1Posted by John Monahan on September 30, 2011 at 9:56 am
Well the regular NHL season is nearly upon us. In one short week the Sabres faceoff against the Ducks in Helsinki, Finland. The story of the season is a blank slate to be written on, a fresh layer of powdery snow to by skied upon, a clean ice surface to be skated upon. All the possibilities lay before us as we ponder with wonder like a kid on Christmas Eve – could this be the year we get that most special gift of all? Could this be the year the Sabres pull it off and bring Lord Stanley’s Cup to Buffalo?
Of course, we have every reason to be positive. Every Sabres writer has gone off ad infinitum about the magic that Terry Pegula has brought to the city. Indeed anything is truly possible: the Sabres have long had grit, great coaching, a great goalie and pretty good scoring. The only thing missing lately (on paper at least) has been a great defense, and they seem to have corrected that by adding Regehr and Ehrhoff.
We're believing now. But should we temper expectations just a little bit?
So we seem to be primed for a great season and a run at the Cup. Or are we? There are many question marks and nothing is written in stone for this team. So here are some what-if’s – some of them a little scary, but don’t worry, as I’m wearing my lucky anti-Sabres-jinx underwear.
1. What if “Big Ville Style” doesn’t pan out as a center?
Leino may just fit the bill and be that #2 center we were looking for. But if he’s a bust, I think the Sabres are still ok. He’s looked good moving the puck around on the 2nd line with Ennis and Stafford and should always be capable of creating scoring chances. Pitching in defensively and on faceoffs is the issue. With the improved defense, even if Ville is a complete flop, we should still be ok. Also, it’s not like the Sabres have been great at faceoffs previously and they’ve been just fine. When they need a good draw in their own zone, that’s when it’s time for the Gaustad line.
Verdict? We’ll be ok.
2. Miller gets hurt
This is one that probably no one wants to even think about, but it had to be brought up because it’s potentially the biggest hurting that could happen to the Sabres. Ryan Miller not playing up to form we’ve already seen (see last year) and that ain’t even all that bad. But if he has a serious injury (*knocking on wood and throwing salt over my shoulder while I type that*) can the Sabres still compete and have a deep playoff run?
Compete – yes, I don’t think that’s a problem at all. We all saw how well young Jhonas Enroth handled himself down the stretch run last year. He’s got the skills to pay the bills to hold the fort down while Miller recuperates. They should still be able to reel off wins with the improved defense.
Now could the Sabres make a DEEP playoff run if Miller is out indefinitely or towards the end of the season? As is usually the case with a goalie in the playoffs, you never quite know until he’s battle-tested. Enroth seems to have the confidence, and I think he’d perform rather well, but maybe the stakes or pressure would get to him. And despite my faith in him during the regular season, I’m a little bit sketched out thinking about having him between the pipes in the playoffs.
Verdict? We’ll be ok (mostly).
3. A big injury in the top line: Roy/Vanek/Pommers gets hurt indefinitely
Again, not something we want to really think about, but think about it we must. (Ok, we don’t HAVE to, but hear me out!) The Sabres were already without Roy for the bulk of last year and they still finished 4th in the Eastern Conference in scoring – and they were only 2 points behind 2nd place Tampa Bay. With the improvements elsewhere this should be even less of an issue than it was last year.
Again, I’m thinking of every anti-jinx I can to prevent this from happening, including leaving offerings for Jobu and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I know what Vanek brings to the team: a threat to score from anywhere, a hard-nosed mentality, a much-improved game defensively, plus the leadership. However, with the depth at wing and the dearth of centers, I think Roy would be the greater loss to the team – and they got over it last year.
Throw in some optimistic improvements in Boyes’ game plus the bonus in scoring on D from Ehrhoff and the Sabres would still be ok.
Verdict? We’ll be ok.
4. The young core doesn’t perform like they did down the stretch of the 2010-2011 season
Gerbe, Ennis, McCormick, heck let’s even throw Stafford in there as he’s only 25 – these guys were a vital part of the Sabres amazing run to amass points and make the playoffs last year. Now, I don’t THINK it was a fluke, but what if they can’t recapture the magic they had? What if they outright suck?
You could say Stafford got lucky with all those goals he scored as part of hat tricks – what if those quit coming? Ennis pitched in with 20 goals and 29 assists but it could be argued that many of those were flukey. Gerbe worked hard and got lucky on several of his goals, including the wicked no-look backhand turnaround shot – what if his luck doesn’t continue into this season?
