In the continuing “Eastern Conference Playoff Preview” series, I’ll take a look at the Buffalo Sabres, who lead the Northeast Division and sit third in the conference with 90 points. Buffalo, a team that has flown under the radar for most of the season, sport one of the game’s best goaltenders. But can they compete with the top teams in the conference? That question remains to be answered.
The top two lines for the Sabres are very, very good. The top line of Jason Pominville – Derek Roy – Jochen Hecht combine for 59 goals, 90 assists and a plus/minus rating of 34. The second line is even more formidable. Tim Connolly and Thomas Vanek control that line, with each player over 15 goals on the season. But, after those top two lines, the performance falls off a bit. Their third line only has one player with a positive plus/minus rating (Patrick Kaleta, 4), and the fourth line sports a combined -25 plus/minus rating. While the Sabres have plenty of goal scorers, they don’t have great two-way forwards. That weakness will hurt them, because good teams will take advantage of a weak backcheck or a defensive breakdown. The top two lines are scary good, but the Sabres lack of forward depth will be an issue come playoff time.
Tyler Myers highlights a relatively unknown defensive unit. Myers, a rookie, impressed several analysts with his solid play this season. The rookie has 42 points (10 G, 32 A) and a plus/minus rating of 12 for the season. While they don’t have many big-name defenseman, the Sabres have an experienced blue line. Four of their six blue-liners have playoff experience, which gives them an advantage. Myers, Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman can all contribute offensively, which is an added benefit. But there are cracks in the blue-line. The collective group has a great plus/minus rating (+21), with the third defensive pairing of Steve Montador and Craig Rivet checking in at a -10. The squad has also allowed goalie Ryan Miller to face 1,878 shots, which ranks 13th in the league. Overall, the blue line is a strength for the Sabres. Sure, they have their faults, but they play a solid, responsible game night in and night out.
Miller is one of the top five goalies in the N.H.L. today. His 2.20 goals against average ranks far below the league average. He’s also collected five shutouts on his way to a 37-15-8 record. Without Miller, the Sabres wouldn’t be in the third place. Miller can steal a game or even a series for this team. During the Olympics, the world found out what we already knew: Miller is a world-class goaltender. He’s also got the right attitude as a goalie. You never see Miller get too angry or too worked up during a game. That levelheaded attitude seems to calm the entire team, and he’s the true leader of the Sabres. He’s already set a career-high in wins, and his G.A.A. is the lowest in his career. Clearly, Buffalo’s goalie advantage ranks head and shoulders above some of the teams in the conference.
Overall, the Sabres are a good young team. They have world-class goaltending and a solid blue-line corps. But the weakness comes from the lack of forward depth. After the first two lines, the production and play drops sharply. There shouldn’t be great goal scorers on the third and fourth lines, but these forwards should at least sport solid plus/minus numbers. While it doesn’t show the entire story, the plus/minus rating of the third and fourth lines can spell trouble. If the Sabres have a problem backchecking or defensively, they will be ripe for the picking. But I’d expect this team to make it to the second round, but nothing more.
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