Buffalo Sabres turn-around under new owner Terry Pegula

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The Buffalo Sabres and their fans got a healthy dose of reality this afternoon when it was announced that all-world goaltender Ryan Miller will miss tonight’s game against the New York Rangers. For the most part, it’s the first bit of bad news Sabre Nation has received since fan-turned-billionaire-turned owner Terry Pegula acquired the team in late February. No doubt this has the potential to be a buzz-kill, but the city of Buffalo has had a heck of a honeymoon period.

Ever since Pegula took over the team, it’s like there’s an aura of excitement infused into the organization. We heard all of the things right after the purchase and the initial press conference. He was a fan, he was rich, and he wanted to drop money into his favorite team and make them as good as they possibly could be. It’s always great to hear that an owner wants to drop money into his newly acquired team, but this is a little different. Forbes recently estimated Pegula’s worth at $3 billion. That’s billion with a “b.” When he says the team is going to operate with an “unlimited budget,” it means something different than when the guy behind the counter at the Anchor Bar says it.

John Vogl captured the excitement during Terry Pegula’s opening press conference:

“The Buffalo Sabres’ new owner made two things clear today during his introductory news conference. One is that he has loved the team since 1975. He used to have friends in Olean put their telephone to the television when he lived out of town just so he could hear the game broadcasts. When he looked to his right today in HSBC Arena and saw Hall of Famer Gilbert Perreault, he broke down in tears and told the legendary center he was his hero.

Pegula followed up by telling the fans who don’t own the team exactly what they wanted to hear.

“The Buffalo Sabres’ reason for existence is to win the Stanley Cup,” the 59-year-old said. “We will aspire to be the best in the league at finding, developing and keeping players in the Buffalo Sabres family.”

That was all over a month ago. So what has changed in the weeks since the biggest change the Sabres have seen since Tom Golisano bought the team in 2003? Short answer: everything. They snapped a 4-game losing streak in the very first game under the new owner. After kicking the losing streak to the curb, the Sabres have continued on to an 11-4-3 record in the short Pegula Era. If they can keep this up for the next 10 years under his watch, they’re going to have to figure out a way to etch his face into the side of Niagara Falls. Things couldn’t have started any better—and they couldn’t have started at a better time. They were in 9th place when the new owner took over—tonight they have a chance to pull themselves into a tie for 7th.

The fiscal restraints that tied the hands of the front office were lifted and GM Darcy Regier immediately took advantage by doing something completely out of character for the franchise over the last decade. At the deadline they were able to bring in Brad Boyes for a 2nd rounder in a very “un-Sabres like” trade. Usually they’re the team trying acquire draft picks (not salary), but this time the skate was on the other foot. Thank Pegula.

Since his acquisition a day before the trade deadline, Boyes has joined Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford to give the Sabres some serious secondary scoring they haven’t had all season. Boyes has 5 goals and 5 assists in the 15 games since he joined the Sabres. His linemates have improved their production as well: Ennis has 12 points (6 g, 6a) since Boyes has shown up and Stafford has improved as well with 9 points (4 g, 5a). Those aren’t the kind of numbers that are going to carry a team—but they’ll certainly give a team more offensive depth as they try to pick up the slack for the missing Derek Roy. (Note: it looks like Roy might be able to make it back for the 2nd round if the Sabres were to make it that far.)

For most of the year, the team went as Thomas Vanek, Tim Connolly, and Jason Pominville went; and let’s be honest, the trio hasn’t played like a line that could carry a team most of the year. But put them with another line that can score and all the sudden the Sabres have a look of a team that will be able to score on a consistent basis. Not only the top line, but Tyler Myers has rediscovered the game (offensively and defensively) that made him last year’s Calder Trophy recipient. In fact, they’ve improved to 8th in the league in scoring (2.90 goals per game). It’s a fairly simple formula: put together a team that can score a few goals and put an all-world goaltender behind them.

The offensive output is great, but any success in Buffalo is going to center around their goaltender. For the first 4 months of the season, they had a team that was inconsistent at best offensively and Ryan Miller was playing like a good goaltender. Good, not great. But over the last few weeks, he’s reminded people why he was a dark horse candidate for the Hart Trophy last season. Last week, he earned the #1 star of the week by the NHL by going 3-0 with 2 shutouts and a 0.67 goals against average and .976 save percentage. Even the worst offense in the league would be able to win a few games with goaltending like that.