This is one that I have a really hard time with thinking could happen, but I had to play devil’s advocate. Sure, these guys might take a small step back, but not all of them and not a whole bunch. They’re skilled and they should improve. You know Gerbe and Ennis are going to work hard, that’s just how they play. Stafford might not crack the 30-goal mark again, but he should be close and he’ll be a valuable weapon.
Verdict? Not likely – we’ll be ok.
5. The Defense doesn’t gel/is porous/has a rash of injuries
As for gelling together as a unit, Lindy Ruff is one of the best coaches the Sabres have had – we should give thanks to the hockey gods before each and every game for allowing Lindy to be in Buffalo all these years. Just look at what he’s done with previous teams and compare the squad we have now to them. He should be able to get the most out of these guys. Besides, they’re mostly mature professionals. Ehrhoff and Regehr will get on anyone who’s not pulling their weight. Tyler Myers showed that he’s not going to slack off, and I don’t think Mike Weber will either. Leopold and Morrison are pretty seasoned and don’t seem to be the types to take shifts off. That leaves the possibility of Sekera and Gragani being slouches – but even if that happens, we’re talking about the 6th defenseman on the ice. I’m not worried about them not gelling.
Could they be as porous as a sponge? Obviously they’re improved (duh) and the young guys have learned a bit more. Sekera, Gragnani and Weber might get off to a slow start, but aside from Sekera I’m not worried. Grags and Weber showed tenacity and smarts, although Gragani’s sample size is pretty small. Actually, I’m not the biggest Myers fan in the world and I think he can improve quite a bit defensively. However, as a whole, they’re going to be at least decent and steadily improving throughout the year.
Now if they have a rash of injuries, there may not be much we can do, much like the 2006-2007 playoffs. I guess this is too vague or a weird possibility but they’re so deep that unless there’s a crazy statistical oddity to the point where we think the Sabres are cursed, then this shouldn’t be much of an issue.
Verdict? We’ll be ok.
Wow that was a lot, and much than I thought it’d be going in. If you’re still here reading this, you deserve a cookie.
QUICK! Eat that ugly thing before the season starts - We must destroy all remnants of the slug logo to rid any bad juju this post might have caused.
In the long run, I think the Sabres can even manage having 2, maybe even 3 of these things happening at the same time – just so long as they don’t happen in the playoffs. If nothing else, perhaps thinking about these possibilities will temper our expectations and allow us to just enjoy the season – whatever may unfold. After all, hardly anything goes according to plan.
Anything that was missed? Could the Sabres really somehow miss the playoffs? Should we not even dare to think about things like this? Should I really end this post with a question?
Now, the national media is showing symptoms too – but not just over the Bills, or even the Sabres, but over Buffalo. Over us.
As the decades pass along, we endure column after column, news clip after news clip, about how it snows here. We get to see Scott Norwood’s kick go wide right. We see photos of Brett Hull’s foot in the crease. We’re chided for being a cesspool town with a spendthrift NFL owner who isn’t willing to spend what it takes to build a winner. Heaps of grief are heaved onto the region when a NHL owner like Tom Golisano won’t overspend to keep the Drurys and Campbells in town, and then heaps of sniveling ire are pitched about Terry Pegula investing his own money in players to build a true contender (too much money, cap circumvention, blah blah blah).
Damned if we do, damned if we don’t. Well, the Bills have won three games now.
It's amazing what three wins can do to the talking heads of the national press.
Today, Les Carpenter of Yahoo! Sports put this column out for our morning reads. It’s a heckuva read – it’s poignant, exciting, enriching, and put the verve of our hearts and hopes here front and center. It is one of many columns celebrating the team and our City lately. But it’s old, old news.
This is a story about football. More specifically it’s a story about a team often tucked into irrelevance in a city where the boom left long ago and not fully come back. Much of America seems to think the Bills won’t last here. Much of America sees the team’s owner Ralph Wilson is 92 years old without a succession plan upon his death and it figures the franchise might head to Los Angeles or Toronto, where it plays one regular season game annually as part of a five-year agreement that ends in 2012.
What Buffalo sees is perhaps its greatest asset, a team and its heartache that becomes a calling card when traveling around the country as in the case of its mayor Byron Brown, who upon arriving at the White House for a Super Bowl party this year was greeted by President Obama who shouted, “There’s my Buffalo diehard!”
