When last we saw the Buffalo Sabres on the ice, they were earning an overtime win with the now infamous “ButtGoal.”
It was humorous and joyous and cause for celebration as the team went on a three-day holiday break. The win gave the Sabres three wins in their last four games, a veritable surge for a club that’s in last place in the NHL.
And now they return to the ice for a game against the rival Toronto Maple Leafs at 7:30 p.m. in Air Canada Centre.
While the Sabres have seven points in their last five games, the road has not been a kind place. The last time the team earned a point a way from First Niagara Center was an overtime loss at New Jersey on Nov. 30. Its last road win was Nov. 5 in a shootout at San Jose.
The Sabres, however, are facing not just a rival but the equivalent of their literary foil. The Leafs tend to bring out the best in the Sabres. With Buffalo playing some of its most inspired hockey this season, and Toronto seemingly imploding, the set-up for tonight’s game puts the Sabres in a good position to create results from their newly inspired play.
The Maple Leafs have gone to a shootout in their last three games, suffering back-to-back losses to Detroit and the New York Rangers to slide into the holiday break. Their last win in regulation came Dec. 14, a 7-3 explosion at home against the Chicago Blackhawks. In fact, the Maple Leafs have only won three games in regulation since late October.
Of course one of those was against the Sabres, a 4-2 win in Air Canada Center on Nov. 16.
The Maple Leafs’ free fall has been captured on film as HBO’s documentary series 24/7 has been following the club around for weeks as part of the buildup to the Winter Classic with Detroit. The show has caught gems, such as coach Randy Carlyle yelling at the team, “we suck.”
Two episodes have already aired with the final two scheduled for this Saturday and for Jan. 4.
The Sabres, meanwhile, seem to have hit bottom in their free fall, finding a new sense of confidence and work ethic under new management.
“Before a lot of games we mailed in or were so down in the hole we felt like we couldn’t climb out of it,” Sabres captain Steve Ott said last week. “ To see us finally come out of it … is huge for the character in this dressing room and collectively to have those feel-good moments makes you better. The last three weeks we’ve been a totally different team. You can see it slowly changing and it all starts with the work.”
Interim coach Ted Nolan took over the team when the Sabres first faced Toronto this season and promptly earned a 3-1 win on Nov. 15. The Leafs won the next night in Toronto, but the Sabres nabbed a 3-2 overtime win on Nov. 29.
The key, as it is for so many of the Sabres’ wins, has been goaltender Ryan Miller.
He’s been even better in last five starts, going 4-1-0 with a 1.56 goals against average and a .952 save percentage. Miller has not allowed a third-period goal in the last five games (59 saves) nor a power-play goal (16 saves).
Let’s not forget Miller’s history against Toronto.
This year he is 2-0 with a 1.49 goals against and .947 save percentage. In his career, he is 31-15-1 against the Leafs with a 2.44 goals against average and .922 save percentage. He has four shutouts against the Leafs, the most he has in his career versus any opponent.
The Rochester Americans weren’t successful in their opening overseas venture. The Amerks lost their first game of the Spengler Cup, 5-0, to Geneve-Servette of the Swiss-A league.
Matt Hackett recorded 32 saves for the Amerks who next play CSKA Moscow in the second round of the pre-semifinals at 3 p.m. today.
The six-team tournament held in Davos, Switzerland, was first held in 1923 and is considered the oldest and one of the most prestigious invitational hockey tournaments.