Those are all factors that the Sabres are dealing with on the ice. But to talk about play on the ice would only be telling part of the story. More importantly, there has been a fundamental attitude adjustment within and around the team. He’s bringing in a cultural shift that is almost as important as the fiscal shift his bank account is bringing in. The team is embracing its great history and tradition by bringing in greats of the past and making it a place where there’s an identity to being a “Buffalo Sabre.” There’s an excitement throughout the entire organization that we haven’t seen since their playoff runs in 2006 and 2007.

The fans in Buffalo will tell you there’s a change around the team as well. From Die By The Blade:

“How do you feel about the Sabres these days? The word that comes to my mind is ‘magical,’ but not for the reasons you might think. It’s not so much that the team’s playing great (which admittedly helps quite a bit) but it’s that so much has changed with the organization so quickly: the fan experience at HSBC Arena, a better TV experience, a suggestion box that’s actually being used, ‘Hockey Heaven’ and a rug with a logo, and a deadline deal that not only worked for once, but never would have been made under the old regime. After a decade and more of complete organizational stagnation, so much has changed for the better in such a short period of time that the only explanation my brain can fathom is that someone cast a magic spell over the city…”

Pegula said in his “media tour” after buying the team that he’s going to make decisions based on what he thinks is “right,” not by money. Immediately upon taking over the team, he issued a huge stamp of approval for Darcy Regier. At the press conference, he could be seen tearing up when he saw Gilbert Perreault—which was one of the best moments in hockey this year. Sure, none of those by themselves is a huge deal. But put them together and there’s a team that feels like they’re onto something. The fans feel it. And judging by their play on the ice, the players look like they’re feeling it as well.

GM Darcy Regier had a great line when he said the new owner is “filling the hope tanks.” That goes both ways—not only is he selling and encouraging hope amongst the fanbase; but there’s a noticeable shift with the team as well. Only time will tell if this is a short-term boost or the start of something great in Buffalo. But one thing is for sure, just about every fan in North America wishes they had a guy like Terry Pegula buying their team.

The Buzzer: Vasilevskiy endures 58 shots, still wins; Hellebuyck gets first shutout

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Three stars

1. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning

Vasilevskiy will still be stopping pucks when he goes to sleep tonight.

The Washington Capitals fired 58 shots in the direction of the young Russian superstar netminder. He stopped 54, which was enough (and more than should have been required) in a 5-4 overtime win.

Vasilevskiy is well on his way to winning the Vezina this season, and Wednesday was just another brilliant performance in what’s been a season full of them.

2. Loui Eriksson, Vancouver Canucks

To be fair, Bo Horvat, Tanner Pearson or Alex Edler could be here, too. But Eriksson’s the one with the four-point night. The other three each had three-point nights, so let’s give it to Loui.

The Canucks had a 5-0 lead in the third period before the Ottawa Senators scored four unanswered to claw their way back into the game. Eriksson provided an assist on Horvat’s 6-4 goal and then scored the 7-4 marker to put the game out of reach.

Eriksson’s season isn’t much to write home about, but he had a solid night on Wednesday.

3. Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets

A Vezina runner up last season, Hellebuyck’s season hasn’t mirrored that this time around. He’s been solid lately, despite a tough start to the year, and getting his first shutout of the season is a monkey off his back.

Resting Hellebuyck is something the Jets are doing in the last couple of weeks here. He didn’t play Monday and won’t play against the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday, either, with the Jets electing to save him for a pivotal matchup against the Nashville Predators in Winnipeg on Saturday night.

Highlights of the night

This passing is unfair:

One-hopper to perfection:

Pretty tip on this one:

Don’t give Victor Hedman all day:

Factoids

Scores

Maple Leafs 4, Sabres 2
Lightning 5, Capitals 4 (OT)
Canucks 7, Senators 4
Jets 3, Ducks 0


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Jets’ Hellebuyck earns first shutout of the season vs. Ducks

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The Winnipeg Jets have fallen victim of the bad-team bug a few times this season.

They lost twice to the Ottawa Senators inside one week earlier this year, twice to the Colorado Avalanche in the same time frame and once to the Arizona Coyotes, who weren’t quite yet on the run they’re now in February.

So coming into this road trip late in the season, where they’d play the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks in two of the three games, there was a reason to be worried they’d get caught in the trap.

The good news for the team is that hasn’t been the case this time out. They beat Los Angeles on Monday and put together a 3-0 win against the Ducks on NBCSN on Wednesday Night Hockey for their fourth straight win after a 29-save shutout from Connor Hellebuyck, his first of the season.

Winnipeg is now three points up on the second-place Nashville Predators with a game in hand and a big meeting with their rivals on Saturday back in Winnipeg — a game that could decide the division if Winnipeg can get the win.