And yet just as many were giving up hope, there have come signs of surprise. Last year, Buffalo’s unemployment dropped to 7.5 percent. More bio-medical jobs are being created. The city is starting to pop up on those lists of best places to live. And like the city, the football team that hasn’t been to the playoffs since the 1999 season is 3-0, something no one can believe. Last Sunday the Bills beat the New England Patriots for the first time in 15 games.
The city exploded with joy…
…Something about Buffalo gets into the men who come to play here. The team’s history is filled with players who wanted nothing to do with a Rust Belt town and begged to stay away only to arrive and fall in love with the place. For some it is the way you can be left alone at the supermarket; for others it’s the unconditional love that spills from the fans.
Kelly never wanted to play here. Rather than play in Buffalo, he ran to the USFL. Now he lives here permanently. Shawne Merriman(notes) didn’t want to come either when the Bills claimed him off waivers last fall. “I thought I was going to be miserable,” he says. “I got pretty comfortable pretty fast.”
For the legions of subscribers to Forbes (or any Buffalo promotional Twitter feed), how is this news? Goodness, we’ve been hearing this song for decades now, haven’t we? This whole “small town in a big city” epiphany that the national media reminds itself of – after we win a few football games – is getting old.
We know we’ve got a good thing goin’ on in this town, in our stadiums and in our neighborhoods. The vast amount of NFL, and NHL players that settle here after their careers has been widely publicized, reported, and lauded over for longer than I can remember. This isn’t breaking news.
While Buffalonians continue to live just as any other ordinary Americans live, we’ve continued to lose at the Ralph, and we’ve continued to pack the seats. Again, not breaking news.
You want to start talking about bandwagons? National media, welcome aboard your own bipolar ride. Yes, we’ve won three football games, so it is time again to remind the world again that we’ve got great architecture, a thriving music and arts scene, glorious parks, and by all means tell everyone that it snows here.
Welcome back to town. It hasn’t changed since the Kelly Era, or the Music City Miracle.
Buffalo is still the same great place it’s been all along. You’ve called it a cesspool, a rust belt town, a brick-field, a tundra, a place where the big names like Chris Drury, Brad Richards, Bill Cowher and Tyson Clabo flirt with before writing off. You know, because we’re too small a market, or too dirty, or snowy, or whatever convenient adjective seems appropriate for the given season or time.
Three wins later and we’re talking about a veritable re-emergence of the national economy in Buffalo, NY.
Take your Paxil, and give us a break.
The Bills are one loss away from next week’s “power rankings” posting messages like “Well, that was fun,” or, “Welcome back to Earth, Buffalo fans.” Reminder: we’re not the ones in outer space over the Bills right now. It’s the rampant stampede of media too buzzed out of their minds to forget how they described this team and this town during the preseason.
The Sabres are one back-to-back loss early on in the regular season before the magical 16-4-4 “Pegula Run” to close out the last regular season begins to be scrutinized as a fluke, before the cap-friendly signings of Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff are revisited as potential busts. Actually, you’ve been doing that already.
We know how it works.
Please, do us a favor, and try to stay objective. That is, after all, your job as professional media. Try to follow our lead: enjoy each game, but get over the thrill of a win (or the gutting of a loss) and get yourselves ready for the next game. In Buffalo, that’s what it’s really about: the next game. The next day. Make sense?
Buffalo is not a cesspool, and it’s not necessarily always a “City of Good Neighbors” all the time, either. We have our good moments, and bad. We are just like any other American city. Sure, maybe we just have a little more hope for a championship someday. Going from the “City of Good Neighbors” to the “City of Champions” was a reach one year ago. Now, oh so suddenly, that long shot hope is within reach. Maybe.
It’s a big maybe. But it’s a fun maybe. Just keep your heads cool, and stay with us here – one game at a time.
Again, enjoy the ride on your bandwagon. And please, when we do lose a football game (and yes, we will), don’t turn on the good folks here. It’s about time you started treating our football team as a football team, our hockey team as a hockey team, our men and women as typical Americans, and our city as a city.
Posted by John Monahan on September 29, 2011 at 9:46 am
The pace of things in the Buffalo sports world has picked up. Of course we had a frenzy of activity in the spring and early summer with Pegulaville and the excitement of free agency. Then the slog of the dog days of summer and nearly no hockey news was upon us. Throw the NFL lockout in the mix and the lack of sports had some of us turning to other interests like, oh say, spending time with family, or learning a new skill or meditating for hours on end with the goal of attaining oneness with the universe.
Perhaps for some Bills and Sabres fans this last one actually happened. For how else could it be that we have the prospect of TWO competitive teams at the same time? How else could we have two teams that are not just competitive and entertaining but could possibly make the playoffs?
