Fourteen hours later and I can still hardly wrap my mind around it. Stunned doesn’t seem a big enough word to do it justice.
The Buffalo Sabres, recent kings of the postseason collapse (or at least princes - sorry, San Jose, didn't mean to step on your toes there), shook off losing a 3-goal lead on the road to defeat the defending Eastern Conference champions and send the series back to Buffalo up 3-2.
If you’ve spent any amount of your life watching hockey in Buffalo, then you felt the way the DGWUS crew did at the 17:38 mark in the 3rd period, when Jordan Leopold was whistled for hooking: we’re not going to win this game.
To be fair, it was a totally valid frame of mind. After generating enough firepower to knock the Flyers’ second goaltender out of the game, the Sabres’ offense went into a shell and barely challenged the dusty Michael Leighton (last game: Dec. 30th, 2010). Conversely, Philadelphia began firing on all cylinders, closing the gap on the backs of van Riemsdyk, Meszaros and Briere. None of the shots were particularly awe-inspiring, leaving Ryan Miller looking very human and not so much like the superhero we saw in Game 4. So when the Sabres went on their fourth penalty kill of the night with only minutes left in regulation, it was hard to conjure up much optimism.
But that, as they say, is why they play the game.
Far be it from me to get ahead of myself, something I genuinely hope the Sabres do not do, but it’s hard not to get excited after a win like this. But of course, the worst thing Buffalo could possibly do is think the Flyers are dead. As they demonstrated last night and certainly last season, they know how to come back. Still, if you don’t feel good about the Sabres chances after the last five games, then you’ll never feel good for the remainder of this season.
As we discussed in our recent podcast, the general conversation amongst DGWUS was that Ennis was at the very least underwhelming in his second trip to the playoff stage. Perhaps it was a sophomore slump or perhaps he felt a greater need to score than he did last season, but something wasn’t quite right with the pint-sized man from Edmonton. He had an assist and a near-goal in Game 4’s shutout victory, but his presence just wasn’t felt as it had been during the closing weeks of the regular season. But it goes without saying that any concerns can officially be laid to rest.
And therein lies what has me so excited for the rest of this postseason and the years to come. This team isn’t just growing up before our eyes. They’re evolving.
It used to be the book on us was fairly simple. Knock our goal scorers around and contain them in the neutral zone. Pepper Miller with as many shots as you can and hope that a few poke through. Get on the bus and go home. And the Flyers have been trying to execute that exact playbook. Only something has changed.
Now we’re a team that generates offense from everyone (of our 12 goals, only Vanek(3) & Ennis(2) have more than 1 goal). Now Ryan Miller doesn’t have to be Captain America to get a shutout (check the highlight reel or lack thereof from Game 1). Now our players understand what teams want to do to them and constantly keep their head on a swivel watching for that hit that nearly always seems to be coming. And now that they’re avoiding getting hit, we find them outhitting their opponent. Through Game 5, the Sabres have outhit the Flyers by an average of 5 a game. Let me say that again, the Buffalo “We love drafting forwards under 6-foot” Sabres are OUTHITTING the Philadelphia “We invented dirty hockey, now we’re whining about the officiating” Flyers to the tune of 155-131. If that doesn’t excite you, well… you’re reading the wrong blog and probably should check out another sport entirely. Might I suggest tennis?
So whenever this wonderful ride ends, you have to feel good about Ennis or Miller and everyone else whose putting on the blue & gold now and in the future. Last night, they were knocked back on their heels in a game they didn’t necessarily HAVE to win. But they stayed focused. They stayed tough. And in the end, it was a guy whose level of both had foolishly been questioned by… I forget who, that came up with the stunning game-winner.
Sunday can’t come soon enough.