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Darkest Before Dawn
Sabres start to find themselves, and the light of winning

Unlike his teammates, Jaroslav Spacek has played great hockey since day one of the season. Only a shoulder injury would hamper the defenseman during the first quarter of the season. (Mike Lynaugh Photo)

Quarter-Season Power Play — Games 1-20

The Big Picture
Lindy Ruff said after the second game of the season that the Sabres had some players who were "trying to find their way." After the seventh game, a loss in Montreal, he said his team might even need another 15-20 games to get it together. Turns out the Sabres did need some time to figure out who they were, and as the first quarter of the season came to a close, their identity crisis was starting to resolve itself.

Special teams, the Sabres' Achilles' heel from the playoffs, are much improved, the penalty killers solidly in the league's top 10 and the power play on the cusp of the elite. They've cut their goals against modestly from last year and dramatically from the beginning of this season. And as the quarter wound down, their work ethic simply could not be questioned.

This looks more and more like a team that could make a run in the playoffs. One small detail: at 9-10-1, the Sabres were out of the postseason picture.

Entertainment Value
mild | MEDIUM | hot | suicidal
Breakthrough wins at home over Montreal in Game 18 and over Ottawa in Game 19 nudged the rating out of mild territory, which seemed warranted given three shutout losses, several three-game losing streaks and a long stretch that saw the Sabres unbelievably almost never play with the lead. No fun. The Sabres did come back to win some games, including one beauty against Toronto, reminiscent of good times last season, but winning while never trailing in Games 18, 19 and 20 was suddenly the bigger thrill.

Goal of the Quarter
Against Washington, Jaro Spacek one-times a Brian Campbell pass from the top of the right circle so hard he had TV viewers wishing Fox's glowing puck was still in use. Honorable mention: Clarke MacArthur one-times a Drew Stafford pass from the slot for the overtime winner at home against the Bruins in Game 14.

Hit of the Quarter
In Game 18 at home against Montreal, Drew Stafford puts Roman Hamrlik into the Sabres' bench. Honorable mention: In a shutout loss to the Leafs in Game 15, Jaroslav Spacek gives Buffalo fans something to shout about when he drills Chad Kilger from behind at the Sabre blue line.

Save of the Quarter
In Game 20, Ryan Miller does the splits and gets his left glove up to rob the Canadiens' Guillaume Latendresse of a tying goal. Honorable mention: In that shutout loss to the Leafs, Andrew Raycroft dives to his right, stretches out his arms like Superman and denies a pinching Nathan Paetsch in Game 15. Sorry, folks, it was that good.

Scary Good
The Sabres had a 3-0 lead after the first period in home wins over Atlanta, Montreal and Ottawa, evidence that this team can still bring the fans to their feet and keep them there.

Just Frightening
The Sabres lost to trapping Columbus 3-0 at home, evidence that this sport can still put even its most fervent fans to sleep.

Superhero
Jaroslav Spacek. For the record, the leaner and meaner Spacek was not one of the Sabres who had to ride around Europe on his bike to find himself this season. He had his head in the game from the season's opening tip. The defenseman wanted to prove to Lindy Ruff it was a mistake for the coach to practically nail him to the bench late in the playoffs. He wanted a bigger role on the Sabres' power play and responded with three power-play goals in the first four games. After returning from a shoulder injury, Spacek carried on, joining Brian Campbell to form Buffalo's top defensive pairing.

Slugs
Maxim Afinogenov and Henrik Tallinder, Henrik Tallinder and Maxim Afinogenov, I know, I know. I'm still going in a different direction here. By far, the biggest slugs this season are the bandwagon fans. It's not just that the Sabres' sellout streak came to an end, or that the waiting list for season tickets evaporated to less than a thousand. It's how quickly so many headed for the Boston hills. I get the feeling traffic around HSBC Arena and the enthusiasm level inside it are going to start picking up again soon.

