BUFFALO (LGS) — Although some may argue that it is a little early to call a series of games "critical," the Buffalo Sabres schedule in November may have considerable influence over the team's ultimate fate this regular season.
The schedule is grueling and fraught with peril. Of the first 11 games in November, the team plays four sets of back-to-back contests. Moreover, 10 of those 11 games are against divisional opponents, all of whom stand ahead of the Sabres in the standings, including two of the hottest teams in the NHL.
The 10 divisional games include four contests with Montreal, three with Boston, two against Ottawa and one against the rival Maple Leafs. The one non-divisional game to start November is this Friday night at home against the Florida Panthers, who only sit two points behind the Sabres in the conference standings. The games against Ottawa and Boston will be the Sabres first look at the two divisional competitors.
To help understand what the Sabres are up against this November, I thought it would be instructive to take a quick look at what is making the three primary opponents – Boston, Montreal and Ottawa – so effective early this season.
The Ottawa Senators enter November as the best team in the NHL. They are 9-1-0 in the first ten games and undefeated on the road. They have given up a league low 19 goals against and return a powerful offense. To say that they are firing on all-cylinders would be an understatement. The Sabres get to test themselves against this juggernaut twice in the coming weeks.
The Senators feature the deepest defense corps in the NHL. Lead by All-Star Wade Redden, the unit features six players who are extremely capable at both ends of the rink. All six are excellent skaters and accomplished puck handlers. Anton Volchenkov and Chris Phillips are the top defensive players. Redden and Andrej Meszaros are the top offensive threats on the blueline.
Goaltendering, a former weakness for the Senators, has become the strength of the club this season. With starter Ray Emery out with an injury until recently, former Carolina starter Martin Gerber seized the opportunity. Gerber has compiled a 7-1-0 record with a sparkling 1.99 GAA and one shutout. Emery won his only start so far this year.
On offense, the Senators may feature the best line in hockey. Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson are a threat to score each time they step onto the ice. Alfredsson leads the team in goals and points with seven and 14 respectively. Heatley is tied in goals with seven and third in points with 12, while Spezza is first in assists with 12 and second in points with 13. Heatley always seems to save his best for the Sabres.
The Senators' Achilles' heel may be their lack of offense beyond the top line. Antoine Vermette, Mike Fisher and Patrick Eaves are solid hockey players, but none contribute to the offense on any consistent basis. Ottawa management hopes that rookie forward Nick Foligno, the son of Sabre great Mike Foligno, will develop into an offensive force. Unfortunately for the Sens, the 20-year-old rookie has only potted a single goal in the early going.
Habs Powering Up
The bulk of the November schedule will be played against one of the NHL's hottest teams, the Montreal Canadiens. The Canadiens won four in a row before dropping a shootout decision last night against Atlanta. Their streak started with a 4-2 victory over the Sabres on October 20th. The Habs stand at 6-2-3 for second in the division and fourth in the Conference. The Montreal has been winning with a combination of a lethal power play, and like the Senators and Bruins, excellent goaltending.
The Canadiens are generating most of their offense from the power play. Entering the season many critics worried that the Canadiens lethal power play would suffer following the departure of free agent defenseman Sheldon Souray to Edmonton. However, this has turned out not to be the case. Defenseman Mark Streit and Andrei Markov have done a wonderful job filling Souray's shoes, including scoring two goals each on the power play.
The team is converting a NHL-leading 30.2% of their power play opportunities. Of their 37 goals this season, 19 have been scored on the power play. In fact, team's top overall scorers, Saku Koivu and Tomas Plekanec, have only scored three goals each and all three have been scored on the power play. Leading goal scorer Alexei Kovalev potted four of his six goals on the power play. Obviously the key to success against Montreal is to avoid taking penalties.
The real key to the Canadiens success this season has been their goaltending. Starting goaltender Cristobel Huet is one of the most underrated goaltenders in the NHL. The fourth year NHLer has played terrifically again this year compiling a 4-1-2 mark and a 2.24 GAA. In spite of his excellent play, Huet is getting pushed for playing time by highly regarded 20-year-old rookie Carey Price. Price is 2-1-1 with a 2.65 GAA and is viewed by most critics as the Canadiens' goaltender of the future.
