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Moving Along
Sabres getting better but still need to improve

If you had to pick a day when the Buffalo Sabres started turning this season around, it would be November 26. That is when they beat the Boston Bruins 3-2 at HSBC Arena. Boston leads the Northeast Division by 14 points at this point in the season, so that victory is definitely worth noting. But there are a few reasons why that victory is worth noting.

Not only did the Sabres beat one of the best teams in the league, that was the point in which the Sabres started to turn things around. After the Bruins, the Sabres welcomed Pittsburgh to town. Buffalo played a tough game against Pittsburgh and came out on top 4-3. Then came a visit to Montreal that, while the Sabres lost 3-2, was something a moral victory for Buffalo. Montreal was one of the favorites to win it all this year and the Sabres played the Canadiens tough. While they lost, they were able to take pride in the game they put together.

Since that win on Nov. 26 that ended a five game losing streak, Buffalo is 8-6-2 in the last 16 games. Some might not think that's particularly good, but there are certain signs of life.

December 20 – The Sabres lost 4-3 in overtime to Montreal. The only thing they didn't do in the game was finish. They blew three one-goal leads to Montreal, a team that you can't let back into games. Montreal took the game to overtime before Alexei Kovalev won it for them with nearly 25 seconds left in the extra period. It was a game that Sabres could have won and didn't finish. But it was still a game you could look at and say that they played well and played well enough to win.

♦  December 22 – Buffalo lost to Pittsburgh 4-3 in overtime, but like the Montreal game on Dec. 20, played well enough to win. The Sabres had a 2-0 lead in the second period before giving up two straight goals to Pittsburgh that erased that lead. After the Sabres went up 3-2 heading into the third period, Buffalo couldn't keep the high-flying Penguins down. Pittsburgh tied the game, sent it to overtime before Sidney Crosby's questionable tip-in won the game. 

December 27 – Buffalo beats the New York Islanders in overtime 4-3. The Sabres had a 3-1 lead with 1:34 left before the Islanders scored two goals in that final 1:34 of the third period to send the game to overtime. Buffalo played well, but they allowed New York to battle back and keep getting chances. The Sabres could have closed the game out just by icing the puck with a few seconds left. Instead, they allowed the Islanders to win a loose puck in the Sabres defensive zone and scored the tying goal with two seconds left.

Obviously, there is a common theme to those three games. The Sabres blew a total of six leads in those three games. Their record in those three games could have been 3-0-0. Instead, their record was 1-0-2.

But those games show us something about this team. Earlier in the season, the Sabres would not have even been a factor in those games. They would be competitive for a portion of the game, but not enough to say that they played well enough to win it. That is different now. Yes, the Sabres should have won in Montreal and against Pittsburgh, but they at least showed that they are missing only one ingredient: Finish.

They can get there. They can be better. It is just a matter of playing a full 60 minutes and not letting your opponent back in it. Getting a two goal lead in Buffalo used to mean a victory. Now, it is uncertain what will happen when the final horn sounds.

That will change. This team is showing that they have a little more seasoning than last year's squad. They will finish. They just have to make sure they know how to do it.

NEWS AND NOTES

♦ It looks like Paul Gaustad is getting better and might be on the ice tomorrow night against Washington at HSBC Arena. According to The Buffalo News, Gaustad practiced today and could be back in the starting lineup tomorrow night. He has missed the last five games with an upper body ailment. What that specifically is remains to be seen.

♦ The Sabres are eighth in the Eastern Conference standings with 39 points. They are also in the middle of the pack among Eastern Conference foes when it comes to goals for and goals against. The Sabres are tied for seventh in the conference with 103 goals for while they are seventh in the conference with 104 goals against. They are tied for 13th in the league for goals for and 16th in goals against.

♦ Usually call-ups to the NHL contribute little, if anything, to their teams when they come up for a game or two before finding themselves back with their minor league team. That has not been the case with the call-ups this year for the Sabres from their AHL affiliate, the Portland Pirates. Mark Mancari scored a goal and added an assist in his seven games with the Sabres. Nathan Gerbe, prior to being injured, played five games, recorded his first NHL assist and had a +3 plus/minus rating. Defenseman Chris Butler was called up and also contributed an assist while recording a +4 plus/minus rating. Tim Kennedy also played well in his debut on Saturday. These are all future Sabres and if they keep playing like this, they will be up here to stay.

♦ Only five players have a positive plus/minus rating and two of those players are call-ups. Chris Butler is tied with Drew Stafford for the team-lead with a +4 plus/minus rating. They are followed by Nathan Gerbe, who has a +3, Adam Mair at +2 and Tim Connolly, who is +1 for the season.

COMMENT OF THE WEEK

This comment comes from my column last week where I made some proposed rule changes. This will be a regular feature in my columns. If you would like to send me an e-mail about my column, feel free to fire me one and I will select one (or a few) to use in my column the following week.

The comment of the week comes from yse325, who had this to say about my column:

Robert, I'm going to have to disagree with most of your rule changes. Pucks are supposed to go in by shooting the puck not kicking it. Any rule that makes this easier to get away with is a bad idea. Sorry. Same applies to deflections or swatting a puck over the crossbar into the net. This is not soccer or lacrosse. Technology would solve this problem. I have thought for years that tiny cameras in the crossbar and posts would solve the problem. I'm not sure the tech is there yet, but soon. The instigator penalty is a great idea, but useless if not enforced. It's time to enforce it. It's also time to get rid of the head shots. The delay penalty as Sabrerock said does it's job and should be kept. The solution to the ref problem is to review each game and punish the refs who suck. Good refs get to ref the playoffs, bad refs get fired. Johnson, who apparently has called 100 games, was terrible in Montreal and with enough bad games should be fired not calling 1000 games. I'm for larger nets and smaller goalie equipment. Some of my ideas are as follows: 1) Faceoffs to open periods during a penalty should be in the PP offensive zone. 2) Fighting penalties should also include roughing minors automatically and the teams should play 4 on 4. 3) Head shots get a minimum of a 5 minute minor, a game misconduct and a one game suspension. Sucker punches like on Kaleta get the same. No discretion. The league decides if more is warranted.

Thanks for the comment yse325. I can respect most of what you said, but obviously I have different opinions. My problem with the kicking rule is that anytime a puck is directed in off a skate for a goal, it goes straight to review. Remember that goal Drew Stafford scored recently where he was just crashing the net and directed it in off his skate? It was clear there was no kicking motion but for some reason it warranted a review.

I like your suggestions because they are unique and different. Your first suggestion is an interesting one. To me, opening a period is getting a fresh start. I don't see anything wrong with having faceoffs at center ice. I do like that you mentioned that though since the league was willing to say that any time a team commits a penalty, the faceoff will be taken in their end. I like that rule. It makes a power play that much harder to kill.

I disagree with you on number two. I don't see why we would change that to include roughing penalties with the fighting penalties. They are different penalties. Why not have teams play four-on-four when players fight? That is an interesting thought.

I like your recommendation for number three. I believe that's a fair penalty for the crime.

Again, feel free to comment on my columns or send me an e-mail giving me your thoughts on my column. I will use a couple of the e-mails in my next column.


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By Robert Harding, LGS Columnist
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