First, however, they’ll have to play the streaking Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday night in Sin City. For the most part, they didn’t expend too much energy in their Wednesday win, so there should still be some gas left in the tank.

Hellebuyck’s is unlikely to start against Vegas, with the Jets looking like they’ll rest their No. 1 for Saturday’s pivotal big game against the Predators, but he had a relatively easy night. Laurent Brossoit, Winnipeg’s’ exceptional backup, should get the call.

Winnipeg’s defense has been decimated down the stretch, with no Dustin Byfuglien, no Josh Morrissey and now no Nathan Beaulieu, a trade deadline acquisition that was thrust into a top-pairing role. Beaulieu missed the game because of an undisclosed injury, making an already thin blue line that much thinner.

Given all their injuries on the back end, the shutout performance by the team is remarkable, even against the Ducks. Winnipeg is slated to get Big Buff and Morrissey back in time for the playoffs, which is critical if they’re to make a deep run once again.

Kyle Connor has a goal and an assist for the second straight game for the Jets. The sophomore has 12 points in his past 14 games.

The Ducks, who came into the game winners of six of their past night, seemed more interested in pestering the Jets rather than playing hockey against them. They didn’t give up six first period goals this time around, or lose 9-3. So that was an improvement over their last meeting.

Like many nights this season, this wasn’t Anaheim’s. If nothing else, the loss helps their lottery chances. All the winning they’ve been doing lately hasn’t helped, however.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Canucks’ Pettersson sets franchise rookie record for points

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Elias Pettersson has been a revelation in Vancouver this season, a source of hope for long-suffering Canucks fans who haven’t had much to cheer about in recent years.

Petterson notched an assist on Markus Granlund‘s second-period goal and that moved him past the great Pavel Bure for the team’s rookie points record with his 61st point in what will likely end in a Calder-winning season for the young rookie.

Pettersson added another assist later in the period. He’ll surely extend that record before seasons’ end. He’s currently on 27 goals and 63 points in 63 games. He’d likely be closer to 80 at this point if not for an ugly hit early on in the season and another injury right after the New Year.

Pettersson is the player the Canucks are going to build around at the moment, and they have some solid young talent already around him with the likes of Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat and others.

Vancouver could be a scary team in a few years, and Pettersson will be leading that charge.

For now, they have one of the NHL’s brightest young players who should bring back a shiny piece of hardware to British Columbia come June.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Lightning survive barrage, strike down Capitals in overtime

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It was going to take a Herculean effort from the Washington Capitals to somehow beat the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second half of a back to back. And man, did they ever deliver one.

But even that wasn’t enough to beat the insanely good Lightning, who recovered from 56 shots against in regulation and a game-tying goal with 57 seconds left in the third period to find a way to their sixth straight win.

The game-winner came courtesy of a Victor Hedman deke. It was pretty.

Tampa is now just five wins away from matching the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for most victories in the regular season at 62. Given that the Lightning at 18-2-0 in their past 20 games, it’s completely acceptable to believe they can do this. With the Presidents’ Trophy already sewn up, the Lightning have eight games now to find five wins — six if they want the record all to themselves.

I’d bet the house on it. Both matching it and surpassing it.

It was a heartbreaking loss for the Capitals, who still managed to pick up a point to increase their lead in the Metropolitan Division to three points on the New York Islanders.

That Herculean effort included a total of 58 shots fired at Andrei Vasilevskiy, who was his usual, totally unfair self in this one. In typical Vasilevskiy fashion, he made easy saves look easy and hard saves look much the same. And he set a franchise record doing it, with his 54 saves the most in a game, surpassing the 48 Ben Bishop made back in 2014.

The game was also a clinic in why special teams matter so much.

When you’re given six power-play opportunities against the far-and-away best team in the NHL — on the second half of a back to back to boot — you need to take advantage.

The Capitals couldn’t, going just 1-for-6 in the game while the Lightning were a perfect 3-for-3, typical of the team with the best man-advantage in the league.

Nikita Kucherov scored twice in the game and Steven Stamkos had a goal while adding assists on each of Kucherov’s markers, which both came on the power play.

After taking a 1-0 lead in the first period, the Lightning scored three unanswered before Carl Hagelin stopped the bleeding. That goal was quickly followed up by T.J. Oshie‘s 22nd of the season to tie the game back up.

The deadlock lasted all of 1:21 thanks to a passing play that was equal parts filthy and beautiful.

The Capitals rested Braden Holtby in their Tuesday win against the Devils. Holtby’s effort could have been better after allowing five goals on 28 shots.

Another seven-game series between these two would be good fun.

More things Tampa did tonight:


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck