01 November 2006

Buffalo vs. Atlanta


Atlanta and Buffalo

It’s not often that I feel compelled to write about a single regular season game, but last Saturday night’s mega-hyped game between the 10-0 Buffalo Sabres and the 7-1-3 Atlanta Thrashers had the makings of an early-season classic. As it turned out it became the “Rocky II” of the season (only…without the drawn-out maudlin Adrian-in-a-coma section to kill the excitement), with Atlanta playing the role of Rocky Balboa to Buffalo’s Apollo Creed - withstanding wave after wave of punches and then brutally taking advantage of the occasional letdown, sometimes due to the Sabres’ overconfident play.

Tickets were being scalped for up to $300 as Buffalo fans were there to see if the Sabres could break the all-time record for consecutive wins at the start of a season. Alas, the result – Atlanta winning 5-4 in a shootout – ended Buffalo’s undefeated streak (15 straight regular season wins dating back to last season) and may spark some eventual debate to exactly who the best team in the Eastern Conference is this year. Not only did the game give fans a showcase of two excellent teams battling to a virtual draw, it also gave each of these teams things to learn from for the rest of the season.

In my column last week, I asked the question “how are they doing it?” regarding the Atlanta Thrashers’ great start to the season. After watching the game on Saturday night the answers are clearer to me. Atlanta plays a fantastic team game; nearly everyone seems to buy into their defensive system, which overcomes any supposed lack of elite depth. On Saturday night, the Thrashers on my count gave up no odd-man rushes, and to a team as dynamic as the Buffalo Sabres that is a high accomplishment. The Atlanta forwards consistently back-checked all night – often times they could be found as far back as the goal line getting in the path of Buffalo passes. All night, Buffalo was generating rushes from their defensive zone but found tough resistance from Atlanta through the neutral zone. Perhaps the most impressive feat was Atlanta’s ability to consistently get in the way of Buffalo shots in all three periods, both by numerous stick deflections and blocked shots. Defensemen Greg DeVries and Andy Sutton blocked 17 shots between just the two of them.

Atlanta’s big name forwards didn’t have much of an impact on the victory, which should speak well for their squad as a whole. Ilya Kovalchuk was held in check for over two periods but in the third period did come alive when the team needed him most. His goal - nearly four minutes into the third period (and only one minute after the Sabres had tied the score for the third time) - deflated some of the Sabres momentum. He began to play a more physical game and during one Buffalo flurry flung himself to the ice in front of a Toni Lydman shot, blocking it and diffusing the immediate threat. Marian Hossa – leading the league in goals and points at game time - ended up with five shots but was not a major factor as he was held to just one second assist. Slava Kozlov – despite getting the eventual shootout winner – was invisible most of the night, playing on the perimeter of the action. Instead, Atlanta got great contributions from depth players and especially veteran forwards Bobby Holik (playing his 1100th NHL game) and Scott Mellanby, and hung on with every Buffalo attack.

Kari Lehtonen was perhaps Atlanta’s biggest story; his rather non-textbook play is in stark contrast to the cool mechanical stylings of Buffalo’s Ryan Miller, and of course means nothing – he is a top notch talent no matter how he stops the puck (I’m reminded of an offhand comment I heard sometime around 1993 from former Buffalo General Manager John Muckler with regards to then-fledgling goaltender Dominik Hasek – Muckler described him as being “a fantastic athlete who has no idea how to play goal” – the cliché “more than one way to skin a cat” can apply there…). When the Sabres’ dazzling moves were too much for the four or five men in front of him, Kari was nearly always up to the task (excepting a big rebound on the game-tying goal late in the third period).

Despite the win – impressive as it was on the road in front of a raucous pro-Buffalo crowd – Atlanta is still no match for the Sabres’ talent. Buffalo dictated the pace for much of the night. However, talent isn’t everything (see also: Ottawa Senators not advancing past the second round last year) – coach Bob Hartley and the Thrashers are proving that having a few elite players and an entire team buy into one system could be enough to carry the team to a division title, but therein lies the danger: if the team lets down from their cohesive style they don’t have the depth to keep up with the more talented teams in the league. It will be interesting to see how well they adhere to this thus-far winning formula.

As for the still-unbeaten-in-regulation Buffalo Sabres, they can take many lessons from Saturday night’s game. Indeed, they did control the play for huge portions of the game – I’ve yet to see a team this year better able to transition out of their defensive zone to begin a rush up ice. Even though Atlanta gave them more trouble than most teams have, Buffalo still proved far superior in that regard, and only Atlanta’s strict attention to positional play kept Buffalo from having even more scoring chances.

