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Overreactions, 31st Edition: Sabres power past Leafs

It was a recipe for disaster.

The Buffalo Sabres have struggled mightily to win games at First Niagara Center all season. Friday night was the first visit of the reenergized Toronto Maple Leafs this season. With them, came their legion of rowdy fans. For once, there was electricity in the air at First Niagara Center.

The Sabres responded.

On the strength of a four-point night from Thomas Vanek and three powerplay goals from the extra-man unit, Buffalo erased two second period deficits on their way to a 5-4 victory over their cross-border rivals.

Vanek scored twice for the Sabres, who also got goals from Drew Stafford, Tyler Ennis and Andrej Sekera during a four-goal second period. Three of the four came on the powerplay, as Toronto took 23 minutes in penalties during the second.

“We need to get our swagger back, especially when we have the lead,” said Vanek, who leads the Sabres with 16 goals. “Sometimes that’s all it takes. There’s no miracle to it. Everyone here is a good player, so when we get the lead we have to go for the next one and bury a team. We didn’t quite do that, but I think it was a step in the right direction.”

Ryan Miller got the win, making 29 saves.

  • Former Sabre Tim Connolly’s return was the big story coming in, but at the end of the night, he didn’t spoil the party. Connolly was -1 and was 13-of-23 on faceoffs in 16:33 of ice time.
  • Mike Weber’s return has really helped transform the Sabres defense into something a bit more effective physically. With Buffalo sporting Weber, Robyn Regehr and Brayden McNabb on the blueline Friday, they packed a good amount of punch. That physical edge was lacking without Weber in the lineup.
  • Big ups to Toronto’s penalty kill for the confidence boost to the Sabres’ powerplay. Read the rest of this entry

As Tim Connolly returns, reality check awaits fans


With today being the Maple Leafs’ first regular season drive of the year down Queen Elizabeth Way, an airing of grievances is in store at the First Niagara Center.

Tonight, Sabres fans are prepared to let Tim Connolly understand just how thankful they were for his time in Buffalo. Perhaps “understand” and “thankful” are the wrong words.

Why do Sabres fans hate Connolly so much? His injuries? His favorable contract? The inability to live up to his long-discussed hype?

The truth is, Buffalonians never truly took a liking to him at any point. His follies were trounced upon by fans who could not wait to deem him a failure. His successes were met with apathy; each dangle, each creative pass merely fulfilling expectations. Simply put, Connolly’s style and persona put him on a tight leash from day one in Buffalo. His unemotional mannerisms and favorable final contract made for an uphill climb to a Western New Yorker’s heart.

Connolly has, when healthy, performed admirably so far in Toronto. On pace for 58 points in 70 games and coming off a two-goal performance (including an overtime winner), the narrative is built for a dramatic return to Buffalo. He’s no less creative in the offensive zone than before and still takes pride in playing a strong defensive game. Leafs fans have been pleased, seeing Connolly as a logical acquisition to a team that needed a playmaking center.

With his name serving as a punchline in Buffalo for much of his time there, a look at his numbers fail to explain the poor treatment he received.

In 464 games with the Sabres he accumulated 320 points. Subtract his ‘02-’03 season (a year very few Sabres performed well), and Connolly racked up at least half a point a game. At his best, he was over a half-point-a-game player, statistically peaking between the ‘05-’06 and ‘09-’10 campaigns. Fans took his physical ailments as a reason to contest his value to the team instead of eagerly awaiting his return, a treatment few oft-injured Sabres ever faced.

The breaking point with the fans seemed to be the front office renewing his contract at $4.5 million a year at the 2009 trade deadline instead of dealing him for prospects and/or picks.

A blue-collar fan base, unsympathetic towards Connolly’s inability to physically perform for work became outraged at the sight of him receiving a sizable raise. His new salary was market rate for a player of his caliber; but a blue collar market couldn’t get comfortable with a fragile, crafty centerman receiving more money when he wasn’t anchoring the team (a la Briere or Drury).

And so the bitterness continued to build. Read the rest of this entry

Case #19 revisited: Tim Connolly, his potential return and fan opinion

Almost three months ago, we discussed the potential of much-maligned pending-UFA center Tim Connolly returning to the Sabres, in a post we called Case #19: The Sabres might want to resign Tim Connolly.

