The Olympic break arrives at a good time for the Sabres
OK, everyone relax and take a deep breath. Back away from the edge of the Peace Bridge. Yeah, the Buffalo Sabres are skidding right now, having hit a wall starting with that dreadful West Coast swing in January.
Yeah, right now they look about as sturdy as Abe Vogoda trying his hand in the Ultimate Fighting circuit.
And yeah, in Tuesday's 3-2 shootout loss to Boston, we saw it all again: a lousy start, getting beat to loose pucks, losing the little battles along the boards, struggling on the power play and utlimately, losing.
Sabres fans, reactionary and bloodthirsty as always, are hitting their worn-down panic buttons and pronouncing the season a total loss. Never mind that Buffalo is well-entrenched in a playoff spot and spent much of the season's first fifty games asserting itself as a playoff-worthy group; we've all come to expect doomsday scenarios with our teams, so don't confuse us with the facts.
But there's the pesky reality that won't go away, if we could all just focus for a second. All playoff teams endure bad stretches at some point in the season. At some point before April rolls around, even teams like the Sharks and Capitals will hit some kind of swoon, be it four games or a dozen. There are eighty-two of these things, for goodness' sake. You're not going to win them all 5-0 and look perfect doing it.
Hockey fans have an acute case of amnesia every year at this time. We see the lessons of April and May play out each postseason and then conveniently forget them by the following October. We're forced to re-learn them with every passing playoff, but the main theme is always there. A team's play in January and February means absolutely nothing once the puck drops on playoff hockey.
Think the Sharks and Capitals will continue their torrid scoring pace in Round One, Two, and so forth? Nope. And isn't it strange how so many teams that short-circuit the scoreboard from October to March suddenly have a collective panic attack once they see some postseason adversity? Playoff wins and losses so often come down to goaltending, goaltending and more goaltending. Who would you want between the pipes: notorious playoff chokers like Evgeni Nabokov and Christobal Huet, or Ryan Miller?
So what if Ottawa takes over first place? How long before Brian Elliott's golden stagecoach goes all pumpkin when the season's on the line? And when's the last time a Sens team that won its division not tanked in the critical postseason series? You can set your watch by it: one of the top three seeds from each conference will get the first-round hook (my picks, incidentally, are Chicago and those same Senators). Why should it be any different this year?
The Capitals are the sexy pick right now to win it all, and it probably has something to do with their double-digit winning streak. However, offensively blessed as they are, will they be able to score their way out of trouble once the playoff ice becomes its usual neutral-zone-clogged marsh and they suddenly need Jose freakin' Theodore to deliver big saves? The playoffs aren't an aerial dogfight, they're trench warfare, dominated by defensive strategy and a willingness to hold your position and survive the meatgrinder. You've seen it every spring of your NHL fanhood. Isn't it a far cry from a mid-winter game against the Bruins?
The Sabres just might be well-equipped for that kind of battle, provided Miller is on his game. No team stands a chance in the playoffs without its netminder in his respective "zone." He'll be faced with a pressure-packed, winner-takes-all scenario for Team USA in the Olympics. I'll be interested to see how he reacts--it will be a good indicator to how he dials in to the eqally pressure-packed NHL playoff gauntlet. In the meantime, there's still time for battle-tested playoff vets like Mike Grier, Jochen Hecht and Craig Rivet to get their acts together and help prepare their teammates to storm the enemy trench.
Even the young players on this team have experience winning in the playoffs, having seen firsthand what it takes to navigate their way to two Eastern Conference Finals in consecutive seasons. Doesn't that count for anything? Don't they deserve the benefit of the doubt?
And remember, few coaches can prepare their teams for the postseason like Lindy Ruff. How many times have you seen him guide average teams to above-average playoff performances? Enough, at least, to lay to rest calls for his head from the armchair jokers calling into the talk shows.
It says here that the Olympic break couldn't come at a better time. For players in a mental funk, it means time to rest, refocus, re-energize and forget about the miserable month of February. Even for Olympians like Henrik Tallinder, Miller and Hecht, it offers a chance to bust out of a tense locker room and be surrounded by fresh faces at the zenith of their game, exuding a get-it-done attitude.
Yes, the past several weeks have featured reruns of the 2007–2009 Sabres: fragile, lacking confidence and failing to answer adversity. But we've also seen a club that's capable of beating elite teams and grinding out tight contests. Who knows, maybe some nasty bumps in the road will be a distant memory when the real season arrives this spring.