Expectations high for Sabres to deliver winner

With more than 10,000 fans attending a Sabres scrimmage this
week, general manager Darcy Regier required no further reminder of
how much support the team still has in Buffalo.

”The first thing I thought was, `Wow, cool,”’ Regier said,
after seeing fans fill nearly the entire lower bowl of the Sabres
home arena.

It’s not lost on Regier either that the turnout was also a
reminder of how high the expectations remain for him and the Sabres
to finally deliver a winner.

”Yeah, sure. I got it. I’m all for it. That’s the plan,”
Regier added. ”I’m confident. I’m excited.”

New season. Familiar faces. Same old objective for a team that’s
missed the playoffs in three of the past five seasons, and not won
a postseason round since reaching the Eastern Conference finals in
2007.

A year after the high-priced Sabres (39-32-11) were among the
NHL’s biggest busts by missing the playoffs entirely, they have
plenty of unfinished business to take care of in proving they can
be contenders.

And a nine-month layoff hasn’t been long enough for players to
forget the empty feelings of frustration they felt when cleaning
out their lockers in early April last year.

”It wasn’t a good feeling at all at the end of last year,”
defenseman Tyler Myers said. ”And I think feeling that way at the
end of last year is going to motivate each guy in this room that
much more to not feel that way again.”

The opportunity to start putting those memories behind them
begins Sunday, when the Sabres open the regular season hosting
Philadelphia. That just happens to be the same Flyers team that’s
ended each of the Sabres past two seasons.

The Flyers eliminated Buffalo 4-3 in the first-round of the 2011
playoffs. And then there was last year, when the Sabres were
mathematically knocked from playoff contention with a 2-1 loss at
Philadelphia in the last week of the regular season.

It was an up-and-down season for Buffalo. The Sabres lost 12
straight in regulation on the road during a 3-12-2 stretch spanning
December and January, before closing the season going 20-8-6.

The strong finish was enough to convince management to leave the
roster mostly intact. The team’s inconsistencies were blamed on a
rash of injuries – Buffalo at one point was missing nine regulars –
rather than a lack of chemistry.

And yet, coach Lindy Ruff acknowledged he had numerous
discussions with players last offseason to clear the air and
resolve any differences that might have hindered the team’s
performance.

”We went through everything, the good, the bad and the ugly,”
said Ruff, who returns for a 15th season, the NHL’s longest active
tenured coach with one team.

”We’ve cleared the air this summer,” Ruff added, noting that
the staff and players established a standard of accountability to
one another. ”I think that’s a good place to be. I think the true
test, though, is when you get knocked down a little bit to hold
that standard. That will be our true test.”

The Sabres last season were criticized for being pushovers,
particularly failing to rally to goalie Ryan Miller’s defense when
he sustained a concussion after being bowled over Bruins forward
Milan Lucic during a 6-2 loss at Boston Nov. 12.

It’s no surprise that the few moves the Sabres made this
offseason were to bulk up their lineup. They acquired gritty
hard-hitting forward Steve Ott in a trade that sent underachieving
center Derek Roy to Dallas. Buffalo also signed rugged 6-foot-8
forward John Scott in free agency.

Buffalo’s set in net with Miller and backup Jhonas Enroth.
They’re deep on defense.

And their offense has the potential to roll three quality
lines.

Cody Hodgson, a late-season acquisition, will center the top
line made up of Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville.

Tyler Ennis is reunited with rookie Marcus Foligno and Drew
Stafford. It’s a line that caught fire late last season by
combining for 21 goals and 49 points during a 13-game stretch.

And the Sabres are entertaining the possibility of having
18-year-old rookie center Mikhail Grigorenko open the season in
Buffalo. The Russian-born playmaker has spent this week centering
alongside Ott and Ville Leino.

For Miller, it’s time the Sabres started proving themselves.

”We came up short, and we were obviously disappointed. It was a
long time to sit around,” Miller said. ”We definitely have an
idea of what we want to be doing, and that’s putting ourselves in
the best position to win a championship.

”It’s a short-sprint season. So let’s go do it.”