It was a great (FANTASTIC) weekend for the Sabres, with them winning both games, including another shutout for Miller, and the Canes losing to push them 5 points back. New York and Montreal are both within reach, 2 points ahead. I don’t even want to talk about 5th place, with Tampa Bay going 1-2-2 in their last 5. Pittsburgh is the team I’d want the least to do with in the first round, what with them about to get Crosby back and all.
What’s great to see is how much love the Sabres players are starting to get as a result of their performance. The Pegula effect kick-started it, building excitement with the fanbase, but the team held up their end, winning games. Not just winning games, but beating the teams they need to beat. The ones they ‘should’ beat, and the ones near them in the standings. They are getting shutouts (PLURAL) for Ryan Miller, who is making the saves he needs to make in close games. Nathan Gerbe has gone from a guy that people thought should be back in the AHL to a big-time producer. Of his 14 goals, 3 are game-winners. He has 6 goals in his last 7 games. Tyler Ennis has 19 goals is rolling along at a point per game pace over the past 9 games.
The player that’s probably gained the most appreciation is Thomas Vanek. He was a lightning rod for criticism after the huge offer sheet he signed in the wake of the Drury/Briere exits. Over the past few years he earned his nickname “Atlas” when he’s tried to carry a less-talented team into the playoffs. Now? He has a cast around him, guys playing roles and chipping in, so that if he goes four or five games without a goal, who cares? They’ve got his back, and he’s got theirs. He’s got a letter on his sweater, and his quiet, earnest determination each and every night is rubbing off on his younger teammates. Thomas cares deeply about the success of the Sabres, and it shows on the ice, whether it’s talking to himself after hitting the post or shooting wide, or the obvious relief and understated celebration after finally breaking through. The fans are behind Vanek as well, starting a Vanek for Captain hashtag on Twitter, and I can’t remember the last time someone brought up his contract immediately after mentioning his goal total.
It’s probably the best time to be a Sabres player since 05/06. The future is bright, with the playoffs looking more and more certain, a new owner with a commitment to winning, who is already trying to improve both the fan and player experiences here, and a talent pipeline that looks to be stacked. Everyone is having loads of fun right now, so let’s enjoy it and hope it lasts deep into the spring. Let’s go BUFFALO!