Nemesis (Preview! Bruins @ Sabres 02/08/12)
November 12, 2011. The Buffalo Sabres were second in the division with a 10-5-0 record and on a four-game winning streak. Their hosts, the Boston Bruins, were on their own four-game winning streak as they tried to improve on their mediocre 7-7-0 record. The two teams had become bitter rivals again for the first time since the bleak 1980s, with the latest skirmish opening on a Sabres goal by Thomas Vanek nearly six minutes gone. Eight minutes later, Ryan Miller came out to challenge Milan Lucic for a loose puck and, in the moment that followed, it all came crashing down.
The fallout was immediate. The Sabres’ reputation for being soft was galvanized as they were criticized for not defending Miller. The Bruins’ reputation for being dirty was cemented as they were demonized for Lucic’s reckless play. General managers met to discuss what measures of protection goalies ought to have. Hockey pundits on either side of the argument hyperbolized their opinions. Lindy Ruff got into another war of words with a head coach, this time with Claude Julien. Mike Milbury said something stupid and we all questioned why he’s got a job. More importantly than all of that, the hit changed each team’s season.
The Sabres, second in the division and in the top eight of the Eastern Conference going into that game, have self-immolated in spectacular fashion since it ended. They’re now, if not mathematically eliminated, on the verge of shuttering their season with two months left to play. Injuries have decimated both the players and the coaching staff, the front office offers up excuses while the players offer up shrugs, and a vast majority of local fans can’t even watch the games. The Bruins, mired in the depths of the conference, set the league on fire as they recovered from their Stanley Cup hangover with a vengeance. Despite their current bumpy travels, many talking heads have re-crowned them the Stanley Cup favorites as they march closer to a consecutive division title.
Tonight’s clash is the third of the season between these renewed nemeses. Despite their similar recent records, the teams are in completely opposite places in the hockey world. Some Sabres fans are looking at tonight’s game as a fountain flowing with renewed hope. Win, and the bandwagon is back on. It’s not as simple as that. Offensive catalyst Thomas Vanek is day-to-day and every game he misses, the Sabres’ shallow offensive depth is that much shallower. Although it has been better as of late, the defense is still maddeningly inconsistent. Despite his very strong play the last three games, Miller’s resurging play and confidence could be dashed with one really rough outing.
The Sabres have showed signs of life lately, but if they’re to turn this season around and make a determined charge for the playoffs, it’s going to take more than one game against their divisional foes. That being said, tonight’s as good a night as any other to start changing their stars.
Game preview after the jump!
(Preview courtesy of NHL.com’s Brian Hunter)
Last 10: Boston 5-4-1; Buffalo 4-5-1
Season Series: Third of six meetings between these Northeast Division rivals. The Bruins earlier beat the Sabres twice in the span of 12 days, as Tyler Seguin scored twice and added an assist in a 6-2 win on Nov. 12 in Boston, while Benoit Pouliot’s goal in the fifth round of a shootout proved decisive in a 4-3 victory on Nov. 23 in Buffalo.
Big Story: In danger of losing three straight for the first time since their Stanley Cup hangover-plagued month of October, the Bruins responded with a decisive win in Washington on Sunday and will now look to string back-to-back victories together, something Boston hasn’t accomplished in its last dozen games. The Sabres, meanwhile, have a ways to go in order to climb back into the playoff picture, but their rally against the Islanders on Saturday night was a good starting point.
Bruins: This past weekend marked Boston’s second trip to Washington in less than two weeks. Tim Thomas was conspicuous by his absence the first time around, not only from the Bruins’ trip to the White House — which set off a media storm — but also the game itself, as Tuukka Rask got the start in what ended up a 5-3 defeat. This time around, with the Bruins needing to stop a brief slide, Thomas stood front and center. He finished with 35 saves and was supported by a goal and assist each from Brad Marchand and Rich Peverley in a 4-1 win over the Capitals.
“Tim’s capable of doing that for us, and he’s done that a lot in the past,” coach Claude Julien said. “And I thought he was on top of his game today.”
Sabres: In order for Buffalo to get into the postseason it’ll take a pretty hefty comeback in the standings. The Sabres showed the proper mentality on Saturday night, as they fell behind 3-1 after one period on Long Island, but worked their way back into the game and eventually stole a 4-3 shootout victory. Derek Roy scored late in the second, Paul Gaustad evened things up midway through the third and goals by Brad Boyes and Jason Pominville in the penalty-shot tiebreaker sealed the critical two-point effort.
“This team needed one of those nights,” goalie Ryan Miller, who passed Dominik Hasek as the franchise’s all-time winningest goaltender, said in the Buffalo News. “If we’re gonna come back in a season, we’re going to have to come back in a game.”
Who’s Hot: Marchand has 3 goals and 3 assists over the Bruins’ last six games. … Gaustad has 2 goals and 2 assists over the Sabres’ last three games. Miller is 3-0-1 in his last four starts, giving up just five goals during that span with a .959 save percentage.
Injury Report: Boston forward Nathan Horton is out indefinitely with a mild concussion. … Buffalo forward Thomas Vanek (upper body) is day-to-day. Defensemen Brayden McNabb (concussion-like symptoms) and TJ Brennan (concussion-like symptoms) and forwards Corey Tropp (upper body), Colin Stuart (lower body) and Jochen Hecht (concussion) are on injured reserve.
Stat Pack: Seguin scored his team-leading 20th goal Sunday for the Bruins, while Marchand and Milan Lucic each remained one behind with their 19th tallies. … The Sabres, who have matched their season high with three straight road wins, also have points in eight consecutive games at First Niagara Center (4-0-4).
Puck Drop: Buffalo’s struggles this season have led to some trade talk surrounding Miller, who has stated he has no desire to play elsewhere. There were happier to things to talk about Saturday after he passed the legendary Hasek in the franchise’s record books.
“I’m proud of it, it’s nice. I’m proud of being a Buffalo Sabre,” Miller said. “I was really excited coming in as a young player, looking up to Dominik Hasek. To be here that long, and to play with some great teams and great players. And to play for a coaching staff and a support staff that has had my back for a number of years now, it’s nice. I get a source of pride from that.”
(Ed. note: Both Brayden McNabb and Corey Tropp are actually healthy and played with the Amerks today versus the Marlies)
How about some recent BBG links before the game…
WGRZ Provides Sabres Coverage Band-Aid
WGRZ, WHEC, and MSG have teamed up to give Sabres fans a reprieve from the carriage cost BS.
Nathan Gerbe’s Favorite Feast
A breakdown of all of the OG Honey Badger’s goals versus the Islanders.
Sabres’ Depth Getting It Done Through Gaustad
Paul Gaustad had a few nice games so I wrote about him.