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Why is Everyone Piling on the Sabres?

Like they say, it’s déjà vu all over again. When the NHL emerged from its lockout in 2005-06, all the prognosticators had the Sabres penned in as close to the last in the league.

So what happened that year? The team was well suited to the faster, flashier new NHL, and went on not only to the playoffs but to the conference finals and within a whisker of winning the Stanley Cup.

Here we are, four years later, and the purveyors of gloom and doom are at it again, predicting the worst for the Sabres. Can Buffalo fool the naysayers again? Of course they can, but only if the team stays healthy, the players who form the heart of this team play to their potential, and the new toughness that has been lacking these past two seasons meets the demands of current realities around the league.

Many were disappointed, but not surprised, that general manager Darcy Regier did not do more to shore up this team during the summer. The addition of defenseman Steve Montador and the return of Mike Grier has fans asking if the team is more concerned about the financial bottom line than doing whatever is necessary to build a winner.

“Not so,” says defenseman Nathan Paetsch. “We have the nucleus of a very good club right in this room. We came so close last year, there’s no reason we can’t seal the deal if everyone stays focused.”

Paetsch is in familiar territory, riding the end of a deep defensive bench which might see him in street clothes once the season begins. “I have no control over that,” Paetsch says. “I can only go out there every night and do my best and whatever happens, happens.”

The Sabres have tried to make the team bigger and more physical. The return of Mike Grier to the squad adds an intimidating presence up front. Cody McCormick will be tagged as “the enforcer,” although Coach Lindy Ruff scoffs at the premise that just one player will shoulder that role. “I don’t think we’re looking for a sole enforcer. I think we’re looking at a team effort when it comes to that,” says Ruff. “I think you can look in a lot of directions—Montador, Rivet, Gaustad, and Kaleta. I think we got a pretty tough team.”

The Sabres will have to play tough if they want to hang with their Northeast Division foes. But they will also have to get production from their top line players. In other words, Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, and Tim Connolly will have to stay healthy and play to the high expectations placed on their shoulders. Drew Stafford got his big contract, now he needs to produce. Ruff continues to show faith in Clarke MacArthur. He needs to produce.

Defense is the biggest concern as the season begins, with captain Craig Rivet now anchoring the blueliners. Chris Butler has had a poor camp, but rookie Tyler Myers is showing flashes of brilliance with his lanky, 6’ 8” frame and his long reach, and comparisons to Zdeno Chara are certainly justified.

Ryan Miller is Buffalo’s best hope for returning to the Stanley Cup playoffs next spring. If he hadn’t gone down to injury last February, one could argue that the Sabres would have finished in the top eight. But remember that this is an Olympic year, and Miller will undoubtedly be the man for Team USA in Vancouver next February. So look for backup Patrick Lalime to get more starts in net this year.

Ruff feels good about this team going into the season. “I think the desperation and emotion has been there. We’re trying to play a real hard puck pressure game. When the desperation is there you will do fine.”

Forward Jason Pominville liked what he saw in his team as the Sabres beat the Toronto Maple Leafs last week at home, en route to a 4-1-1 preseason finish. “The emotion was definitely there. Everyone on this team understands that not making the playoffs three years straight is unacceptable. There is enough talent and skill on this team. Now we need to make it happen.”

The optimism that the players project indicates that these guys believe in themselves and each other, and that alone inspires more confidence than owner Tom Golisano promising to chew on his microphone if his team falls short.

Look for the Sabres to finally figure out the Ottawa Senators and ride rough over the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens, en route to a second place finish in the division and a return to the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The fun begins this Saturday at HSBC Arena against the Canadiens. Game on.


• Drew Stafford had to have his lip stitched not once but twice, after getting hit in the same spot in preseason games at Washington and last week at home against Toronto. Ruff joked, “At least it was after the red carpet walk,” referring to the pregame event out on the plaza earlier that evening.

• All 82 games will appear on television this season, most on MSG, with the remainder on Versus and NBC. Taro likes that 53 of those games will be telecast in amazing high definition.

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