BUFFALO (LGS) — The 2006-2007 regular season is just over a quarter of the way home, and the Buffalo Sabres are standing strong at the very top of the NHL mountain. Buffalo's 19-3-2 record has them tied with the Anaheim Ducks for the league lead in points and at the top of the Eastern Conference, eight points ahead of the Atlanta Thrashers.
With 24 games in the books, the Sabres and their fans have very little to be disappointed with as the team continues winning games in a myriad of ways. Whether it's by blowouts or by shootouts, come-from-behind wins or dramatic overtime games, the Sabres have shown they can win any way possible, proving time after time that a game is not over until the final whistle blows.
Goals Goals Goals: The Sabres are tops in the NHL with 105 goals, which is 14 more than the next closest team, Anaheim with 91. Daniel Briere and Maxim Afinogenov are off to career starts. Thomas Vanek has been a man possessed, tied for second in the league with 16 goals, showing why he was a top draft pick. Chris Drury scored 10 goals in the first 10 games of the season. Jason Pominville has 12 markers, replacing J.P. Dumont on the top line alongside Briere and Jochen Hecht.
The Campbell Effect: Brian Campbell is taking his big playoffs from a year ago and making a case for himself as a legitimate Norris candidate. Injuries have thrust more responsibility on Campbell, and he’s answered with strong two-way play. His 16 points rank toward the top of the defensive scoring list, and his +14 rating is second-best on the Sabres and fourth overall in the entire NHL.
The Goalies: The decision to keep Martin Biron has paid off immensely. With Ryan Miller out for a few games, Biron stepped in and played solid, winning seven of his eight starts. Miller has been equally impressive, going 12-2-2 in 16 starts.
Power Play: The power play has been sketchy at best. The loss of assistant coach Scott Arniel -- the Sabres' special teams mastermind from last season -- seems to have had an effect on the way the team plays with a man advantage. Too much passing at times with not enough shooting. Currently, the Sabres have one power-play goal in their last 20 chances. Jaroslav Spacek has given them a big shot at the point; however, the Sabres haven't used it as much as they should.
Injuries: Ryan Miller, Maxim Afinogenov, Jochen Hecht, Toni Lydman, Henrik Tallinder and Derek Roy have all missed significant time with injuries. Young kids have stepped up, such as Daniel Paille, Drew Stafford and Nathan Paetsch. Hecht, Lydman and Roy should all return Friday when the Sabres take on the New York Rangers at HSBC Arena. Tim Connolly has yet to suit up with concussion-related problems.
Ales Kotalik: Kotalik has taken the place of Taylor Pyatt as the fans' official whipping boy. Slow start combined with significant raise has caused many to ask for him to be traded. He could be moved for defensive depth and salary cap relief, as the team is dangerously close to the salary cap.
1st Quarter MVP
Thomas Vanek: Has played out of his mind. Is always in position to score goals. Has shown a better understanding of two-way hockey after last season. Starting to remind many of Marian Hossa. Campbell is close second.
Ales Kotalik: With the likes of Paille and Stafford proving they belong with the team, Kotalik needs step up and contribute more if he plans on sticking around.
Paul Gaustad: Not too often is a fourth-line center considered an integral part of a team, but "Goose" has been a huge part of the success. Along with Adam Mair and the rotating left winger, the fourth line has given the Sabres a bona fide energy line to go out and change the momentum of games, at times with just one strong shift. Gaustad had a three-game goal-scoring streak in November when the team was stricken by injuries. He has the skill set to play with Buffalo's top forwards. He's turned into a true asset on a struggling power play, using his big frame to get in front of the net.
The team has played well and should continue on its streak barring any more catastrophic injuries. Several players are returning from injury, and that should make things look even better for Sabres fans. The power play needs to improve, and salary cap room needs to be monitored carefully to ensure future success this season and beyond.