That post got a lot of interesting feedback, some reluctant agreement, as well as a lot of disagreement. In the time since, Tim cooled off near the end of the year, failed to put up big numbers in the playoffs, and got hurt in Game 6 against Philadelphia, seemingly the death blow suffered by the Sabres. After Connolly took a cheap shot from then-Flyer Mike Richards, Buffalo never recovered and lost in seven games.

Incredibly, even seeing how the team suffered without him, fans were ready to move on without the team’s longest tenured player. The consensus is that he’s not wanted by the fans, whether he wants to be here or not.

When asked by 3rd Man In about the situation, Sabres president Ted Black was gracious enough to offer this:

“Darcy and the hockey department make decisions based on if/how that player can help us win the Stanley Cup. Our ultimate goal is to be as successful as we can be. Keep in mind we want players to be good teammates and good citizens off the ice as well. We’re aware that some players are more popular than others with our fans but the bottom line is we want to win the Cup. If the hockey department feels a certain player can help us accomplish that goal, then we will pursue (or retain, as applicable) that player.”

Basically, they’re going to do what they feel is best, whether the fans are going to love it or not.

In the case of Connolly, it’s a good bet fans won’t take too kindly to his return, despite the constant positive press he has received from The Buffalo News in his tenure as a Sabre.

Oh, I’m sorry, I meant negative. Read the rest of this entry

Overreactions, Playoff Edition: Game 6

Things looked pretty good early on, huh?

Buffalo stormed out to a 2-0 lead in the first ten minutes, a game reminiscent of past series-clinching Game 6 blowouts of the Flyers. Even after Daniel Briere got loose and cut the score to 2-1, Thomas Vanek’s second powerplay goal near the end of the first seemed to ease the tension. But if there’s a lesson to be learned about this Flyers team, it’s that they don’t quit.

Scott Hartnell cancelled Buffalo’s third period lead and Ville Leino outworked Chris Butler to jam home a rebound at 4:43 of overtime to give Philadelphia a 5-4 overtime victory and force a decisive Game 7 on Tuesday.

Ryan Miller made 44 saves for Buffalo, while Brian Boucher got the win for the Flyers after the Sabres chased starter Michael Leighton.

“We haven’t done it the easy way, and we’re not going to bail out now,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “We’ve got to win the next one.”

Buffalo had to finish the game without Tim Connolly as the center, who throughout the series had been near the top of the roster in ice time, was injured after being boarded from behind by Philadelphia’s Mike Richards in the second period. Richards was given just a minor penalty and later added assists on the tying and winning goals.

He will not be suspended by the league, as stated by Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos, and going along with the NHL’s track record of being clueless when it comes to supplemental discipline.

So, after an extremely tight six games, featuring two overtime decisions, we get Game 7 Tuesday. Buffalo’s fought their way this far. Will it end this week?

  • The thing I fear having to listen to after this series is that Peter Laviolette is a good coach. Philadelphia’s got a much better roster outside the crease, and there’s a reason they’re the 2-seed in this conference. His handling of his goaltenders has been abysmal. If he would’ve left Bobrovsky in this whole series, I think there’s a good chance they would’ve advanced already. Instead they’ve got the rookie who carried the load this season looking like basketcase in the press box. Read the rest of this entry

Overreactions, Playoff Edition: Game 3

(Apologies for the absence… if I don’t feel I get enough of the game to have opinions, I keep my mouth shut.)

The series is starting to slip away.

After winning a tight Game 1, the bounces just haven’t gone the Sabres’ way. After allowing an early goal that silenced the home crowd, the Sabres were never able to grab the lead and the Flyers walked out of HSBC Arena Monday night after handing Buffalo a 4-2 defeat, giving Philadelphia a 2-1 series lead.

“The results aren’t good enough,” coach Lindy Ruff said. “The problem is when you’re chasing the lead all night, you’re going to give up some opportunities. It’s tough to chase it. You don’t want to start off by giving them the lead.”

Drew Stafford and Nathan Gerbe scored for Buffalo. Marc-Andre Gragnani added two assists and is the only player on the Sabres with points in all three games.

Ryan Miller made 22 saves. After being spectacular in Game 1, he’s been decidedly average in the two losses. He sits in the middle of the pack among playoff goaltenders in every statistic, and has been outplayed by Brian Boucher since the Flyers stuck the veteran in net.

