With the world’s best countries ready to gather for an elite display of hockey skill that could color the experience of an entire generation of die-hard fans, this seems like the perfect time to… look right past the Olympics and figure out if Buffalo Sabres supporters are set to have their hearts broken again.
The Sabres are scuffling through a miserable patch in which they’ve lost five straight and have just two regulation-time wins over their past 15 contests, going 4-7-4 in that troubling stretch.
A six-game winning streak preceded that rank run, but even then, cracks were starting to show. Buffalo had to dig out of 3-0 holes in consecutive games during that string of victories. Kudos for having the character to rebound, but division-leading teams don’t retain that status long when they start games the way the Sabres were. And Buffalo’s grasp on the Northeast penthouse has been severely challenged by the surging Ottawa Senators, who, as of Thursday morning, matched the Sabres’ 72 points, but had played two more games.
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No Sabres fan wants to be reminded of last year, when the team’s hold on a playoff spot slipped away after the club was hit with crucial injuries to both Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek down the stretch.
We all know about Miller’s contributions this year, but what about Vanek? If somebody had told me last summer the Buffalo Sabres would be sharing the Northeast lead on the verge of the Olympic break, I’d have guessed Miller was having an MVP-type season (check), Tim Connolly hadn’t missed a game this year (check) and Vanek was on pace for 55 goals, challenging for the Rocket Richard Trophy (reality check; he’s on pace for just 24, the lowest total of his NHL career).
(Quick digression: If you told me the Phoenix Coyotes would be well positioned to nab a top-four seed in the West, I would have thought Matthew Lombardi went to the Glenn Anderson School of Cutting to the Net in the summer, Peter Mueller had become Patrick Kane and Shane Doan was tracking an 85-point season, none of which is happening. Dave Tippett, you’re a gentleman and a scholar — and one heck of a hockey coach.)
Miller is a fantastic goalie, but he’s got a lot on his plate these days, what with carrying the hopes of an entire nation at the Games, while simultaneously trying to, basically, single-handedly soothe the pain of America’s most hard-luck sports town.
A furious finish from Vanek would help ease the burden and the Austrian should be well rested come March since he, like Slovenian Anze Kopitar, is a very talented NHLer from a country that isn’t presently among the top hockey-playing nations.
Vanek, however, does currently reside in a hockey-mad city, one that in no way deserves another late-season disappointment.
The fact coach Lindy Ruff benched captain Craig Rivet in Buffalo’s most recent loss tells you a few things have gone awry of late, but fending off the hard-charging Sens and heading into the playoffs on a positive note becomes a lot more plausible with Vanek playing like he’s got a vendetta.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesdays.
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