It’s still early, but the addition of Joe Sacco looks like it could be a winner in a season filled with so few W’s for the Buffalo Sabres.
Under the direction of the former head coach of the Colorado Avalanche, Buffalo’s penalty-killing unit has left its foes feeling blue 25 times during 29 man-advantage chances. The Sabres rank fifth in the league at 86.2 percent heading into tonight’s clash against Sacco’s former team.
The Sabres’ secret thus far after finishing last season ranked 26th on the penalty kill: They’re receiving great goaltending from both Ryan Miller and Jhonas Enroth. The Sabres also are being more aggressive without players taking themselves out of the play – protecting better against backdoor plays and defending better down low.
“The guys have bought in to what we’re trying to accomplish from a structural standpoint and then all the little details that go into penalty killing,” said Sacco, who guided Colorado to the playoffs once in his four seasons as head coach. “It’s stopping and starting. It’s working in straight lines. It’s having a good stick, the willingness to sacrifice your body and put it in the shot lanes at the right times.”
The Sabres will be tested on the PK tonight as the Avalanche bring in the league’s ninth-ranked power-play unit (23.1 percent success rate) to First Niagara Center.
The Avs also rank ninth in goals-for (3.33), while one of the big keys to their start has been a defense that’s allowing a league low 1.43 goals per game.
Sacco admits it might feel weird seeing Avalanche players he used to coach – including young talents Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan O’Reilly and Matt Duchene – on the opposite bench tonight.
Sacco played a role in their development as players, and that past experience with youths was among the reasons he opted to join Ron Rolston’s coaching staff and become part of the Sabres’ rebuild after the Avs dismissed him April 28.
While Colorado systematically does things differently under new head coach Patrick Roy, players do have their tendencies nonetheless. With that in mind, Sacco could provide a winning scouting report that results in the struggling Sabres surprising an Avalanche (6-1-0) team that flirted with the franchise record for best start to a season until losing Thursday night at home to old Western Conference nemesis Detroit.
“They still play a fast game,” Sacco said. “They still try to play an up-tempo game. ... They still have some speed. They like to push the pace of the game. Hopefully the scouting report will be good from my end and it’ll help us grab two points.
“It’ll be a fun night. They’re playing very well right now. They’re getting good goaltending, much like we are. Obviously the records are flip-flopped, but it’s an opportunity for us to play another young team that’s sort of up and coming, heading in the right direction.”
Sacco compiled a 130-134-30 mark with Colorado, guiding the club to the playoffs in his first season and finishing as a finalist for the Jack Adams Award as the league’s top coach.
“ I enjoyed my tenure when I was there,” Sacco said. “I was with the organization for eight years, coaching in the minors and then with the Avalanche. That’s a long time with one organization. I have a lot of friends who are still there. ... But tonight that all goes by the side.”
Suspended winger Patrick Kaleta spoke after practice Friday, but couldn’t offer too much of an update regarding the status of his appeal of the 10-game ban he received Tuesday for his illegal check to the head of Columbus defenseman Jack Johnson on Oct. 10.
“That’s between us” and the Players Association, “and all that kind of stuff,” said Kaleta, who has sat out four games. “There’s not much more info I can give right now.”
Johnson wasn’t hurt on the play nor was Kaleta penalized for the hit, but the Angola native’s past offender status played a role in the league dealing out the lengthy suspension.
Commissioner Gary Bettman will hear the first appeal. According to Hockey Night in Canada’s Elliotte Friedman, the hearing date was still being finalized Friday.
If Bettman upholds the suspension, the new CBA allows for a second appeal to a neutral arbitrator. If the suspension is upheld, Kaleta will lose $152,439 in salary.
Rookie Zemgus Girgensons practiced fully with a full face shield on Friday and should be ready to play tonight, according to Rolston. Girgensons got hit near his left eye with a shot during Tuesday’s win against the Islanders. ... Center Cody McCormick is day-to-day with a lower-body injury. He blocked a shot off his leg/foot during while killing a penalty during Thursday’s game. ... Rookie defenseman Nikita Zadorov is close to returning from a finger injury, and Rolston said he would suit up for at least one game. When will that happen? “Anytime is possible,” he said.