Something 'Bruin' in Beantown
The Sabres first game against the Bruins is this Thursday at the "new" Boston Garden (aka the TD Banknorth Garden). The Bruins enter Thursday's game with a 6-4-0 mark and 12 points; good for fourth in the NE division and sixth in the Eastern Conference. The team's solid start primarily stems from excellent defensive play and goaltending. Boston currently sits fourth in the Eastern Conference in least goals allowed with 24.
The Bruins brought in Manny Fernandez this off-season to improve their goaltending. However, it is veteran holdover Tim Thomas who has provided the spark in net. Thomas backstopped Boston to four of their six victories and has an astounding Goals Against Average (GAA) of 1.34. Both goaltenders have benefited from solid play by the Boston's defenseman. Former Senator Zdeno Chara anchors an otherwise faceless, but effective, defense corps, which includes former Sabres draftee Dennis Wideman.
Although the Bruins offense has been anemic so far this season scoring only 25 goals, they still have two very capable scoring lines. Former Thrasher Marc Savard, the Boston equivalent of Danny Briere, leads the team in scoring with 10 points in nine games. Young stars Patrice Bergeron and Phil Kessel provide speed and skill, while veterans Glen Murray and Marco Sturm add additional scoring punch. However, Bergeron is expected to miss a month of action after behind drilled from behind this past weekend in a game against the Philadelphia Flyers.
The remaining games on the November slate are against Toronto, Florida, Washington and St Louis. The Sabres recently beat Florida and Toronto teams in dramatic come from behind fashion. Both the Leafs and the Panthers will surely be out to avenge their losses.
The resurgent St. Louis Blues visit HSBC on November 28, 2007. The Blues, like the Bruins, are one of the surprise teams in the NHL this season. They are 6-4 and have an exciting mix of veterans, such as Keith Tkachuk and Paul Kariya, and young stars, such as Brad Boyes and Buffalo native Lee Stempniak. The Blues have received excellent goaltending from Manny Legace (5-3, 2.21 GAA) and feature former Sabre Jay McKee on defense.
Why then are these games so important? With the current unbalanced schedule, divisional games are critical to whether a team makes the playoffs. Teams play each divisional opponent eight times. Therefore, 32 games or nearly 40% of the season is played against these rivals.
Last year, the Sabres and Ottawa dominated the NE division compiling records of 18-11-3 and 19-10-3 respectively and easily made the playoffs. The Sabres won the Northeast Division, Eastern Conference regular season crown and the Presidents' Trophy while Ottawa represented the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals.
On the other hand, Toronto missed the playoffs by one point. Although they were over .500 against other squads in the Eastern Conference, their 13-14-5 mark against divisional opponents kept them from playing for the Cup.
In fact, all 16 teams that made the playoffs last season were considerably over .500 against the divisional rivals, except the New York Rangers, who still sported a 15-12-5 record against the Atlantic division.
In addition to the importance of winning inside the division, these 11 games will tell the Sabres and their fans a great deal about the character and skill of this edition of the team.
Each of the opponents plays a very different style of hockey. Ottawa is a speed and puck possession oriented team like the Sabres. Montreal has speed, but is focused on the transition game and special teams. The Bruins work to trap, play position defense and limit opportunities.
To date, the Sabres inability to beat close checking teams has been their Achilles' Heel. Of their five losses, three have been to teams that play good defense and work to limit opponent's opportunities. The other two losses came when the Sabres collapsed in the third period. However, this deficiency seems to have been corrected as evidenced by third period victories over the Lightning and Panthers.
The Sabres ability to adjust to these styles and force teams out of their comfort zone will be crucial to victory. In order to force teams out of their comfort zone, the Sabres must start scoring the first goals. Over the last two campaigns, the Sabres have won 80% and 73% respectfully of the games in which they scored the first goal. They have won 89% and 85% of the games in which they led after two periods. Unfortunately this season the Sabres have only scored the first goal in three games.
If the Sabres can achieve a 7-4 record or better before heading into the final week in November against Washington and St. Louis, I believe that the Sabres and their fans should consider the month a great success.
Such a record will undoubtedly help the team climb the divisional and conference standings. The successful running of the November gauntlet should give the young club the confidence it needs to not only reach the playoffs, but to make a run towards the Cup.