What the Sabres’ two games over the weekend say about the Bruins
They were just two days apart, but the Buffalo Sabres’ game against the Boston Bruins on Friday and the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday was like night and day. Both games featured comebacks from deficits to take the lead, some beautiful saves from goaltenders, and a healthy dose of anger. The results were close in stride, and as on any night in the National Hockey League, tiny intangibles made a world of difference.
Bruins fans know by now that this season’s Sabres play a very tough game. The Sabres are deceptively fast and skillful despite having some big, cumbersome bodies on their team. They don’t have trouble scoring–in fact, they’re third in the East in terms of goals for, with a little help from early Hart Trophy candidate Thomas Vanek, who has 12 goals and 25 points in 15 games. But the Sabres are dead last in goals against. For every goal they score, they seem to give one up. A lot of their games have been close, one-goal or two-goal affairs. And yet they still score. A lot.
So what made the Bruins collapse against them Friday when they should have been flying high off of Dougie Hamilton’s first career goal and motivated to protect their lead? The Bruins had overcome an early Sabres goal themselves. Late in the second period, the Bruins kept the Sabres on their heels by outshooting them, 17-6. Ryan Miller made save after save to keep his team within one. When the third period arrived, the Bruins didn’t give the same effort as they did throughout the second, and the Sabres swarmed around goalie Anton Khudobin to score three unanswered goals.
When the Penguins came to Buffalo two days later, the Sabres were in a similar zone. They fell behind very early and went to work on a few penalty kills that seemed to put the life back into their team. But when the Sabres took a 3-2 lead in the third, the Penguins (well known for giving up more than a few leads so far this season) kept hustling and eventually made it 4-3 Penguins in regulation off of a laser shot towards the end of the third by workhorse defenseman Paul Martin.
The NBC broadcast described the Penguins as they eked out their comeback as a team that can “score at will.” They are also good defensively–good for the best goal differential in the Eastern Conference, and second only league-wide to the undefeated-in-regulation Chicago Blackhawks.
The fact of the matter is that the Sabres’ offense deserves more credit than its extremely poor defense is giving it. They can also score at will–but they don’t protect any of those leads, especially not against teams that have even a little bit of offensive firepower.
The Bruins, despite being serious competitors in the Eastern Conference with an overall record of 8-2-2, have only scored 34 goals this season. They’re really not scoring on par with any other team in their class in the East. They’ll need better defense, and better goaltending, to keep up.
The Nashville Predators are following this model to a T. They have only scored 30 goals this season but have been buoyed by hardworking defense and by the performance of Pekka Rinne, who could already be on the shortlist for both the Vezina and the Hart. T
The Preds have picked up 5 of their 19 points by taking games beyond regulation before losing, which is hardly a reliable playoff model of success, but they have all the pieces necessary to put it to the test. If it weren’t for the Chicago Blackhawks, they’d be at the top of their division.
The Bruins, however, don’t have the offense or the goaltending necessary to take that gamble. Tuukka Rask and Khudobin are good, solid even, but not prodigious. Teams like the Penguins and the Sabres will continue to have players from all four lines chipping in offensively on the regular. The Bruins will need to tighten up to keep competing–and a few more goals per game wouldn’t hurt, either, especially from people not named Brad Marchand.