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Sizing Up The Northeast Division

Puck drops on Sabres season Friday night at HSBC

After a couple years of short off-seasons, it seems that hockey has been gone forever, doesn’t it?

March 30, to be exact, was the last time the Buffalo Sabres played meaningful hockey here at home. Since that time, there has been nothing but positive news coming out of HSBC Arena. All the Sabres’ prized assets, including stars Ryan Miller and Jason Pominville, were signed to long-term contracts.

Ryan Miller

While the AHL affiliation change from Rochester to Portland was at first greeted with skepticism and disappointment, the team will control its own farm system for the first time in years, and general manager Darcy Regier wasted no time in signing top prospects such as Nathan Gerbe, Tim Kennedy, and Jhonas Enroth among others to the team.

Joining the Sabres via a trade from San Jose is defenseman Craig Rivet, who brings not only size and strength to the blue line but a leadership presence as well. Defenseman Teppo Numminen is back and will add his veteran strength. The much-maligned Maxim Afinogenov has shown flashes of the old Max during this preseason.

With all this, can one help but get excited? Will the Sabres take on the look of the Sabres of old and once again qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs?

Standing in the way are several Northeast Division foes, some of whom will be even tougher this season. With the new scheduling format, teams will only play each other within their divisions six times rather than eight, but nonetheless the Sabres will have to do well against their rivals if they hope to make the playoffs.

Here is a snapshot look at each of the Northeast teams and how they might fare this year:

Montreal Canadiens—The Habs are the consensus pick to win the division this year among the media, fans, and pundits. And why not?

The team is chock full of talented forwards and a good defense, and really the only variable is the play of goaltender Carey Price. Trading for Robert Lang, whose best days are behind him, could be a drag, however. And the roster is seasoned but old, so a couple injuries could set them back. But right now the bet is that the Canadiens will sit on top of the Eastern Conference come playoff time.

Boston Bruins—Big Zdeno Chara might be everyone’s bad guy around here, but he leads a stellar defense in what is otherwise an offensively challenged team. Remember that the Bruins did manage to sneak into the playoffs last season and came within one game of pulling a huge upset against the best team in the conference. If Claude Julien can get some scoring out of this year’s squad, they could prove to be quite a handful.

Buffalo Sabres—Ryan Miller is signed long-term. Distraction gone. All the Sabres’ top players are under contract and raring to go. Distraction gone. Will Thomas Vanek shed the cobwebs which plagued him last season and become the Vanek of old? Ditto for Maxim Afinogenov. Will Tim Connolly finally get healthy? Will the defense overachieve? Answer yes to all these questions and the Sabres should be playing hockey come late April.

Ottawa Senators—Yes, the big line is still there—Heatley, Alfredsson, and Spezza—and they will still make noise. But the loss of Wade Redden on the blue line is more than just an ouch, it is a huge hole in the lineup. So even with Team Canada specialist Craig Hartsburg in control, look for the Ottawa Senators to continue the free fall that began just after winning the Eastern Conference championship right here in Buffalo back in May 2007.

Toronto Maple Leafs—The big off-season acquisition? Jeff Finger! New coach Ron Wilson will have a tough time keeping his team out of the league’s basement, and really, his hands are tied. The Mats Sundin era is apparently over in Toronto as well, so look for the Leaves to be contenders not for points in the standings but first place in the Tavares derby come next year’s draft.


Taro toured the arena and checked out some of the new things fans can expect to see on opening night…

• New murals in the pavilion just beyond the ticket turnstile showcase last New Year’s Winter Classic at Ralph Wilson Stadium in a great way. Props (again) to Sabres’ creative guru Frank Cravotta!

• New reserved tables ring the 200 level Harbour Club, and an accompanying drink rail allows for more great viewing areas for standees.

• The big party suite in one corner of the Harbour Club has been deconstructed, replaced with two bar areas and wider concourses for better traffic flow.

• New graphics on the ribbon boards look super cool. Fans will also see stat boards on the scoreboard at regular intervals, displaying players’ ice time.

• Coca-Cola products will be replacing Pepsi at the arena, as the team signed a five-year deal with Coke for pouring rights.

The fun all starts Friday night at 5pm with the “Party in the Plaza.” Live music from Strictly Hip, food, drink, fun, and special celebrity appearances make this the place to be at. Then the puck drops inside at 7:30pm as the Montreal Canadiens come to town.

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