Soak it in: Buffalo Sabres are good

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Remember when the Buffalo Sabres were bad?

The answer is we all do. You don’t have to go that far back in the annals of hockey history to find some woefully bad Sabres teams.

But those days of Buffalo being the butt-end of jokes and all of that sort of thing seem to be over with. The western New Yorkers aren’t simply toiling as an embarrassing team anymore. It’s been a bit of a process to turn the ship around, but the fruits of that labor seem to be flourishing so far this season.

Case and point: Buffalo has now cobbled together five straight wins, including triumphs over the Tampa Bay Lightning — tops in the Atlantic Division — and the Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild, teams sitting second and third in the Central Division, respectively.

They’ve embraced the grind, have learned to weather storms and are still standing at the end of it.

In Winnipeg on Friday, the Sabres were outshot 12-4 in the first period and survived. In Minnesota on Saturday, they were again pelted in the opening frame, doubled up 18-9 on the shot counter, and still found a way to only be down by a single goal.

And in both games, they battled back in the third, tied the game and then won it late in regulation or in extra hockey, as was the case in Winnipeg. And they did it on back-to-back nights when you’d have forgiven them for packing it in early against Minnesota after Friday’s game, which needed 65 minutes and seven rounds of a shootout.

Summer acquisitions of Jeff Skinner and Carter Hutton have played massive roles in Buffalo’s ascent up the standings a month-and-a-half into the season.

Skinner has 14 goals and 21 points in 20 games this season after coming over from the Carolina Hurricanes.

Hutton is 4-0-0 in his past four games with a 1.42 goals-against average and a .950 save percentage.

Linus Ullmark is 4-0-1 in his backup role and Buffalo had the 11th best team save percentage coming into Saturday. 

Their penalty kill is in the top 10

Jason Pominville has turned back the clock with nine goals and 17 points thus far. Thirty-five years old and the wear and tear of 1,000 games? Pfft. Pominville is laughing at Father Time. 

And most importantly, they’re resilient.

“I just think we bent a little bit but we didn’t break,” Sabres head coach Phil Housley said after Friday’s win in Winnipeg. “I think last year we maybe would have broke a little more and gave the game away. We hung in there. That’s what’s great about this group, that they stick with it. We make some adjustments in between periods and they follow through with those adjustments. But it’s great for them, they’ve shown the resiliency up to this point in the season.”

The Sabres are simply an exciting team to watch these days and they’re positioning themselves to be in the playoff hunt, both this year and in the future.

Imagine that.


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

Sabres’ Jason Pominville ready for third outdoor game experience

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The weather was brutal. The snow was coming down. It was cold. It wasn’t pleasant to be outside. But that didn’t stop hockey fans from being out in the elements hours before the start of the first ever NHL Winter Classic between the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins.

As Jason Pominville drove into the parking lot at Ralph Wilson Stadium on New Year’s Day 2008 he noticed the weather didn’t keep fans away that morning. There was plenty of tailgating, street hockey and, of course, bonfires to keep everyone busy and warm. It was a scene. It was one big party, and there was no way some snow or below freezing temperatures was going to keep fans from enjoying the day.

That was the first time that day that it hit Pominville just how big the Winter Classic was as an event. Fans were excited hours before puck drop. Inside the locker rooms, players were, too. While two points were on the line for both the Sabres and Penguins, it was an experience that broke up the monotony of an 82-game NHL schedule.

The next time Pominville had a “wow” moment was when both teams marched out of the tunnel and onto the field on their way to the rink. The snow was still coming down and the players were welcomed by smoke machines and giant flames that blasted above their heads. There was also that unforgettable sound of the 71,217 fans in attendance that was like one big neverending roar.

“It was crazy. It’s tough to describe the feeling,” Pominville told Pro Hockey Talk recently. “You’re kind of in awe of everything that’s going on — snowy day, fireworks, choppers for the national anthem, 70,000 people. Just the whole build up for the game was crazy.”

Despite the frigid temperatures and wind, sleet, snow and rain to deal with, Pominville didn’t add any extra layers as the game went on. The players were told by athletic trainers about the different options available to them — from lotions to various pieces of clothing that could protect them, but having access to a heated bench between shifts coupled with the layers they were already wearing was more than enough to survive the afternoon.

No players were injured, thankfully, as the ice surface was less than ideal as the game wore on. Several times throughout the afternoon, NHL ice guru Dan Craig and his staff had to patch up a certain spot on the surface. That led to the game being delayed, but that extra time gave players and the coaching staffs to embrace the event.

“The game kind of took forever [with delays], you really had a chance to sink it all in where you’re looking around like ‘oh man, this is cool. this is what it’s all about,’” Pominville said. “The league’s done a great job of building up and look what it’s become now — there’s shows, there’s cameras following us around. It’s pretty cool the way [it’s] evolved, for sure.”

Eight years later Pominville would get a chance to play in a second outdoor game. This one didn’t have the famous snow globe effect to it like Buffalo, but TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis was a fine setting for a 2016 Stadium Series game as his Minnesota Wild played the Chicago Blackhawks. It also allowed the teams to have an easier time trying to play their system. The snow at Ralph Wilson Stadium made it difficult as the piled up snow made it difficult to move the puck at times.

Now as Pominville, who will be playing in his third outdoor game, preps for the 10th anniversary Winter Classic matchup, he has some simple advice for players: enjoy it. Yes, it’s a regular season game with points on the line, but it’s also a special time for players and their families. It’s also an experience that not every NHL franchise has been able to be a part of.