For a team that entered the postseason full of confidence, the team has looked lackluster and passive for most of the last two games. Can they snag a win in Game 4? There’s no reason they can’t. But based on their performance so far, it’s a little hard to see them winning three of the next four against a Flyers team that hasn’t trailed much since switching goaltenders.

  • Gragnani has been Buffalo’s best defenseman and arguably their best player so far this series. His four assists are tied for the league lead. He’s the only player with a positive +/- rating on the roster. Last season, it was Cody McCormick who jumped in and earned himself a contract and roster spot for next season. It’s hard to imagine Gragnani missing from the lineup come October at this rate. Read the rest of this entry

Overreactions, Edition 80: The perfect storm

In hindsight, the result isn’t that surprising.

Factor in what we knew heading into the game, and you’d almost expect it to go the way it did, right? Things like the fact that Thomas Vanek always seems to score against the Lightning. That Tampa Bay’s Dwayne Roloson has never beaten Buffalo. That Matt Ellis would be in the lineup.

So, if I would’ve told you before the game that Vanek would have a hat trick in a 4-2 Sabres win, you’d have to think I was on to something. And that’s how it ended.

“He played a very good game for us,” Ruff said. “Van was big again tonight. Our big players are making a difference, and that’s important.”

Vanek reached the 30-goal mark for the fourth time in his career and pushed his season total to 31. Tim Connolly also scored and added two assists as well. Jhonas Enroth made 23 saves for his third win in four games since Ryan Miller’s injury. And Matt Ellis played.

So Buffalo moved another two points closer to clinching a playoff spot, and more importantly, eliminated the Toronto Maple Leafs from playoff contention. The team does not play again until they close out their home slate Friday against Philadelphia.

  • Sabres are 9-1-2 with Matt Ellis in the lineup this season.
  • Pretty much a guarantee Jhonas Enroth will get one more game this season. No way they use Miller more than once this weekend. I’d expect Ryan on Friday and Jhonas on Saturday in Columbus. Read the rest of this entry

Case #19: The Sabres might want to resign Tim Connolly

Most Sabres fans probably can’t imagine there’s an argument here.

Without a doubt, Tim Connolly is the most maligned player on the roster right now. Many fans don’t like him. Many fans feel he’s not worth a dime. Many fans don’t see why Connolly would want to come back.

Since the trade deadline, when acquiring former junior teammate Brad Boyes was the only move the Sabres made, Tim has been much better, racking up four goals and 11 points in those 16 games. The non-movement of Connolly was not well-received by much of Sabres nation, but Tim was happy about staying.

“That’s what I’ve always wanted to do: Stay in Buffalo and try to have an opportunity to win a Cup here,” he said. “First and foremost, we’ve got to try to make the playoffs. That’s our main goal. The addition of Boyes will help us down the stretch.”

Of late, it’s been Connolly’s line that has been the Sabres’ top unit. That line, featuring Tim at center, flanked by Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville is the closest the Sabres have gotten to a true #1 line this season. At times, it has looked dominant. Each of the three has six points in the last seven games.

Now, it’s one thing to say it’s time for Tim Connolly and the Sabres to part ways, time to move on, because he doesn’t really fit in anywhere. But say that top line sticks together, and looks good in the playoffs. Does that make the Sabres think twice about letting him go? Read the rest of this entry

Overreactions, Edition 77: No need to panic

Things didn’t look to good in the lead-up to game time.

Coming off a 4-3 loss the night before to the hated Toronto Maple Leafs, word broke late that Ryan Miller would not play Wednesday night against the NY Rangers.

No problem.

Jhonas Enroth earned his 1st NHL shutout and Tim Connolly’s second period bullet proved to be enough to get the Sabres a 1-0 win over the Rangers, putting Buffalo into 7th place in the Eastern Conference.

Miller is day-to-day with an upper body injury, but Sabres fans should be feeling fairly confident about things after the rookie netminder’s performance.

“He gave us a chance to win,” Sabres forward Jason Pominville said. “We’ve come to know what to expect out of him, and he delivered it tonight.”

Enroth has now won his last four starts and doesn’t have an NHL loss since November. Sporting a 6-2-1 record on the season, his strong play in relief could be the difference with the playoff race down to the wire.

