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Buffalo Sabres News » News » Stuck in the middle
Stuck in the middle
Stuck in the middle
The preseason predictions were similar no matter the prognosticator. Most figured the Buffalo Sabres were an average team, part of that Eastern Conference pack of seven or eight squads that would jockey for the playoffs until the final day of the season.


With one-quarter of the season done, the Sabres are exactly where people expected. They entered Monday night in ninth place, four points out of fifth and three points ahead of 13th.

It's how they got there that has folks in Sabreland wringing their hands or letting the profanities fly.

The Sabres are simply not good right now. No team on a five-game losing streak can be. They've won just once in the last eight games (1-6-1), sliding to 9-8-3 overall.

"We're in tough right now," coach Lindy Ruff said.

The slump has rained on the Stanley Cup parade some fanatics were planning after the opening eight games. The Sabres started 6-0-2, and it appeared they had regained their form after a season out of the playoffs.

But the wild, almost unfathomable swings that stung them last year are obviously back. It hurts because being a consistent team was a point of emphasis throughout training camp. They figured a methodical, almost boring format of win two, lose one would carry them to the postseason. Yet the only real consistency with 20 games gone is the scoring talent of Thomas Vanek.

>The good

*Vanek is making the leap to the elite. He leads the NHL with 15 goals, and he has 23 in Buffalo's last 29 games dating to last season. He has an outside shot to make Sabres history. Rick Martin set the single-season standard for fastest to 20 goals, accomplishing the milestone in just 24 games in 1972-73. Vanek has four multigoal games, and a few more would put his name in the books.

*The penalty killers have shown they can dominate. The Sabres killed the first 26 opportunities of the season. They're still chugging along at 84.7 percent, sixth in the league.

*The power play has been solid on the road, clicking at 22 percent. That's also sixth in the NHL. (They rank just 13th overall, though, at 19.2 percent.)

*Mark Mancari is illustrating the depth of the organization. He has a goal and nearly double-digit scoring chances in his two games since being summoned from Portland. The prospects there are turning the American Hockey League into their playground. The Pirates are 12-2-2, and the stellar play of Nathan Gerbe and Tim Kennedy has some believing the Sabres can ditch underperformers.

>The bad

*The underachievers include Maxim Afinogenov (one goal) and Drew Stafford (two goals, four points). Afinogenov has been scratched the past two games, which leaves $3.5 million in salary collecting dust when it could be better spent by the cash-conscious club. Stafford, a three-time scratch, has created little and blown the chances he's had.

*Tim Connolly, averaging more than a point per game, does not fall into the category of underperformer. He does, however, qualify as a nonperformer. He had two fractured vertebrae at the start of the season and a broken rib now, limiting him to just six games. Still, he has seven points.

*Remember when opponents were afraid to play in HSBC Arena? No? Well, the Sabres don't, either. They were ho-hum at home last year, and that would be an improvement over now. The Sabres are 5-5-1 at the foot of Washington Street, including three straight losses. On average, they've allowed 3.27 goals at home and 2.56 on the road.

*Even-strength play is far from even. The Sabres have been outscored, 42-32, while playing five-on-five.

>The mediocre

*The team defense, and by extension the goaltending, has ranged from dominant to deplorable. The Sabres opened the month with two straight Ryan Miller shutouts. Then, in a recent three-game stretch, they allowed six goals per game. They haven't given up fewer than three since Miller tossed his second doughnut Nov. 3, a span of eight games.

*Derek Roy led the Sabres' offense last season, and he trails only Vanek and Jason Pominville this year. But Roy had a stretch in which he had just one goal in 10 games. He's rebounded with points in four of the last five.

*The goalies are personifying the phrase "middle of the pack." Miller ranks 17th in goals-against average (2.57), 22nd in save percentage (.909) and 14th in goals allowed (39). The alarming tendency for the 6-foot-2 goalie to get beat high is clearly making the opposition's scouting reports. Backup Patrick Lalime has had three good starts and two poor ones.

>The solution?

"We're going to have to find ways to work a little harder," Ruff said. "Make a difference. That's the bottom line."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com



Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: November 26, 2008

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