It seems all too fitting that, as I ride down the Northeast Corridor on this most bizarre and offensive of American holidays, that I get the privilege of recapping the Sabres' Euro invasion. While good ol' Chris Columbus led the charge to the Americas back in 1492, our boys in Blue and Gold did the reverse trip last week (plus a few hundred miles...), playing a preseason friendly in Manheim, and then opening the season in Helsinki and Berlin this past weekend. And while the flood of conquistadors to the "New World" brought a wave of physical, economic, virulent and cultural change to the peoples who resided west of the Atlantic Ocean, the Sabres' trip to Europe may just have signaled a changing tide in North American professional ice hockey, as the Sabres opened the season with remarkable force.
Europe, socialist tendencies and all, was fucking good to us.
Honorable mention, of course, to the Ducks and Kings, who valiantly played the roles of "unsuspecting natives graciously accepting our disease blankets and false promises." Every success story needs a loser to play their part, and boy did these guys pull through. Do not attempt to refute that gross generalization. I am too powerful. Unlike the antibody-free immune systems of certain exploited populations.
If you've been keeping tabs on the Sabres this summer, you're all too aware of the lingering questions surrounding this team as we all looked forward to the 2011-12 season. Yet, here we are, after a summer of Pegulamania - both reasonable and asinine - a rash of high-profile and top-dollar signings, a Prospects Tournament championship and a successful preseason which saw the team dominant at times. Here we are with real, meaningful hockey to talk about, and damn it feels good to see that, at least for the moment, the pent up, quintessentially Buffalo mix of optimism, skepticism and outright fear can find a little release.
I won't dare overstate what these games mean for the season (false promises! continuing the theme!). After being scolded repeatedly by the Yachtsman for the apparent hubris I've exhibited in my commentary on the DGWU Fantasy Football season (more on that to come later this week), I know I need to tread the line between vicious optimist and fearful realist. I may not be all that superstitious when it comes to my teams, and particularly my effect on the likelihood of my teams' success, but I do have to sit through a USMNT match with Yachter tomorrow night in the Dirty Jerz... so I figure my self-restraint is more about self-preservation than anything else.
That disclaimer aside, the Sabres' trip to Europe, starting with Tuesday's 8-2 victory against German club team Adler Mannheim and continuing with the real deal games on Friday and Saturday, was VERY satisfying. Fans heard a lot of shit from the hockey media world about the risks associated with those big money signings this summer. Last week's games proved that our fan base need not be too concerned - for now - about whether the offseason moves will produce on-ice results. Coupled with the hot starts from the "sometimes unsatisfying, but we've been stuck with them for years, bread-and-butter" of the Sabres team, the revamped Buffalo roster signaled to the rest of the league that they're ready to get this fucking Cup run started.
That's right. FUCKING CUP RUN. I told you I'm not superstitious. If it's good enough for Terry and Teddy, it's good enough for me.
The action started on Friday with a 1pm EST start against Anaheim. Four minutes in, Thomas Vanek got the TV Party started with a power play goal. Let me say that again... Vanek - who many expected would get the "C," and who many (not I...) question as one of the streakier and emotionally unstable players on this team - started the season scoring with a power play goal - often considered to be one of the streakiest and unstable aspects of the Sabres' game. Right off the bat, this was a different Sabres team than I have seen in years. Four minutes later, the newly acquired Ville Leino followed suit and gave Sabres fan yet another moment of sweet, sweet relief.
So, eight and a half minutes into the season, the Sabres were up by a pair, and suddenly some of the bigger questions about this season had some early returns. For now.
As for the Saturday game against the Kings, I won't pretend to have a lot to say. I was knee deep in cool, cool beers at a wedding in New Hampshire and only caught the highlights yesterday morning as I was recovering from my hangover with the help of some gin & juice... true story. I'd make a "Hair of the Snoop Dogg" joke right now if there was a way to do so without feeling like a gigantic wiener. As if that were avoidable.
From what I've read as I've bandied about the interwebs, Luke Adam had a hell of a game on Saturday. Having already tallied two helpers during Friday's game, Adam notched two goals and First Star honors on Saturday. Apparently the kid likes being with the big club and doesn't really intend on getting sent to Rochester this season (which may not even be possible with his contract and/or age? Maybe he needs to play in the juniors still? What the eff do I know? I'd check this, but DGWU standard of laziness prohibit it).
Also of note is that while Saturday's contest did not see the Sabres rush out to a hot start like they did against the Ducks, they did open the scoring with a flourish of goals that saw them go up 3-0. After Adam scored his two in the third and fifth minutes of the second period, Paul Gaustad extended the lead to three in the 14th minute. These are things that make hockey look all-too-easy and make me well up with pride and excitement for the next 96+ games.
That said, they're also the sorts of things that remind me of the 2006-07 season. Which, in turn, makes me want to weep openly and/or strangle a hobo under the Brooklyn Bridge. So, there are certainly things to consider.
Two games down and many, many to go. With another four days to wait before the next game as the team recuperates from their travels, it makes a lot of sense for me to end this post with tempered enthusiasm, but eff that noise. These guys just opened their season with two wins by a combined score of 8-3, and did so with contributions from guys that, as we're so often told, need to be contributing on a consistent basis. Thomas Vanek - 2 goals, 3 assists. Jason Pominville - 1 goal, 3 assists. Paul Gaustad, Drew Stafford, Ville Leino - each with a goal. Roy and Ehrhoff - each with assists. No one with a +/- worse than -1 over the weekend. These are all things to build upon, and will hopefully be a sign of good things to come over the next several months.
Which isn't to say that there aren't things about which we can have some concern. The team found itself in the penalty box way more often than I'd like - a combined 20 minutes over the weekend, constituting 1/6 of the gameplay (MATHS!!). For a team historically (read: for the past four to six years) lacking in discipline, I'd love it if they could keep those numbers down. But those kinds of criticisms - in addition to my lingering concerns about whether Derek Roy is going to be a factor as our top center and whether Tyler Myers is The Truth - are best saved for another day. Probably one when we get smoked by a half dozen shorthanded goals by the New York Islanders.
For now, though, all is roses in Sabreland, and I couldn't be happier.
Cue the disproportionately happy music to take us out... superstition be damned.