It’s only October, but there’s been plenty of winning already in the city of Buffalo. Both the Bills and Sabres are off to fast starts – unbelievably fast starts. Though both teams warrant some cautious optimism, one in particular has some work to do in earning the unflinching trust and support of fans: The Buffalo Sabres.
The Sabres are off to a 9-2-1 start.
That bears repeating.
THE SABRES ARE OFF TO A 9-2-1 START!
For some reason, this doesn’t hit home like it should. It’s just words to many, fans and pundits alike. For example, in some of the power-rankings around the league the Sabres are finding it difficult to crack the top-three, let alone the top-five. And this is despite owning the top-seed in the actual standings.
The TOP 10 in this week's Power Rankings!
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— #ThankYouDoc (@NHLonNBCSports) October 22, 2019
Obviously these rankings are not formed in a vacuum. The dreadful season the Sabres had last season (and the last eight) plays a huge role in informing these opinions. And it wasn’t just a bad season last year for Buffalo – it was uniquely bad.
Not many teams can string together 10 straight wins. Not many teams, despite how poor they are, will fail to string together two wins in-a-row over an almost four-month period. The Sabres did both of these things in their Jekyll-and-Hyde season last year.
I wrote about the haunting presence of the 10-game winning streak last season in The Specter of the Streak. This ghostly dark cloud is the obvious culprit preventing the fan base from a complete buy-in into the team.
Whether Sabres nation will hand over their hearts and souls to this team remains to be seen. Last year, however, there was a definitive moment when fans became trusting and vulnerable.
Rewind back to November 19th of last year. The Sabres stunned the Pittsburgh Penguins in a come-from-behind 5-4 overtime win. The Sabres trailed 4-1 in the second period but stormed back with three consecutive goals in regulation and the overtime winner coming off the stick of Jack Eichel.
That marked their sixth straight victory and third consecutive on the road – beating some heavy-hitters like the Wild, Jets, and Lightning just prior. The next game would come at home against the Philadelphia Flyers, with the Sabres shooting for an unheard-of seventh-straight win.
It was a “party night” in Buffalo. This game, the day before Thanksgiving, was highly anticipated to have an electric vibe. It did not disappoint; the fans showed up en masse and rowdy. The players mirrored the attitude of the fans with a 5-2 stomping of the Flyers.
We all know how the story went afterward. The magic continued for three more games and then ‘the fall’ happened. The Sabres showed their true colors and returned to the basement of the league.
So fans have a right to be wary of this team. A game like we saw last Thanksgiving may have to wait till March or April, though, if the team continues to play well it may come sooner. The big question has to be: is this sustainable?
The answer isn’t clear, nor should it be. It’s not even November. But a cursory look at both general and advanced statistics warrants some optimism – especially when comparing this year’s start to last year’s winning streak.
There are also some obvious things the eye test can’t miss either. The Sabres have a lethal power-play, despite some minor struggles of late. They also have been receiving contributions from the entire lineup. It’s quite possible that they have between five and seven 20+ goal scorers by the end of the season.
“The Krueger effect” has been palpable as well. It’s evident that the players have bought in completely to Ralph’s system and philosophy. He’s a true renaissance man that has seemingly birthed new enlightenment into the Sabres organization. What was Phil Housley doing for the past two seasons?
In 164 games with Phil Housley as their head coach, the #Sabres had 5 shutouts. Ralph Krueger has 3 shutouts in 12 games as the Buffalo bench boss.
— Buffalo Sabres Stats (@SabresStats) October 26, 2019
Last, but not least – general manager Jason Botterill’s offseason acquisitions deserve some credit for the fast start and should foster some belief in future success. Up front, Marcus Johansson already has eight points (4g, 4a) in 12 games, while donning an “A” as a leader of the team. This is all while filling the role of the second-line center.
On the back end, Colin Miller and Henri Jokiharju have been solidifying additions to a now very mobile and offensively-minded defense corp. The over-abundance of defensemen may at some point in the future catalyze a trade, but until then ‘it’s a good problem to have.’
It’s undeniable this team is better than last year’s. However, it’s going to take more than one month of hockey for fans to unleash their unconditional support. It may take a playoff birth for such a scenario. All in all, the Buffalo faithful are optimistic, but unwilling to hand over their hearts just yet.