The last time both the Sabres and Bills were both this good was around 1998/1999. The last time the Bills made the playoffs was over 10 years ago. TEN YEARS MAN! And while the Sabres have gotten over No Goal and found postseason success, the Bills have yet to get past the Music City Miracle. The Chan Gailey/Buddy Nix era is upon us, and while it hasn’t proven yet to be of the caliber of the Levy/Polian caliber the reasons to believe are evident.
Buffalo sports fans even have reason to believe that a championship will be delivered. Pegula has not only said so but put his money where his mouth is. Ehrhoff, Regehr and silent h’s aside, Pegula has put his stamp on the Sabres and is willing a Stanley Cup to Buffalo. (Perhaps he too meditated over the summer, chanting “om” over and over again, envisioning the Stanley Cup in his mind’s eye. Hey, he could’ve watched The Secret or What the Bleep Do We Know.)
It still feels a little early to think about a championship for the Buffalo Bills. Perhaps we’re just way too giddy about having a team that’s competitive, a quality coach that actually inspires players to play with heart, and a real honest to goshness actual offense that can move the ball in chunks either on the ground or in the air. It’s still difficult to believe at times, but yes, the Bills are a real team. At this point, after enduring the frustrating Wade Phillips era, the equally disappointing Gregg Williams Era and the maddeningly boring Dick Jauron era, having a fun football team to watch that could at least go .500 is something that most Bills fans would take.
If the Sabres miss the playoffs there will be riots in the streets. Ok, that’s quite a bit of an exaggeration because as we know Buffalo doesn’t quite roll like that, yet the expectations are pretty high. Conversely if the Bills miss the playoffs, it’s the same old, same old – par for the course. The thrill of the Bills winning in exciting fashion is still so new that getting even a sniff of the playoffs is excitement enough. Well, for me at least.
With the economy in the tank and no sign of things changing soon, at least we can take solace in our sports teams and be entertained. We have a lot to be thankful for and a lot of quality sports ahead of us. Go Bills, go Sabres, and of course, LET’S GO BUFFALO!
(On a somewhat related note, Yahoo has a piece called “There’s no place like Buffalo in NFL“. It’s a great feel-good writeup that should give any WNYer the warm fuzzies and any non-WNYer a good insight into the sports culture of our area. Thanks to @BrianBund for the link.)
1Posted by Scott Michalak on September 27, 2011 at 8:54 am
October 25th, 2008:
Happy “New Year,” folks.
To me, the New Year begins with the Bills and the Sabres. How’s this for a new beginning: the Sabres and Bills just spent a few days with the same record – the same winning record of 5-1 – marking the first time both teams had season starts like this one since 1975, when the Bills were 4-0 and the Sabres were 8-0.
In 1975, I was wearing a blue and gold onesy and shooting Cheerios with a plastic mini-stick at the family dogs from my high chair. Since then, I’ve grown out of my onesy and into adult x-large Sabres jersey sizes with names like Audette, LaFontaine, Peca, and Stafford decorating the back. Since then, I’ve had to listen to games on the primitive internet of the 90’s while living in Australia. I’ve spent late nights at grimy sports bars in Florida, watching the old over-the-hill analog TV’s that management sticks in the corner for hockey fans while the big screens rage with college football. You can imagine some of the strange conversations I had to endure in those places, while decked out in my seemingly inappropriate hockey jersey:
“Hey, dude, are you a hockey fan?”
“No. I’m a rapper.”
“Ohhhhh… cool. Hockey is stupid anyway.”
Sigh. True story.
Since 1975, well, since the beginning, neither the Bills nor the Sabres have been able to win the Big Game. But recently I’ve made my return to WNY, and so far, that return has been a triumphant one. And this rapper smells a championship or two at “year’s end.”
I’ve mentioned the undying hope of WNY sports fans here many times. Despite the snow, despite the legendary losses, despite the reputation as a cursed sports citezenry – each year, when the puck drops on game one, anything is possible. Isn’t that the true spirit of New Year’s Day? “Auld lang syne” means “times gone by.” Those sad years and mournful losses are in the past, and who knows what is in store for the WNY sports fan.
Right now, I am drawing up blueprints for my backyard rink, and conjuring up zealous visions of a Stanley Cup and Superbowl party at my place this summer.
There are many games left to be played, heck, that legendary snow hasn’t even fallen yet. But something is different this year. I can feel it.
