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By The Numbers
Sabres started fast, but injuries slowed them down

BUFFALO (LGS) — There were ominous signs for the Buffalo Sabres entering the 2008-09 season. Oft-injured center Tim Connolly cracked two vertebrae during the preseason. Fellow centerman Paul Gaustad hit the injured reserve after damaging a ligament in his right thumb in a preseason fight.  Then two games into the season, winger-turned-center Jochen Hecht followed suit when he broke a finger trying to block a point shot with his hand.

Despite the gloom cast by the injuries, the Sabres began October on fire. Buffalo marched off to a 4-0-0 start by riding the hot goaltending of Ryan Miller and Patrick Lalime, strong defensive efforts, and sensational play of Thomas Vanek and Ales Kotalik. The record featured a shootout victory over Montreal on opening night and an impressive 3-1 beating of the then undefeated New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden.  

Another side to these Sabres emerged in the next three games. Like the squad that came out of the lockout, this version displayed its never quit attitude. Trailing by two goals in the next three games, the Sabres rallied each time to garner at least a point. 

These new Cardiac Kids found a way to win two of the three games. The team's only blemish was a 3-2 shootout loss in Atlanta. Again solid goaltending led the way. Miller and Lalime practically stood on their heads keeping Buffalo in the three games until the offense got going. After seven games, the hot Sabres raised their record to 6-0-1.

In those three games, Vanek remained on fire. He added two more tallies to his league-leading total of eight. In the game in which he was finally shut out in regulation, Vanek scored in the shootout to seal the 3-2 victory over the Bruins. He finally received some support from his linemates. Drew Stafford scored two beautiful goals and added two additional shootout tallies. Derek Roy scored his first of the season in overtime to steal a 4-3 victory from Minnesota.   

Unfortunately for the Sabres, this streak of good play has come with a high cost. Captain Craig Rivet, who has been more than advertised, was lost for at least two weeks to a knee injury after the comeback victory over the Bruins.

Without Rivet and the three centers in the lineup, cracks in the team began to show. The squad continued on the road with a contest in Denver. The team would lose in a shootout after giving up a late lead in the third period, but they remained undefeated in regulation.  This distinction was not to last for long. To make matters worse, Henrik Tallinder was lost in the game following an ankle laceration.

Returning home, the Sabres put in their worst two efforts of the season against two struggling teams. Behind fine play from Alex Auld and the trio of Heatley, Spezza and Alfredsson, the Senators dominated all aspects of play when they dismantled the Sabres 5-2. 

Three nights later Barry Melrose’s Tampa Bay Squad visited HSBC Arena and also dismantled the Sabres in a game eerily similar to the Ottawa game. This time, 2008 first-overall selection Steven Stamkos scored his first two NHL goals to lead the Lightning to victory.

The Sabres finished the month 6-2-2 for 14 points.The record was good enough for second in the Northeast Division and third overall in the Eastern Conference behind the Canadiens (15 points) and the Rangers (21 points).

Although there weren't many bright spots in the final three games of the month, there were many throughout the month. Vanek continued his fine play from late last season and finished the month with nine goals. The “General” Clarke MacArthur solidified his status as breakout player of the year with five goals, and even Maxim Afinogenov seemed to regain his playmaking ability. Afinogenov set up seven goals in the October to lead the team in assists.

Jaroslav Spacek led all blueliners with six points in October while partner Andrej Sekera emerged as a fine all-around defenseman. He tallied five assists and logged almost 25 minutes per contest to lead the team. Veteran defenseman Teppo Numminen scored once and added four assists, but more importantly he played terrific all-around hockey and added the on-ice leadership missing last season.

Despite poor performances in the final two games, both goaltenders had extremely solid months. Miller finished the month with five victories and a solid 2.07 GGA. Lalime posted a fine 2.59 GGA and gave the team confidence that he can spell Miller during the season.  

Besides the injuries, there are some points of worry for the team. Last season’s scoring leaders Roy and Jason Pominville struggled most of the month. They scored a combined three goals and eight assists in the month. Stafford scored two spectacular goals, but his all-around play left much to be desired. If the Sabres are going to compete for the Northeast Division title, these three players must improve. 

The return of the centers Gaustad, Hecht and Connolly could restore some balance to the offense and help the struggling forwards find their games. Gaustad, who returned against Tampa Bay, is currently centering the fourth line until his hand is fully-healed. Connolly, who returned Saturday night against Washington, centered a line with MacArthur and Pominville on the wings.

Looking ahead, the Sabres play 13 games in November featuring four divisional games, three of which are against the rival Bruins. Buffalo native and St. Francis graduate Lee Stempniak and his resurgent St. Louis Blues visit HSBC Arena on November 12.  Former captain Danny Briere and Marty Biron return to HSBC Arena on November 21.

The Sabres will need to be healthy to be successful in November. The schedule includes four sets of back-to-back games on the weekends including two contests against the Crosby and Malkin-led Penguins and a game against Northeast Division favorite Montreal on November 29.

By Alan Sheldon, LGS Columnist
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