|Your MVP so far.|
Last night, Terry Pegula emerged from what I assume is his rich billionaire cave and discussed the Sabres season. He blamed the injuries on the team's middling record so far and expected a turnaround. There's been talk that Pegula will force wholesale changes if the Sabres don't live up to their expectations for the rest of the season. This is a team with a top five payroll in the league. This is a team expected to make the playoffs, not sit at 11th halfway through the season. This is a team that Pegula wants winning a Stanley Cup. Not next year, not in five years, but now, as soon as possible. Pegula then exhorted the players of his organization: from here on out, this is a new season.
And it better be. The first half of the season, the "old" season, has been infuriating. A plague of injuries hit the team, with almost every player on the roster having missed time at one point, causing a slew of call ups and line changes which have disturbed any chemistry that might've been brewing. So we got a team with no identity, no idea what it wanted to be or how it should play. Even worse, the core players besides Thomas Vanek (who is a total stud and should be at the All Star Game) and Jason Pominville (who is going to the All Star Game, and who I fear might be picked last at the All Star draft.) But Derek Roy, Drew Stafford, Tyler Ennis, Tyler Myers, Ville Leino and Nathan Gerbe, when not injured, have all disappointed immensely. These guys were supposed to be the depth of the team, with any one of them pitching in a goal or two on any given night. But no. Derek Roy has been bad enough to become the new scapegoat of the team, impressively beating out Ville Leino. The guys over at Dear God Why Us Sports agreed that they'd trade Derek Roy for a McRib. It was hilarious to see a ESPN trade rumors column in which they said that the Sabres are dangling Derek Roy- but nobody, I mean nobody wants him. All the wishful thinking that the Sabres might pull the trigger for Ryan Getzlaf or some other high end center has been tamped down by the fact that the Sabres don't have that many high end players to trade. To add to the troubles, Ryan Miller has become a shell of his former self on most nights. He can occasionally make vintage, amazing saves, but he is also getting beat badly on some shots that used to be routine. And the efforts of the team are mismatched enough such that Miller will play a great game and the team won't score, or Miller will play badly and the team will score, but not enough. All this has led to a team that plays just well enough to lose closely on most nights, grabbing an overtime loss or spare win here or there. It's been awful to watch a team that's basically the same as last year's playoff squad limp so horribly throughout the season. A hot start to the season is what has kept the Sabres at or around .500 this season.
And now, at .500, the new season begins. Last night, the Sabres jumped out to a two goal lead on the Leafs behind scoring from Matt Ellis (!!!) and Paul Gaustad, the kind of production you need from secondary sources. A goofy bounce off the back boards led to a rebound goal for the Leafs, and they tied it up after Mike Weber tripped up in his own zone and gave the Leafs a 3 on 1. (On a side note, our defense has been great at giving other teams chances this season. Besides Regehr and Leopold, they've been horrible. And sometimes, even Regehr or Leopold makes a back breaking mistake.) Two goals that are hard to pin fully on Miller. The Sabres didn't buckle though; they just kept playing their game, as the two teams stalled from that point on. But late in the second, Vanek and Pominville stepped up. If you give them a chance to win the game, they can. Vanek was skating down towards the corner with the puck, saw Pominville open on the other side of the net, and threaded a ridiculous pass through the crease and two defenders to a wide open Pominville. There's your winning goal, brought to you by the transcendence of our two best players. From that point on, the defense clamped down, Miller made some key saves, and the Sabres got an ugly, but much-needed win. The team we've seen all season would give up that lead, and either lose in regulation on a last minute goal or go into overtime, make a dumb mistake, and lose. But they held on. Now they're back at .500, 19-19-5. The new season begins. They're five points out of 8th with 39 games to play. They just need to keep winning, stringing together some back to back wins, and move up. Create pressure. Play like the team that they're capable of being. If they can't, then it might be time to blow up the core and start over. But last night was a start.
I'm not saying that the Sabres are now headed, inextricably, for a playoff spot, but there has to be some momentum, some forward motion. A trip to the Islanders, a bottom feeder of the Eastern Conference, is another test. A loss here is same-old-Sabres of this season, can't win back to back, can't beat a team they should. A win, though, is another step forward, embarking on their new season, to the good, Cup contending team that we think is hidden under this current iteration. A new season, another chance, a last gasp. Here's hoping the Sabres go boldly into the new season.