More than 10 hours before the Sabres’ holiday miracle Monday night, Sabres captain Steve Ott and I were talking in the dressing room and even laughing a little about the last three months.
On a sleepy September morning during training camp, Ott told me the Sabres were so young that you were going to have to wait until Christmas before you could make any real judgments on this team. Be patient, he insisted. But expect to see tons of improvement by the time Santa slides down the chimney.
Now, neither one of us could have imagined the twists and turns that have taken the Sabres through the season’s first 37 games. And that was what brought about the chuckling when I reminded Ott about the conversation Monday.
But through all kinds of roster moves, the firing of a coach and GM and the out-of-nowhere return of Ted Nolan and Pat LaFontaine, one thing is obvious to me: Ott was right.
With the stockings all hung with care and many of the presents open, you can see things getting better and better with this team every day. A mostly miserable 2013 is ready to be wiped off the calendar and portend better days for 2014 and beyond.
“I’ve seen this in so many situations all the time,” Ott said. “It seems every young guy I’ve played with I’ve always seen them take that next step right after Christmas, that big adjustment time. Take a guy like Zemgus Girgensons, who has been playing great around this time and he’s probably going to continue to progress.”
There’s my first wow moment. Girgensons, the 19-year-old Latvian Locomotive, has been an absolute beast the last three weeks. Nolan loves him and the kid is going to get an incredible experience playing for Latvia in the Olympics. He has the potential to be a power forward the likes of which the Sabres have never had.
Girgensons had one goal and seven assists in his first 28 games. He’s got three goals and two assists in his last eight and played a career-high 22-plus minutes Monday.
“It takes that adjustment period. There’s different levels in the NHL that happen over time,” Ott said. “There’s gears, definite gears. You go through 30 or 35 games to 60 games to 80 games to playoffs.
“That’s why I said Christmas. You’ve got a lot of guys playing for the first time. Young guys coming in. You’ll really start to see things after Christmas but it’s great you’re already seeing it the last three weeks or so. It’s a completely different team than it’s been all season.”
Sure is. Hockey is an effort sport more than any other and the Sabres were pretty much allergic to effort the first 20 games. Or at least to giving much on behalf of Ron Rolston and, by extension, Darcy Regier.
Not anymore. There’s a light feeling in the dressing room now, a confidence that Nolan can put them in a position to succeed because he’s done it before in the NHL.
“You can notice a change for sure,” said John Scott. “We bring our lunchpails to work. Ted expects that out of us. And if you don’t bring it, you’re not going to play.”
All the talk about whether Ryan Miller stays or goes - chatter that could also apply to fellow free agents-to-be Ott and Matt Moulson - will continue to be the season’s overriding story, but the young players will continue to get huge focus as well. (Here’s one memo to the Sabres: Don’t ever toy again with putting Mark Pysyk in Rochester. He’s ready.)
Girgensons, still a teenager, impressed his older teammates after Monday’s game by pointing out how important the second half is for the future of the franchise. There are still all kinds of decisions to be made about players, both young and old.
“It’s a real good observation. It’s a good sign one of the young guys gets that this is a tryout,” Miller said. “It’s absolutely going to make contracts for guys, careers for guys. You’ve got to go through the tough times and find a way.”
The Sabres are certainly doing that now. They’re not overwhelmed anymore. Bigger, more talented teams can’t just throw their sticks on the ice when they play Buffalo and expect to breeze back to the dressing room with two points.
Ask the Boston Bruins what they dealt with last week. Ask the Toronto Maple Leafs, under siege from their fans, local media and the HBO “24/7” cameras, how happy they’ll be to see the Sabres across the ice Friday night when the season resumes in Air Canada Centre.
“That’s the biggest thing to me,” Ott said. “It’s all about playing the game the right way so it makes it harder for the other team to play. We might not have the most depth or the most skilled players by any means but we should be able to play against any of these guys on a nightly basis.
“The goaltending we have is a difference-maker. You see the confidence level growing. You see more structured play, more belief in the system. You start believing and you start beating teams, that’s the difference.”