Buffalo Sabres Back on Top: Regain Division Lead

Steve BukowskiContributor IDecember 1, 2009

TORONTO - NOVEMBER 30:  Jonas Gustavsson #50 of the Toronto Maple Leafs is scored on by Tim Kennedy #13 of the Buffalo Sabres during game action November 30, 2009 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)
Abelimages/Getty Images

Thanks to a current 3-game winning streak, the Buffalo Sabres have reclaimed the top spot in the Northeast Division. The Sabres’ wins over Philadelphia (4-2), Carolina (5-1), and Toronto (3-0) have given the Sabres 6 points, good for a total of 32 points coming out of November. Boston is one point behind with 31 (however, they have played 2 more games than Buffalo has), and Ottawa has 30 points.

The Sabres beat the Flyers at their own game, scoring 4 times in a highly physical game wrought with penalties. Buffalo’s Patrick Kaleta was given a game misconduct after a boarding penalty, and has just finished serving a two game suspension handed down from the NHL. He’ll be eligible to play Thursday (12/3) against Montreal. Stealing 2 points from Philadelphia was a great boost to the Sabres’ morale, who had broken a 4-game losing streak with the win. However, the Sabres would be without Craig Rivet or Paul Gaustad, as both had sustained injuries at the Wachovia Center.

Buffalo attempted to take that momentum back with them to HSBC Arena where they played host to the league-worst Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes scored first early and visibly dominated the Sabres, who were confused and disorganized in the first two periods. Carolina’s Matt Cullen scored the Hurricanes’ first and only goal. Heroics by the Sabres defense and goalie Ryan Miller (who earned a standing ovation from Sabres fans) kept the score 1-0 after two periods. A renewed Sabres team emerged from the locker room, and lit up Carolina netminder Leighton five times (Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek, Clarke MacArthur, Mike Grier, and Jochen Hecht all scored) to send the Hurricanes back to Raleigh.

The Sabres’ latest campaign sent them to Canada to take on the cross-border rival Maple Leafs. These games are notorious in Western New York/Southern Ontario as a mere 90 minutes on the QEW separates these two hockey-crazed cities. The game was a back-and-forth affair with no score heading midway in the second period, when Buffalo’s Tim Kennedy tallied the first goal at the 13:07 mark. The score remained 1-0 going into the third period, and Henrik Tallinder extended the Buffalo lead with a goal 20 seconds into the period.  Jochen Hecht scored about 10 minutes later to bring the game to its final score, 3-0.

Buffalo’s Ryan Miller has proven time and time again that he is the backbone of this Sabres squad. He leads in the NHL in save percentage (.937), GAA (1.97) and has recorded his third shutout of the season. He’s been helped by the defense- Buffalo’s is one of the stingiest, only allowing 55 goals in 24 games.

The good news is that the Sabres’ offense has found some life on the rink. They’ve scored 12 goals in their last three games, and the scoring has been even across the roster. Thomas Vanek now has 8 goals,  Stafford and MacArthur both have 7, Gaustad and Connolly have tallied 6 apiece, and Jason Pominville and Derek Roy each have 5. The Buffalo Sabres’ offense, despite their current goal flurry, must find a way to keep producing numbers like the past three games. The league leader (Dany Heatley, SJS) is nearing 20 goals so far this season, 12 ahead of the Sabres’ Vanek. Vanek was signed to be Buffalo’s superstar player, and the Sabres need him to be. The other Sabres forwards must also spark their game.

Another thing to watch for in upcoming games will be the play of Patrick Lalime, the Sabres’ backup goaltender. With Ryan Miller starting almost every game, fans and management alike are becoming concerned with the possibility of fatigue hitting Miller.  When Lalime goes between the pipes, the Sabres need to make sure that the defense rallies around him to keep pucks away from the net, and that the offense scores enough goals to allow an opposing goal or two, and still walk away with 2 points. Buffalo has struggled with Lalime in net, as his record this season in 0-2.

Buffalo should also be looking to sign a reliable backup goalie, as faith in Lalime is all but gone. There have been many rumors flying around that former Sabre Martin Biron could be brought back to Buffalo. Once Rick DiPietro returns, the New York Islanders’ abundance of goaltenders could help make the move happen. It would be beneficial to both the team and Biron- the team needs a backup goalie, and Biron’s family and residence are still in the Western New York area. Having Biron back in the Blue and Gold could be a huge step forward for this organization.

Buffalo begins a 5-game home stand against Montreal this Thursday (12/3),and continuing against the New York Rangers (12/5),New Jersey (12/7), Washington (12/9), and Chicago (12/11).

The Sabres are looking forward to the return of captain Craig Rivet and Paul Gaustad. December is going to prove to be a crucial month as the Sabres look to fend off the Bruins and Senators to pad their division lead.