PPP Three Stars

  1. Jaroslav Spacek (4-4-8 in 12 games, 23:02* TOI). Hard shots and hard hits on display in the defenseman's turnaround season.
  2. Jochen Hecht (5-5-10, 3:08* SH TOI to lead Sabre forwards). Contract extension looks like a smart idea after the German's reliably rock-solid start.
  3. Derek Roy (8-8-16, 20:36* TOI). Goal production and defensive play starting to turn around again after a very fast start.
    * Through Game 21 in Montreal

The Fourth Star
Clarke MacArthur. The 22-year-old appears to be winning a permanent spot with the big team. He scored three goals in seven games, and two of them can be counted among the biggest of the season. Did the Sabres ever need a win in Game 14 against the Bruins, and MacArthur — in his season debut after being recalled from Roch — delivered with a one-timer from the slot in overtime. And did the Sabres ever need a first goal in Game 18 against Montreal, and MacArthur came through off Derek Roy's rebound. (For a very strong case for Daniel Paille, see Paul Szeglowski's Notes after the win at Washington.)

Defining Moment
In Ottawa, with the game scoreless and Martin Gerber in line for beaver tails at the concession stand, Derek Roy redirects a goalmouth pass. The puck hits the right post. No moment better captures the frustration of this season. And no moment better captures the hope. If you're getting chances that good, you must be doing something right. Right?

Turning Point
It's always darkest before the dawn, they say. For the Sabres, in Game 12 at home against Florida, it was pitch black in their own zone in the final five minutes of the second period. The Panthers savaged the Sabres for three goals in an eventual 4-2 win. A stretch of nine straight division games started three days later, and it turns out it was exactly what the Sabres, especially Ryan Miller, needed. In Game 13, the Sabres put 16 shots on the board in the first period against Montreal. In Game 15, outshot the Leafs 15-4 in the first and struck iron three times in the game. In Game 16, piled up 46 shots against the Bruins. And in Game 17, outplayed the league's best team on paper, Ottawa, on the road. All losses. Before the sun finally shined where the sun hadn't shined, there was a distinct glow on the eastern horizon.

On the Hot Seat: Thomas Vanek
Need we say more?

The Burning Question
Does Daniel Alfredsson have webcam pics of Ryan Miller with a sheep — or maybe with Jiri Tlusty?

Crunching the Numbers

8 - Shots on goal for Atlanta through two periods

53 - Shots for the Sabres against Washington

2 - Goals in 11 seconds against the Caps

2 - In nine seconds against Montreal in Game 7

5 - Sabres' goals in a five-game stretch

22.33 - Average age of goal-scorers in the win over Montreal in Game 18

5 - Times the Sabres were outshot in the first 10 games

1- In the second 10 games

3 - Shutouts involving the Sabres in 98 games last season, including the playoffs

5 - In 20 games this season

1 - Inspiring Ryan Miller shutout after the death of his cousin

1 - Keystone Kop collision between Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman in Game 4

74 - Blocked shots between the two of them

41 - Team-leading hits for Lydman

22 - Team-leading giveaways

1 - Lydman gash after a heroic blocked shot

5 - Shootouts last season in the first 20 games

0 - This season

4 - Derek Roy goals in the first four games

1 - In the next 12

23.6 - Sabres' power play efficiency with Tim Connolly in the lineup

3 - League ranking if that was the season percentage

87.4 - Sabres' penalty killing efficiency but for going 0-3 against the Islanders in the opener

3 - League ranking if that was the season percentage

2,239 - If ifs and buts were candies and nuts, how many candies and nuts it would take for all of us to have a Merry Christmas

Gum-Flapping
"If we stick with it, it'll come."
—Lindy Ruff after a shutout loss to the Leafs in Game 15

In the Buffalo Wings
The Sabres played 11 of their first 20 games at home. In the next quarter, they'll be away from HSBC Arena for 12 of 21 games. In early December, Buffalo makes a trip out west to play the three California teams. Then things get interesting back in the Queen City around the holidays with the homecoming of Pat Kane and the Blackhawks, the return of Daniel Briere just before Christmas, the appearance of the Ottawa Senators on Boxing Day and the Ice Bowl meeting with the Pens on New Year's Day, not to mention another Sens meetup a few days after that before the Sabres hit Game 41 at the new Prudential Center in New Jersey.

By Mark Zampogna, LGS Featured Columnist
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