Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Huge Game in Buffalo (and One Incredible Period of Hockey)

The Buffalo Sabres are only 3 points out of a playoff spot with a game in hand over the Philadelphia Flyers who currently occupy that coveted 8th position. The Sabres have scored 13 goals in their last two games, consequently winning both easily, but failed to register a win in the four previous. The team has talent, admiteddly less of it after losing Brian Campbell at the trade deadline, and they've shown flashes of heart but have yet to find any kind of consistent momentum. Now's the time with only 9 games left. Buffalo is the kind of team that would be scary to face in the first round, but they've got to get their first. In many ways they control their own destiny with that game in hand, but that game in hand is gone after tonight and they absolutely can not afford to lose against the cellar dwelling Tampa Bay Lightning.

Tampa, on the other hand, is trying to play the role of a spoiler while holding tryouts for next season. During this last handful of games both the newly acquired Mike Smith and the young prospect Karri Rammo will get starts in net as they compete for the starting position. Tampa has desperately been searching for a guy who could step up and provide some consistency in that regard and, as the Dallas Stars realized after his disastrous debut for the club where he was yanked in the 1st intermission after allowing 3 goals on 12 shots, Johan Holmqvist was just not the guy.

Jeff Halpern, also acquired from the Dallas Stars in the trade that sent Brad Richards to the lonestar state and gave the Lightning Mike Smith, scored only a few minutes into the game off a turnover on a shortside slapshot. Tough way to start the night.

The Sabres earned a powerplay and nearly scored, but the scrum afterwards produced an unjust powerplay for the Lightning. Jeff Halpern smashes Maxim Afinogenov from behind at the side of the net after the puck was frozen, then delivered a cross check to Maxim's back before the fiesty winger jumped up and put him in a serious headlock. Buffalo ultimately received the extra penalty and it allowed Martin St Louis to deflect a point shot passed Ryan Miller and put the Lightning up 2-0. Jason Pominville responded 3 minutes later burying his 25th of the season on a slapshot from a bad angle. Buffalo seems to have life going into the first intermission.

Buffalo came out a bit flat to start the second, got caught running around in their own zone and ultimately the puck found its way to a wide open Vincent Lecavalier in front of the net to regain the 2 goal lead for Tampa. Thus far, the shots are 15 to 10 Buffalo, but aside from the first Halpern goal on the short side Ryan Miller can't be faulted. Thus far, the Lightning are just getting higher quality chances and Rammo has made a few big saves to maintain momentum for his team. Still a lot of hockey left to be play and thus far it's been relatively even minus Buffalo's blunders in their own zone. Lecavalier closed out the second period with another goal to put Tampa up 4-1.

Buffalo only managed 2 shots on goal in the second and it seemed that the Sabres might be done. That was, of course, until they proved why they have more goals on the season than any other team in the league. It started with Jason Pominville's 26th of the season and second of the game followed by Jochen Hecht only 16 seconds later. A little over 3 minutes later Thomas Vanek scored the tying goal from Derek Roy and Drew Stafford. Buffalo managed 3 goals in three minutes and 22 seconds to get it all knotted up at 4. Vanek and the Sabres weren't done as Vanek scored two more goals back to back, with Roy and Stafford assisting on both, to complete the natural hat trick and put the Sabres up 2. This capped off a run of 6 goals in 11 minutes and 4 seconds. Hecht added an empty netter as the surging Sabres finished an incredible period of hockey to capture a critical 7-4 win and make their playoff hopes that much brighter. Pominville had 2 goals and 2 assists, including 3 points in the third, while the line of Vanek, Roy and Stafford combined for 9 points in the final stanza. Ryan Miller did, however, allow 4 goals on only 19 shots but it didn't matter as the offense was just flat out too much handle in a third period where they scored 6 goals on 16 shots. An incredible night for the Sabres and an improbable, yet remarkable win that should give them plenty of momentum moving forward. Hopefully they'll capture it as I think they can do damage in the playoffs, especially if Miller gets his game together.

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