Former Sabres’ Enforcer Has Right Idea

If this NHL season were a boxing match, the Buffalo Sabres have rope-a-doped their way through the first round of action like a world-beater. Slipping and sticking, hitting and not getting hit, new head coach Ralph Krueger’s team has put on a truly inspiring performance–up until the last ten seconds of the first round.

That slip up in the opening frame of an 82-game season came late on Wednesday evening when the Sabres ran into the Anaheim Ducks in California–and there’s no other way of saying it–the team got punched right in the mouth and dropped.

This goes beyond the metaphor. Rookie Victor Olofsson got his cheek bounced off the edge of the boards like a tennis ball while Vladimir Sobotka was powerbombed skating back to his own bench after the whistle.

It was the kind of game that the Sabres were going to get into sooner or later after racing out to such a torrid start, much to the surprise and delight of understandably frustrated Western New York fans.

It was a test, the same kind that teams will all need to pass come playoff time, and the results were not great.

Through the first 10 or 15 minutes of play, Buffalo was once again the same startlingly good squad that raced out to an 11-point start through the first six games.

The Ducks decided that they didn’t particularly like that, and proceeded to beat, bruise and bully their way to a 5-2 win.

I don’t blame them, it worked. It’s what I would have done.

Anaheim’s penalty kill was excellent, and the Ducks were content to smack the younger, greener Sabres around, daring them to score goals with the man advantage.

Mike Tyson warned us, Sabres fans: “Everybody’s got a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

But someone else closer to home warned us, too, a guy who knows a thing or two about hitting and getting hit–color commentator Rob Ray. Any respectable Sabres fan is most likely going to say the same thing about Ray — probably express a sort of self-deprecating fondness for the old bruiser and offer a laugh to go along with it.

Just like during his time on the ice, you know what you are going to get out of Razor when it comes to hockey analysis.

There will be some goofy moments, some oratory mishaps, but we like that. He’s a goof and a goon, but he’s ours.

More “informed” fans will no doubt critique Ray for his constant focus on strength and toughness–bygone qualities of a game that has moved on to speed, strategy and analytics.

Well, guess what all you graduates of the Armchair Academy of Hockey?

Razor was right.

Don’t get me wrong here. The writing is still on the wall. The Sabres are a good team and are remarkably better off than last season from both a roster and a coaching standpoint. Their young players are electric, their power play looks dominant, and their goaltending has been strong from both Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark.

This all comes from a very small sample size, but still, things are looking up for Buffalo. The question is this: what if we DO actually make the playoffs? What about when we do have to get by a team that is happy to open up with a backhand smack to the mouth?

All of the NHL coaches and teams that Buffalo has coming down the pipeline are going to say the same thing after watching that Anaheim game. They will say, “They have dynamic young players and they are much better than last year, but they can be broken.”

I think what Ray is actually getting at when he drones on and on about toughness and physicality is winning the games that matter at the end of a season — not the other 82.

Buffalo has improved massively, but who cares about winning games in October? Have we forgotten the lessons of last season already? If we want real progress, we have to find a way to win games in March to really turn anything around, because when the chips are really on the table, teams are going to hit you the same way that the Ducks did on Wednesday.

I understand the eye-rolling that goes on when we hear a former Sabres enforcer mention yet again that we need a team with toughness and grit, but he’s right.

We might not need it now, or in January, but we need it to get where we all want to go — to the top.

NOTES: “I believe they’re called enforcers, Gordon. When you play Iceland, you’re gonna need him.”