To cover the worst season by an NHL club in the last 14 years – and probably the most bizarre campaign of any Buffalo sports team ever – the oddball places I drove through included North Dakota, West Virginia, Florida’s Alligator Alley and Alberta’s Deerfoot Trail while watching the most spectacular sunrise of my life. Airports and hotels were numerous, goals were not, but the whole thing was still one wacky ride.
So you think I’m going to stop talking hockey now just because I covered a 30th-place team? Right when it gets good? No chance. I’ve got plenty of ice chips and numerology floating through my head:
• The standings and the record-low goals-for total pretty much told the story of the Sabres’ season, but some of their other numbers are shockingly poor. Their 150 goals were not just the lowest in the post-expansion era dating to 1967, but were actually the fewest in a full season since Boston had 147 in a 70-game campaign in 1955-56.
The Sabres led after one period an NHL-low 12 times in 82 games, going 4-6-2 in those games for a .333 winning percentage. No other team was below .556 and there were 23 teams over .700 when leading after one.
The Sabres were just 9-15-7 when scoring first, for a .290 percentage. Edmonton was next lowest at .486 and there were 14 teams over .700.
The Sabres were 6-0-3 when leading after two periods. No other team led after 40 minutes fewer than 16 times or won fewer than 15 games. There were 25 teams that won at least 21 games in those spots. Staggering stuff but not hard to fathom for a team that won 11 games in regulation out of 82.
Clear moral: If you don’t score, you don’t get leads, you never add on in the rare times you have them and you don’t hold them. Draft scorers.
• How about a Tim Murray news conference every day? Even if there’s no information, it would be worth it just from the entertainment end.
• But on the subject of information, here’s my annual shake of the head about the way the Sabres treat it. Everyone knew Ted Nolan’s assistant coaches were getting fired. It had been reported on the radio and in this newspaper. A couple of them were even saying their good-byes the last few days on the side.
The Sabres should have announced their dismissal at their wrap-up presser Tuesday. To have Nolan say there’s still “evaluation” going on and then to announce the whackings the next day without comment was completely disingenuous. Sure smells like the Sabres were just hoping they could win the lottery and have a full day of “positive” news, as well as keeping the coach from answering questions on the decision.
Credibility continues to be a problem for this organization. What else did they flat-out lie about during that presser? Time will tell.
• The Columbus Blue Jackets have played 13 seasons, made the playoffs just twice and have lost all five postseason games they played. In the Sabres’ first 13 seasons, they qualified for the playoffs 10 times, captured nine series and won 41 playoff games.
• The Sabres have four former captains playing for other teams in the playoffs in Daniel Briere, Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek and Steve Ott. That’s pretty hard to do.
• Speaking of Briere and Vanek, they sure looked good in Montreal’s opener against Tampa. No surprise in either case. Briere, of course, has a long history of clutch playoff performances and his assist on Dale Weise’s overtime goal was his 110th career playoff point in 109 games. He ended the regular season with 299 career goals and 684 points.
Vanek, meanwhile, torments Tampa. He has 25 goals and 40 points in 36 regular-season games against the Lightning. He has 277 career goals and should join Briere in the 300 club next season.
• The analytics hounds have been railing in glee over the way they correctly projected the Toronto Maple Leafs’ brutal puck possession numbers would eventually catch up to them. You don’t hear them much, of course, when their theories don’t mesh, but I digress.
Good advanced numbers pointed to the Los Angeles Kings having a long playoff run in 2012 and it resulted in a Stanley Cup. The Kings are at the top of lots of charts again this spring, and it would be no shock to see them get out of the West.
• It has been a long time since I’ve seen a hockey player joyously smile about being in the NHL as much as Sabres goalie Nathan Lieuwen did the last three weeks.
The kid was an ECHL goalie, worked hard in Rochester to wrest the starting job from Matt Hackett, got an unexpected call to the NHL and then got to start at home in Vancouver.
Lieuwen got taken out by a cheap elbow to the head from Philadelphia’s Jay Rosehill that caused a concussion and you wondered if it was career-threatening, since Lieuwen dealt with concussion issues from a car accident as a teenager. So it was great to chat with him on locker cleanout day, see he was still smiling about his season and hear he could play for Rochester if the Amerks keep advancing in the Calder Cup playoffs.
• On the Amerks front, you know Murray is thrilled that they have pushed their way into the postseason, and there will be plenty of celebration tonight in Blue Cross Arena in the final home game of the regular season.
With a good roster augmented by the likes of Mark Pysyk, Johan Larsson, Rasmus Ristolainen, Mikhail Grigorenko, Nick Deslauriers and Andrey Makarov, the Amerks rate as a decent AHL dark horse.
Now the sobering news: The Amerks are likely headed to the 2-7 matchup in the AHL West against defending Cup champion Grand Rapids, and the Detroit affiliate has owned Rochester this year. The Griffins took all four meetings by a combined 21-4, including an 8-1 shellacking in the season opener at BCA and a 5-1 domination Feb. 8 in First Niagara Center.