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Blueliners, Special Teams Propelling Sabres' Hot Start


No disrespect to Thomas Vanek, who has earned the NHL’s “First Star of the Week” last week, after recording nine points (seven goals and two assists) in the team’s first five games of the season.

Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller

Ditto for Sabres netminders Ryan Miller and Patrick Lalime, whose play has ranged from solid to superb thus far.

The talk up and down the corridors and in the locker room at HSBC Arena has been the defense. And the special teams. Consider this: Until this past Tuesday, game six of the season, the Sabres had yet to allow a power play goal. In the game down at Atlanta this past Saturday, the Sabres were two men short for a spell. No problem.

Adding to this accomplishment is the fact that penalty kill specialist Jochen Hecht is on the disabled list with a broken thumb. Paul Gaustad has also been sidelined, and some good news on the injury front as Tim Connolly began skating with the club this past Monday. While head coach Lindy Ruff offered no timetable for his eventual return, he said, “Good to get him back out. I’m not going to put any time frame on it. We’ll see how he reacts to skating and the skates will get tougher each day. Once we get him back in there it won’t be this play scenario or have him play a game here and a game there. We’ll get him healthy and get him back.”

The Sabres have gone with three defensive pairings this season—Henrik Tallinder’s level of play has actually improved since lining up with newcomer Craig Rivet. The Slovak and Czech duo of Andrej Sekera and Jaroslav Spacek are getting noticed as well, with Sekera developing ahead of schedule, and Spacek adding his scoring touch to solid defensive play. Toni Lydman and Teppo Numminen have also paired up well together, with Lydman doing a good job of shutting down opposition lanes and clearing the zone quickly.

Spacek admits that what the team is doing this year that differs from last year is just execution. “You know, we watch a lot of tape, especially for power pays and penalty kills, and the key to this is to move the puck better. On the power play that usually means more scoring chances, and on the penalties a better chance to get the puck out of trouble more quickly.”

By Tuesday morning, nobody really wanted to talk about “the streak,” the five-game run of keeping the opposition from scoring on the power play. “By now it’s a matter of bragging,” Spacek said. “None of us want to be on the ice when that first goal happens, but you know one is going to get by us eventually. But for now all the guys are just egging each other on. It happens one shift at a time.”

Ruff laughed when asked about the scoreless streak after Tuesday’s morning practice. “You had to bring that up, didn’t you?

“It’s really been a combination of a lot of things. It’s been good penalty killing. It’s been timely saves. But really when you get on a roll it’s something the guys take a lot of pride in trying to stay on a roll and we’d like to keep it going.”

Craig Rivet added that improved defense has been the focus for the team since training camp began. “Since day one that has been our focus. We wanted to play well defensively. Complementing that is that we’ve gotten our goal scorers out there and have managed to get ourselves a lot of goals. The guys are all committed to this system and that is what we want.”

The Bruins put an end to the streak in the second period of Tuesday’s game when Phil Kessel lit the lamp with roughly 20 seconds remaining on a two-minute power play. Despite that, the Sabres continued their winning ways in a 3-2 shootout win.

The team will take their new defensive look into two tough buildings these next few days—at Minnesota and at Colorado—before returning home on Monday to face the Ottawa Senators.


• Great seats still available. The opener was a sellout, but the games against Vancouver and Boston fell slightly short of the 18,690 mark, with yawning gaps of blue seats in the upper reaches of the corner balcony.

• Sabres and Bills were in first place simultaneously earlier this week! The two clubs haven’t gotten off to starts like this since 1975 when the Bills were 4-0 and the Sabres were 8-0. For good measure, the NBA Buffalo Braves also started off the 1975-76 season 4-0. Just sayin’.

• Prior to the Bruins game the Sabres were one of three teams not to allow a power play goal all season, the others being Los Angeles (0/23) and Minnesota(0/15).

• Useless stat of the week: Daniel Paille is the only player in the NHL with more than one shorthanded assist. He has two.

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