Please Don't Quit On Us!
by Andrew Kulyk & Peter Farrell
Most desperate teams will win playoff prize: Will it be the Buffalo Sabres? Is this team for real or are they just a tease?
Those questions will be answered in the frenetic last two weeks of the regular season, as the Buffalo Sabres play their final eight games, all against opponents who are fighting for their own berths in the Stanley Cup playoffs, or for seeding advantages. Either way, the road to the Stanley Cup starts now. Each point gained in the standings is huge, each point denied devastating.
The month of March hasn’t been easy. In the aftermath of the trade deadline and the loss of Brian Campbell, the Sabres defensive unit has suffered some crippling injuries: Jaroslav Spacek, Dmitri Kalinin and Nathan Paetsch are all sidelined, and Henrik Tallinder has missed some action.
As a result, Coach Lindy Ruff has had to dig deep into the reserves from Rochester—first Andrej Sekera, then Mike Weber and Michael Funk have all been called up and pressed into action.
Whatever has happened to the dull and listless Buffalo Sabres has seemed to work. This past weekend the team played some of its most inspired and passionate hockey of the season, routing a hot Carolina Hurricanes team 7-1 at HSBC Arena, then traveling to Toronto the following night to play the surging Maple Leafs. They won that game 6-2 and thrust themselves right back into the playoff hunt.
After the Carolina game, Ruff said, “I said this morning that tomorrow’s headline should read ‘Desperate Team Wins Game.’ There’s no reason we shouldn’t be by far the more desperate team.”
Desperation. Big games. All of a sudden it is Buffalo that seems to have renewed strength and purpose.
“It’s pretty much us against everybody right now,” Ryan Miller told the media after the Leafs game in Toronto. “You go out and worry about your own game and get your own points. You’re definitely not concerned about the other teams because it’s their problem.”
“Huge? Every game is huge,” forward Derek Roy said after the Carolina game. “But nobody in this locker room is counting us out yet. There are still plenty of stories to be written before this season comes to an end.”
Toni Lydman was quick to praise his new fellow defensemen, all who came up huge against Carolina. Save for one glaring Mike Weber giveaway right to the front of the net in the first period, the young backliners spent the entire night disrupting Carolina’s offensive flow. When the Hurricanes managed to get shots on net, Miller came up big.
“Yeah the new guys sure came up big when they had to, and that helps all of us,” said Lydman. “That Mike Funk fella didn’t do too badly either,” Lydman joked, loudly enough so that Funk could hear the comment as he sat in the next stall. Funk nodded, beaming from ear to ear. Funk logged substantial ice time in both weekend games, while Sekera and Weber were both a +4 on the ice against Carolina and a +2 against Toronto.
The Sabres are chasing the Boston Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers for the seventh and eighth seeds in the conference. The Flyers seem to have the toughest schedule, having to face divisional rivals Pittsburgh, New Jersey and the New York Rangers twice each. Meantime Boston also must face Montreal and Ottawa twice.
Circle your calendar for Sunday, March 30 and Saturday, April 5. On those dates the Sabres and the Bruins meet head to head, first at HSBC Arena and then on the final night of the season at Boston’s TD Banknorth Garden. “This is the time of the year we scoreboard watch,” admitted Ruff. “We’re looking at the standings but we also know we have to take care of our own business,” added Jason Pominville, who was one of the big stars in both games this past weekend. “We have to be the more desperate team.”
Desperate. If that was the buzzword in the locker room this past weekend, then the Sabres will be just fine. But hopefully the players also saw a fan-produced sign in the building, hanging on the wall high up in the 300s in the west end zone. The plea was simple and poignant: “Please don’t quit on us.”
■ “The Kaleta Leap” was in hiatus after Patrick Kaleta registered his third goal of the season against Carolina. “I kind of cut it in half…I was down on my knees when the puck went in,” explained a smiling Kaleta. His “leap” is the trademark move—he slams into the boards after scoring a goal—which he first showed when he got his first NHL goal against Florida back in February.
■ The Florida Panthers have won seven games in a row. File this stat under: The only time that Puckstop will have two references to the Panthers in a single column.
■ The San Jose Sharks have yet to lose a game with Brian Campbell on the roster.
■ The Devils’ Martin Brodeur has now won at least 40 games in a season for a record seventh time with Saturday’s 4-2 win over the Avalanche. Nice to have shootouts to help pad that record. Just kiddin’, Marty (maybe).
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