  • Thomas Vanek tallied an assist, but didn’t convert on a bunch of chances he had. Results or not, if Vanek plays like he’s been playing, that’s the kind of effort that can carry a team offensively. He’s been the team’s best player for a while now. Read the rest of this entry

Overreactions, Edition 71/72: Getting the point

The sky is not falling.

Yes, the last few minutes of yesterday’s 4-3 overtime loss to Nashville were not the work of a great team. But the Sabres are an average team. That’s why they’re in 8th place in a 15 team conference.

But average teams can be successful when they perform above-average, which is what they did Saturday night, blowing out Atlanta 8-2. But that outstanding effort got overshadowed by Sunday night’s collapse.

“It’s stunning,” coach Lindy Ruff said. “When you get up by two, and you’ve got a couple minutes left and you give up a point, that one really hurts. It was a quiet room walking in there.”

I’d say the team needs to look at that result and use it as motivation, but it’s the seventh, yes, seventh time they’ve blown a two-goal lead this season. But flashes of brilliance Saturday night, and solid play for the majority of the weekend should be a point of emphasis.

Again, the sky is not falling. The Sabres are still in a great position to make the postseason, holding a three point edge on Carolina, with one matchup remaining between the teams and ten games to play. If they can win in Raleigh on April 3rd, chances are very good that they’ll do enough to get in.

  • Defending a one goal lead late, with the opponent pressing, why the hell are Rob Niedermayer, Mike Grier and Cody McCormick on the ice with under two minutes to go?
  • It appeared the Sabres coaching staff did a good job of keeping Nashville’s Shea Weber away from the Vanek-Connolly-Pominville line. That line was incredibly effective Sunday, and had some great pressure.
  • I’m not sure I agree with Lindy Ruff deciding to play Ryan Miller again on less than 24 hours rest Sunday. After letting in a couple shaky goals Saturday, and playing a Western Conference team, it would’ve been a great opportunity to get Jhonas Enroth back in. Instead, Miller, who has been good but not great of late, will likely play his third in four nights on Tuesday.
  • If the Sabres were a better team, I’d love to have a line like Gerbe-Gaustad-Mancari as a fourth unit. They had a solid weekend. Unfortunately, they’re the third line, and until they can fill out the roster a little better, it’ll have to do.
  • Tyler Ennis just continues to get his touch, and if he can remain a consistent scoring threat, it’ll make the Sabres’ offense so much more formidable.
  • Atlanta’s Evander Kane is on the short-list of guys in the NHL I wish were on the Sabres’ roster. Kid’s dynamite.
  • Predators rookie Blake Geoffrion, who scored the hat trick in Sunday’s game, is the first NHL player from the Nashville area, growing up in suburban Brentwood, Tennessee. Southern expansion is working, whether the hosers like it or not.
  • Mark Mancari is definitely making a case to keep his roster spot. I don’t know if Grier’s penalty killing is enough to keep Mancari in the press box over him with a healthy roster.
  • Tim Connolly had a very good weekend. His snipe on Sunday was gorgeous.

My thoughts on my trip back to Buffalo will come later… and believe me, I’ve got stuff to say.

Overreactions, Edition 67: Winning Ugly

They can’t all be pretty. But if it’s a win, it’ll do.

No one can say the Buffalo Sabres dazzled on Thursday night, but they managed to find a way to come out on top, earning a 4-3 overtime victory over the Boston Bruins.

Brad Boyes tapped home the winner in the extra period, as Nathan Gerbe grabbed his own rebound and sent it past Boston’s Tim Thomas to his teammate. The Sabres also got goals from Tyler Ennis, Thomas Vanek and Tim Connolly, but despite their obvious offensive skill, they were gritty goals. With scrambles in the crease, all of them trickled over the goal line.

“Physically, we know they are good,” Gerbe said. “They are a top team and they have a lot of good players so we had to play them tough.”

Ryan Miller made 26 saves, and for the most part wasn’t exactly stellar but was good enough to get the win. He was beat by a shot from Rich Peverly in overtime, but was saved by the goal post.

  • Props to the officials tonight for being willing to make calls when necessary and not let things go. Yes, they made some mistakes (Marchand’s triple axle after running into Myers included), but for the most part, they called what was warranted. The Bruins may feel the referees were after them, but if you’re gonna play cheap, you deserve the calls. Read the rest of this entry