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Opinion

Baby Steps

If there’s one criticism that probably won’t apply to Sabres fans this year, it’s the idea that they’ll be harboring unrealistic expectations for their team; not after what occurred in the first month of the regular season.

Loyal followers of the blue and gold have likely realized that this current Sabres team has plenty of struggles to still overcome. After a tough win on the road in Ottawa to commence the season, the Sabres fell flat on their faces with five straight losses, during which they accumulated only one point.

They had multi-goal leads washed away, they were shutout in a contest, they lost to division rivals, and they had a star player get taken out- things got ugly in a hurry for Buffalo hockey.

Then the Sabres provided some relief with two huge wins over Atlanta and New Jersey. Granted, a loss to Ottawa came in between, but the pair of road victories displayed a team that looked a lot more like defending Northeast Division Champions should.

They poured on the offense for 10 goals and held onto leads that they established early, unlike in previous outings, such as those against the Blackhawks. They even scored on the Power Play a couple times, which for better or worse, is a big deal with the Sabres.

“We’re disappointed overall how the first part of the season has gone,” Ryan Miller admitted after the win in New Jersey, “We haven’t established what we wanted but they were one-goal games based on some errors. […] It’s just patience within the game”

If there is any silver lining to the Sabres’ 3-6-1 record after nine games, it’s exactly what Miller said- most of the losses were decided by one goal. Ottawa went up by two after an empty netter in the closing seconds during their victory, and the only other games where the Sabres lost by more than one goal as the defeats by New York and Philadelphia. Fans can take some solace in the fact that the team has been competitive while they work out their numerous kinks.

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As for where those kinks come from, it may always be a mystery. In some cases there is no concrete explanation as to why a team has down periods, particularly a team that isn’t very dissimilar from a previous year where they had so much success.

The core group of players is the same this season as last, and there weren’t drastic improvements or downgrades in talent for other positions that did see some shakeups. Nonetheless, this team obviously needed time to figure out how to ‘click’ with one another, and still does in some regard.

There are enough new faces to believe that the whole roster is adjusting to one another. The defense especially got shaken up, as every pairing is different from what was the regular last year. Meanwhile, there’s a trio of new bloods in Tyler Ennis, Nathan Gerbe and Cody McCormick that are getting their first taste of consistent NHL action, and all three of them operate on different lines.

“Sometimes by playing good team hockey and working hard, you’ll get your chances and things will go your way,” Captain Craig Rivet said, “We need to be looser in a way but still have a high intensity out there.”

Although they only have a handful of wins to show for it, the Sabres have been playing much better hockey since that five-game losing streak. Goals are becoming more common, both in even and odd-man situations, and more importantly, they’re coming from a variety of players.

Going into the rematch with Chicago on October 16th, the Sabres had a 1-3-1 record, and goals by only four players; Derek Roy, Jordan Leopold, Tim Connolly and Drew Stafford. Since that night, the offense has spread considerably throughout the roster.

Important offensive components in Thomas Vanek and Ennis have been finding the back of the net, Tyler Myers has finally begun contributing with three goals of his own, and even Patrick Kaleta and Paul Gaustad have found themselves on the scoresheet.

Balanced scoring was one of the key reasons behind the Sabres’ 100-point regular season last year. It wasn’t just the Roys and the Connollys and the Pominvilles that were putting up points; it was the entire roster, right down the the designated ‘goons’ of the team that aren’t expected to have much of an offensive presence. The 3-6-1 record after ten games is disappointing, but at least the Sabres are showing that they’re on their way to a establishing their chemistry.

“You have to survive bad stretches,” Lindy Ruff said.

That’s life in the NHL.

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