TORONTO – Ryan Miller didn’t research the press notes or anything, but he knew it had been a long time since he won a game in Toronto. He reminded his teammates before the game that the Air Canada Centre had become the Sabres’ house of horrors and where their postseason aspirations died last season.
The last time Miller won in Toronto was Dec. 21, 2009, about two months before he became an international star at the 2010 Winter Olympics. He had lost five straight over that period. The Sabres could point to their 0-3 record in Toronto as one of their biggest reasons for missing the playoffs last season.
“Yeah,” Miller said, “that probably did it.”
Buffalo missed the postseason by three points. If you remember, the final blow came last March 31, when they were cooked after a 4-3 loss to a Maple Leafs team that was playing out the season with a collection of nameless, faceless players. Add the lockout this season, and it seemed as if the Sabres hadn’t won here in roughly forever.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Last season, the Sabres would have found a way to lose the game Monday night. They had a 2-0 lead before giving up a late power-play goal after the Leafs pulled their goaltender. There were a few anxious moments in the final minute with the Leafs buzzing around and the Sabres on the verge of coming apart.
Instead, they survived and came away with a 2-1 victory.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but we lost a lot of different ways last year,” Miller said. “We’re happy to find a way to win. To get a good start was important. We have to already put it behind us. We’re just off running and running and running. It’s going to be a tough season for everybody. Get points while you can.”
Cody Hodgson scored the critical first goal in the opening period when Christian Ehrhoff’s shot from the point hit him and landed behind Ben Scrivens. How big can be the first goal be in the second game of the season? Big enough. The Sabres had a 25-9-8 record when scoring first last season.
Yes, it was a lucky bounce.
No, the Sabres made no apologies.
Jason Pominville’s goal was anything but lucky. It was the result of a veteran decision by a star player in Thomas Vanek, who patiently waited before sending a soft pass for his trailer down the wing. Pominville easily beat Scrivens, and the Sabres were, as Miller said, off and running. And that’s what they needed in this shortened season.
Of course, having Miller back near top form helped the cause Monday.
He made eight saves during one stretch alone in the first period after the Sabres took three consecutive penalties that left them down two men for an extended period. He was spectacular at times but sound throughout. You could sense him gaining confidence as the game moved along. There’s no telling what that can do for his teammates.
Hold off on plans for the parade.
The Sabres won their first two games, not their first 10, but four of their next six opponents finished behind them in the standings last year.
We’ll know more between now and Jan. 31, when they visit Boston with a tougher, edgier lineup. For now, it’s little more than a good start.
But it beats the alternative.
Already, there have been encouraging signs. Hodgson, for one, appears hungrier than he did after jumping aboard last season. They look deeper and more balanced across their four lines. They have an enviable blend of size, toughness and speed at the blue line. Miller looks sharp. They have willing brawlers.
In a 48-game season, the teams executing the smoothest exit from the starting gates have the best chances of reaching the postseason. Long gone are the first six weeks of the regular season, in which teams spend 20 games diagnosing problems and 20 more trying to address them. Everybody is looking for immediate results.
It’s particularly important to play well against division rivals. Toronto was a scrappy opponent last season but finished 13th in the conference. The objective was simple after standing up to Philadelphia in a season-opening victory in First Niagara Center: Take the Queen Elizabeth Way to Toronto, toss two points in the trunk and start preparing for a home-and-home series with Carolina. Miller stopped 33 shots before Nazem Kadri scored on the power play with 1:42 remaining.
“It’s a team you always want to push down,” Miller said. “We want to play hard when we come here. They have great fans here. It’s exciting to play here. It felt good to pull a victory out of here.”
Monday’s performance wasn’t perfect by any means. The Sabres can play much better, but they couldn’t have asked for a better result.
Like Miller, they’re off and running. It’s certainly better than chasing.