“The build up to these games are pretty amazing now. It’s fun to have a chance to play in one of these again,” he said. “I think everyone will have fun and enjoy it. Hopefully we can win the game.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Poll: Will Minnesota’s power play improve this season?

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The Wild’s power play was so bad last season that, at one point, Zach Parise had to ask fans to stop booing the club when they had the man advantage.

Minnesota’s power play was clicking at just 15.8 efficiency at the end of the regular season – good for 27th overall.

Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek finished second and third in points behind Parise, but both struggled in man advantage situations. Vanek scored just five of his 21 goals with the man advantage – his fewest in a season. Pominville scored three goals on the power play – his lowest full-season total since his rookie campaign (2005-06).

Speaking with Mackey and Judd on ESPN radio in Minnesota last week, Wild head coach Mike Yeo said his coaching staff has spent part of the offseason working on improving the team’s power play.

“We’ve spent a lot of time for sure, between (assistant coach) Andrew Brunette and myself, looking at different schemes (and) tactics that we can try to get the players a better chance to have success with,” Yeo said. “I think it’s got to be a personnel thing, just in terms of the combinations that we use and how we deploy them, probably a 1A, 1B. Making sure those two groups have competition against each other. I think in a lot of ways, for us, it’s a mentality (and) it’s a philosophy.”

According to Yeo, there’s one area of the power play that needs improvement on last season.

“We’re a skilled team, but we’re not the most skilled team,” said Yeo. “Most successful power plays around the league are still shooting power plays and the most successful power plays have the best net-front (presence). I think of all the areas, I think our net-front has probably been the worst part of our power play. That’s an area we have to improve.”

OK, time to vote:

Wild’s biggest question: Who will step up at center?

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In addition to whether Devan Dubnyk can replicate his 2014-15 season, one of the biggest questions surrounding the Minnesota Wild heading into this season is at center.

According to NHL.com, Wild centers were amongst the least productive in the league last season combining for 49 goals. Captain Mikko Koivu led the way with 14 goals while Mikael Granlund accounted for just eight goals.

In order to improve in this area they’ll need more from Granlund – the 23-year-old, who centered a line with Jason Pominville and Zach Parise last season, will be expected to contribute more offensively.

“I don’t think anybody anticipates Granlund to be an eight-goal, 40-point guy for the rest of his career,” GM Chuck Fletcher said after signing Granlund to a new two-year, $6 million deal in July. “He is going to take off here over the next two years.”

The Wild also believe Charlie Coyle can be a full-time center. Speaking with Mackey and Judd on ESPN radio in Minnesota last week, Mike Yeo said Coyle would start the season at center.

Coyle scored 11 goals and 35 points in 82 games last season.

“You look at a guy like David Backes, for instance, he’s a centerman, he’s pretty much a fulltime centerman right now, but he spent a lot of time bouncing around,” said Yeo. “I like (Coyle’s) improvement at center last year, in particular, in his defensive game, I know he’s a real reliable guy especially to have a big body like that. You can throw him out there against an Anze Kopitar, who is (6-foot-3) and (225-pounds), you know he’s not going to get out-muscled down low. That’s a real valuable thing to have.

“What’s important for him now is if he can take another step offensively playing that position.”

More will also be expected of Erik Haula. The 24-year-old, who signed a two-year extension earlier this month, took a step back last season. Haula scored six goals and 15 points in 46 regular season games during the 2013-14 season. He added four goals and seven points in 13 playoff games.

Last season, Haula managed to score just seven goals and 14 points in 72 games.

“Just because he had a bit of a down year last year, we’re certainly not ready to give up on him because we’ve also seen the flip side,” said Yeo. “We’ve seen what he’s capable of and it’s just a process that these young kids have to go through.”

The Wild also lost Kyle Brodziak in free agency. The 31-year-old was amongst the top-scoring centers in Minnesota last season with nine goals.

Related: Looking to make the leap: Mike Reilly

Wild ’15-16 Outlook

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When looking at the Minnesota Wild, it’s easy to see their potential, but without making any major additions over the summer, are they in a position to get past the second round for the first time since 2003?

To a decent extent, Minnesota’s fate rests on Devan Dubnyk’s shoulders. This is a team that was in a free fall when he was acquired and his stellar play helped right the ship. Minnesota doesn’t necessarily need him to win the Vezina Trophy, but if he struggles mightily, as he did in 2013-2014, then Minnesota could be in serious trouble. Of course Darcy Kuemper and perhaps even Niklas Backstrom could step up to fill the void in that scenario, but Backstrom is 37 years old with a history of injuries while Kuemper is coming off of an erratic campaign.

Part of the reason why so much rides on Dubnyk though is because Minnesota’s offense hasn’t been anything to write home about. Which is a shame because in theory, Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek, and Mikko Koivu should make for a great core and when you throw in promising youngsters like Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, and Charlie Coyle, the potential is there for the Wild to be more than a middle of the road team when it comes to offensive production.

That’s what they were last season though, in part because Koivu regressed while Granlund, Niederreiter, and Coyle weren’t able to make meaningful offensive improvements compared to their 2013-14 campaigns. Perhaps that will change this season though and if it does, that would certainly take some of the pressure off of the Wild’s goaltending.

As far as their defense goes, Ryan Suter is expected to once again play in nearly half of every game. Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella, and Jonas Brodin are projected to make major contributions too, but the X-factor is 21-year-old Matt Dumba as he should play a bigger role in his sophomore campaign after being limited to 15:00 minutes per contest last season.

The makings of a contender are there. It’s just a question of if everyone will click this time around.