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Sabres Central

Connolly and Maxim score to help Sabres oust Caps

By Rick Anderson
December 15, 2007

It was hoped that with the loss of Captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, that having Tim Connolly for the entire season would help make up for the loss of goal production and leadership. Connolly has had a tough go of it so far, first being injured both in the preseason and then he missed 5 games recently due to a strained abdominal muscle.

Coming into the game, Connolly had only 4 goals. This certainly wasn't the Connolly that fans grew to love two years ago when he helped the Sabres get to the Eastern Conference finals. Connolly went down again Friday night when a shot hit him in the face. He was helped to the dressing room, but came back a little later with an 8-stitch tatoo on his cheek.

"I took a shot in the face," said Connolly. "It was just a stinger."

While in the dressing room being stitched up, he saw the Sabres tie the score at 2-2 when Maxim Afinogenov was fed a perfect lead pass by Andrej Sekera and broke in on a helpless Olaf Kolzig, tucking it under his pads. Afinogenov, who has been struggling as much as Connolly, got his 5th goal of the season.

Before the third period, Connolly hopped onto the exercise bike to get the blood pumping again.

"I felt pretty good. I just went back out there and went to work," Connolly said.

Late in the third period, it was the old Connolly again, on his knees, knocking in the winning goal that propelled the Sabres past the Capitals for the 3rd time this year. The Sabres ended up winning 5-3 when Jochen Hecht scored into the empty net, but it was Connolly showing that he could be a force to be reckoned with yet this season.

The Sabres were behind most of the game and it was only a strong third period that prevented the Capitals from gaining on the Sabres, inching closer to escaping last place in the Eastern Conference. