had not held a lead at any point in regulation time since playing down in Florida three weeks earlier. In their previous three games they recorded 113 shots on net, yet had only three goals to show for it.

And now they had to face the white-hot Montreal Canadiens three times, sandwiched in with a home showdown against the Ottawa Senators.

We now know that the Sabres turned this dismal streak around, with four electric and convincing wins over the division leaders. Make no mistake, Ryan Miller’s sudden re-emergence as the franchise goaltender had much to do with this as anything. At one point Ruff was asked, “With all the lack of scoring lately, might Miller have to pitch a shutout for us to be successful?” Ruff’s reply: “He might have to.” In the first game against Montreal, Miller made 36 saves and the Sabres were clearly the more desperate team. Afterwards one could feel the old spark, and players wanted to hit the ice again right away.

Unfortunately, the team would have to wait until the following Wednesday, when the Ottawa Senators came to town. Buffalo scored early—goals by Michael Ryan, Ales Kotalik and Derek Roy had the crowd on their feet—and while the Senators made it close, Miller locked it down in the third to give the Sabres the win. Two nights later it was more of the same, with Thomas Vanek and Tim Connolly both lighting the lamp, and it was Vanek’s goal late in the third period that proved to be the game-winner.

Miller’s eight straight starts, allowing two or fewer goals in six of those games, was a huge factor in the team’s fortunes, but it was backup netminder Jocelyn Thibault who put the icing on the cake, earning a shutout in his old stomping grounds in Montreal this past Saturday. Thibault was the happiest guy out on the ice when the final horn sounded.

With the gauntlet now over, the Sabres posted a 5-4 record, but clearly got better as they went along. Ryan Miller was very happy. “We knew the breaks would come our way eventually, and everyone here knows that this is a much better team than it was a month ago, myself included,” said Miller. “I would definitely give us a good grade, and even though the standings don’t bear that out right now, I would say that this division is still very much up for grabs.”

TARO SEZ…

■ We have it on good authority that the attractive lady doing the chicken dance on the videoboard at the Ottawa game was none other than Ryan Miller’s mom.

■ Cool sign: “Vote for Rory ’08”. Not this again!

■ Take the “olé olé olé olé” soccer song, replace the lyrics with “go home, go home,” and you have a nice send-off song for all those Habs fans from Montreal…err…Point Abino and St. Catharines. Nice job, Sabres fans!

■ December 30, 7pm at Kleinhans Music Hall—the Buffalo Philharmonic, JoAnn Falletta, Ronan Tynan, Ryan Miller, Drew Stafford. Be there!