Yet there were some signs in this game of things the Sabres need to be aware of going forward. Perhaps the most glaring is that the team shows the occasional lapse in positional play and will often get too cute with the puck. This team has so much talent that they appear to often resorting to pond hockey which, although making for great viewing, leads to excessive turnovers and inevitable Lindy Ruff tirades. Each of Atlanta’s first three goals were a direct result of careless play by the Sabres: on the first goal Daniel Briere wasn’t back-checking nearly hard enough and let Bobby Holik slip by him to gather a loose puck and score from the slot; the second goal was a result of a horrible drop pass from Maxim Afinogenov – the “RAV” line (Derek Roy, Afinogenov, Thomas Vanek) was tic-tac-toeing all the way up the ice when Max dropped the puck to nobody, which gave the Thrashers a rush going the other way leading directly to a goal; the third goal was the result of Chris Drury losing the faceoff to Niko Kapanen and then failing to mark him afterwards – Kapanen gathered a rebound of a quick shot and buried it.

Buffalo should also be concerned about their inconsistency on faceoffs. Although they improved their rate during the third period and overtime, had they been better in the first two periods when they controlled the puck and took (and more importantly *lost*) a number of faceoffs in the Atlanta zone, they could very well have capitalized on that – of course just one more goal would have won the game for them in regulation.

Still, that’s nitpicking, isn’t it? It’s hard criticize a team that has a ridiculous 21 of a possible 22 points thus far – Buffalo is still the class of the league – and watching Saturday brings a number of positive observations about the Sabres that may not come through in game recaps:

Afinogenov – despite his occasional flaws – is the most exciting player in the NHL today. When he gathers the puck behind the Buffalo net and rushes up the ice, it’s an amazing sight to behold – a throwback to 70s and 80s eras where such rushes were much more commonplace. Max has clearly gained self-confidence over the past two years and also has gained the trust of his team and coaching staff, who are willing to live with the negative aspects of his game (read: three giveaways on Saturday night) in exchange for the numerous scoring chances he generates.

Offseason acquisition Jaroslav Spacek is a better fit for this team than the departed Jay McKee. As outstanding as McKee was for the Sabres in his nine seasons in Buffalo, Spacek’s offence is unquestionably superior and his transitional game is better-suited to hitting the streaking Sabre forwards in stride.

Jason Pominville should start getting more respect around the league – he has proven himself a natural goal scorer at every level, and with seven on the season (tied for second in the league in even strength goals with six, behind only Brian Rolston and Martin Havlat – each with seven) he may start to hear that label in the NHL as well. He scored over 100 goals in his final two years in major junior (Shawinigan of the Quebec League) and 64 goals in his final two full years in the American League (not including 19 goals in 18 games last fall before getting called up to Buffalo). Daniel Briere – having a great start to the season despite a low amount of goals - recently admitted to specifically looking for Pominville while on the ice because of Briere’s confidence in Jason burying his chances. Remember that Pominville has only been in the NHL for less than one full season (called up last December) – the three year / $3.1 million contract he signed in the off-season is already looking like a bargain for Buffalo.

Jochen Hecht is as reliable and unspectacular a forward as any in the league. His third period goal tied the game with less than two minutes left on one of Lehtonen’s few mistakes of the night, in which Lehtonen gave up a big rebound of a Pominville shot, directing it into the slot where Hecht drove it home. Hecht has been the unheralded “other” winger on Briere’s line for two years and can be counted on to grind in the corners and provide defensive coverage so that Briere and Pominville can concentrate more on creating scoring chances.

Finally, at the risk of sounding hypocritical, the end of the game (read: shootout) was frankly a lame way to end 65 minutes of exciting hockey. I’m not advocating banning the shootout (I realize it is here to stay) – it’s actually a great way to end an otherwise-stale game - but after the most exhilarating October game I can remember, going to a skills competition to decide it just seemed wrong.

In the end, this was a highly entertaining game that literally went down to the last shot. Atlanta should feel confident that with a few stars, a lot of veterans, and a franchise goaltender they could make noise in the Eastern Conference playoffs next spring. Despite being outplayed and outchanced, Atlanta capitalized on the few mistakes made by Buffalo and made them pay dearly. Each time the Sabres would tie the game they let down their guard just enough for the patient Thrashers to take advantage. Buffalo would be wise to take note of that – they should still be proud of their 10-0-1 record but realize that talent alone will get them nowhere in the playoffs.

ICE update

The SportsBlurb team is alive…sort of. Last Wednesday I was deep in last place with only 30 points, a distant ten points behind the 11th place team. Mostly thanks to my boys gooning it up on Saturday night I gained seven points in one day, helping me jump into 11th place. “Take that, East St. Louis!” A total of 22 PIMs (11 from Chris Neil who felt the pressure I was feeling to let him go from a certain unnamed colleague…) and a good game from Martin Gerber (despite a loss) gave me the much-needed points. I made two moves last week, picking up defencemen Ron Hainsey and Mike Commodore, while releasing Paul Mara and Jim Vandermeer. I was looking for some cheap PIMs and hoping to jettison negative players, and while neither acquisition has done much to date, the addition by subtraction has been successful - I avoided some bad +/- from Vandermeer this week. Of course with nobody on my team playing Monday night, yesterday I slipped back into my familiar home in 12th. There’s always November…

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

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