I really should stop drinking so much on nights when I'm on game recap duty. Yet, even with the three shots of Jameson - one, inexplicably, in celebration/mourning for Raphael Diaz' first NHL goal - and four tall boys of Labatt Blue, the message of the Sabres victory over the Canadiens was not hard to see.
Ryan Miller is good at hockey.
One of the things that we fans often get hung up on after a bad Sabres loss over the past few years is the need for Miller to steal games. Often, after a tight game where the offense struggles to get going and Miller lets in a couple of softies, we hear a chorus of criticisms directed towards #30 as people question whether he is the real deal, whether he''ll ever regain that Olympic form, and whether this team can possibly win a Cup with him playing potentially human - as opposed to superhuman - hockey. While I think there is certainly merit in the discussion that follows some particularly disappointing games - last Friday's against Carolina, for instance - I tend to be pretty frustrated with such rash criticisms of Miller because such arguments appear to blatantly disregard performances like the one we just saw.
Like the Carolina game, this was not a game the Sabres deserved to win. However, for whatever reason, Miller's game was elevated to a second gear and the team was able to ride his coattails. His 40 saves on the night, 14 of which were in the first period while the Sabres could only muster 3 shots in response, were the reason why the Sabres won tonight. Where Friday's game saw him exposed by pretty unstoppable scoring chances, tonight's game saw him in complete and utter control. And, where Friday's game was begging for him to lock it in and create just a little breathing room for the offense to finally find its legs and toss a couple pucks in the net, tonight's game included just that - a Ryan Miller performance that keeps the Sabres in it, despite the fact that they look sluggish and uninspired and outmatched by an arguably weaker opponent. Eventually and perhaps unsurprisingly, with as much talent as this Sabres team has, the tying and go-ahead goals came and Miller's herculean effort was rewarded by the "just enough" production of the skaters in front of him.
Maybe it's the booze, combined with my adoration for Miller generally, but - conceding that we do get maddening and disappointing nights from Miller sometimes - it seems like we get the superhuman, game-stealing (or at least game-preserving) version of #30 way more often than some fans give him credit for.
It's for that reason, particularly as we trudge through these opening weeks of the season, still so far from the games that really matter, that I have a lot of faith in where this team can go...and specifically where Miller can take them.
But, enough about my man crush on the lanky and semi-awkward-looking gentleman from Michigan. Other things I noticed between the Jameo shots and checking in on the progress of the #ParlezVousMyBallsYouFrenchBitches hashtag on Twitter::
- The team looked fucking awful in the first period, and it seemed that many of those mistakes were in execution, rather than decision-making. This may be insignificant in the end - mistakes are mistakes, after all - but I gotta think that mistakes in execution can actually be more frustrating for the players on the ice, since the players are "doing the right things" but are still finding a way to fuck up. Take, for example, Tyler Myers' slip behind Miller's net and subsequent giveaway-leading-to-Habs-scoring-chance (inappropriate hyphenization!). You can't say that Myers made a bad choice or decision...he just fucking fell. Maybe you can call it a mental error in some sense, though I really don't expect Myers to be thinking much at that moment - I only expect him to be skating without falling on his face. Either way, with all of those "oops, we look like a crappy ECHL team" moments from the first period, it was good to see the guys generally keep their wits about them and battle through the bad play.
- I enjoy fighting in hockey because of nights just like this. Cody McCormick's second period spat with Moen was the quintessential momentum-shifter, and was probably the second most important part of the game apart from Miller's play. As I briefly discussed with a few guys on Twitter last night, I concede that there is a side of fighting that makes me pretty conflicted about the larger question of its role in the sport. I also think it goes without saying that there are nights when a hockey fight has no effect on the outcome of a game and when the desired impact on momentum simply isn't felt. Yet, I think the same can be easily said about bone-crushing hits which arguably carry more potential for injury and are often used as a way to get a game's momentum shifting the other way. Hockey is a violent and beautiful sport, and the successful teams find the right balance - a balance that helps them win - between the violence and the beauty. Is fighting sometimes stupid? Sure, but - for me - that doesn't mean it doesn't have a place in the sport. It only means that teams need to pick their spots, as with all facets of their game, to figure out how a well-timed fight can have a positive impact on getting two points.
- Because we need to recognize it even when the Sabres win... that game had some awful, one-sided officiating. At least two of the five Sabres penalties were phantom calls, which were made particularly infuriating by the chippy shit the refs were letting slide from the Habs. With the atmosphere at the Bell Centre, and the apparent effect on the be-striped queefs on skates, I think it's probably fair to say that the Canadiens routinely have a significant home-ice advantage that extends to how their games are called.
- This is not a game note so much as a New York City note... but God Bless Kelly's Sports Bar. For the unacquainted, Kelly's is a Bills & Sabres bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan (also catering to Cubs, Gators and Tottenham fans) which offers buckets of tallboy cans of Labatt Blue. I know that Scizz has written about the fan experience in NYC before, and particularly about how the available gameday options make it easier to stay in a city so far removed from Buffalo and its teams, so I won't overstate the theme here. Needless to say, last night was yet another example, and it was nice to see so many supporters make it out to the bar so early in the season.
- We're all agreed that we can stop griping about Thomas Vanek, right? I mean, I personally gave up on it a couple seasons ago, but the rest of you have caught up by now, correct? Good, because the next person I see or hear bash Vanek is getting verbally undressed. For all the pining that fans still do for Drury and the golden age of post-lockout Sabres hockey, Vanek has developed into as consistently dominant player as you can hope for in a Sabres uniform. Before our eyes, this guy is showing us that the real golden age is now. 4 goals, 4 assists in 5 games is simply absurd.
- For the record, you can all gripe about Derek Roy if you so choose. The stats don't really support it - a goal and three assists, with a +4, is just fine I guess - but, with the exception of the Carolina game, he's seemed pretty absent to my untrained and drunken eyes. I'd love to see him step it up a little over the coming weeks. Four shots on goal through five games is not going to get it done.
In the meantime, enjoy my embedding skills (cut & paste, bitches!) and the highlights from last night, in case you missed them and don't know how to type nhl.com in your browser.