I’ll go see if my mother still has that lucky 1975 onesy somewhere.
I’m finally coming clean. I was the one who jinxed it all in 2008-09. Right after I wrote that piece, things began to fall apart. After such auspicious beginnings, our teams floundered down the stretch, my championship barbecue slowly flamed out. There would be no championships that year – not even a playoff game.
The Sabres would finish with a record of 41-32-9 – good enough for 91 points, and good enough for missing the playoffs by just 2 points. One game.
The Bills would finish at the bottom of the AFC East, stumbling their way to one of seemingly a dozen records of 7-9.
It’s been three years. The Bills are 3-0 and are turning heads all over the NFL landscape. The Sabres are 4-1 – in the preseason – but the infusion of Pegula fever has the NHL world spinning its wheels, trying to calculate all that has changed for the Sabres and what it bodes for the future.
Placed atop my TV just before the Bills began their Week Two comeback against the Raiders. It hasn't been moved, or touched, since. Rally cat!
“This time is different,” we’re being told. OK, fair enough. For Bills fans, this is not the team of 2008-09 that squandered a 5-1 start. It’s a new energy, we’re being told. A new confidence. Well, for me, that’s all far too familiar. I’ll keep Rally Cat atop my Vizio, but I’m not painting up a “Super Bowl or Bust” sign for the bandwagon just yet.
There are many games left to be played, heck, that legendary snow hasn’t even fallen yet. But something is different this year. I can feel it.
This time, I’m just enjoying the ride, taking the games one at a time.
For most of the first half of the Bills/Pats game, I was knee deep in water, hiking along Stone Creek as I like to do to clear my head when my family man lifestyle affords me the chance. I might be a sports nut, which should be obvious by now, but I also need to breathe sometimes. I still need to get my feet wet and my hands dirty. A blog cant do that, but a creek can really refresh the soul.
So there I was, letting the water rush around me, the fish dart past me along the sunlit creek bed. But those weren’t the only things rushing over me. I was close enough to the Ralph so that I could hear the roar of the crowd echo around me, and could hear the announcer call the plays.
I hadn’t really gone anywhere.
So, I climbed up the small shale cliff, and worked my way back through the tall grass back to my car. I got on Milestrip Road just in time to hear Stevie Johnson’s touchdown grab to make the game 21-7, and was back in front of my Vizio – back in front of that Rally Cat – when Ryan Lindell cashed in a field goal to close the gap to 11 points at the half.
My feet were still muddy, cold and wet, but my heart was beating hard and fast. I guess you could I’m a lot more down to earth (literally) this time around. I’m sweating every down, but I’m more objective now. I’m looking to enjoy the ride, win or lose, listening with my feet in a stream or my eyes watching the game with the magical power of Rally Cat getting things done.
It’s a balancing act for me this year.
So far, the Bills are doing well. The Sabres haven’t entered the regular season yet, but they’re doing well too. I’m just not going to jinx it this time. I’m not going to get all antsy-in-the-pantsy and predict anything silly or stupidly hopeful – those days are done. I’m a new man now. Patient, balanced, and taking it one game at a time.
At least, I’m trying to – when Lindell hit that game winner as time expired, I felt those magical hopeful stirrings again, and there was no way I even wanted to tune them out.
Is it really going to be different for us this time? Well, I can’t answer that, but I do know this:
If anyone touches Rally Cat, there’s gonna’ be trouble.
Posted by Scott Michalak on September 24, 2011 at 8:20 am
This is a good one.
While we’ve all been gearing up for our first full year of Pegula hockey, “Hockey Heaven” (sponsor) has been very busy – making t-shirts, giving away tickets, and putting together some really great Sabres videos.
In Hockey Heaven, a toque is our winter time halo.
The latest installment from their Youtube channel, “Buffalo Sabres Owner Speaks with NHL,” is a venture into the world of animation, and superheros.
And it’s outstanding.
There is so much that is awesome in this video that it’s hard to nail down one singular thing that makes it great. Maybe it’s the Superhero outfit. Maybe it’s the Justice League-like “Fortress of Solitude” at the F’N Center. Maybe it’s the… oh never mind, just click “play.”
Love that Pegula cartoon swagger.
13 days until our season opens in Helsinki. Until then, we have our preseason, and we have our home-grown businesses like “Hockey Heaven” that have sprung up in Pegulaville to make this ride even more important, and even more fun.
UPDATE: I asked demanded “Hockey Heaven” to produce more cartoons. Their response: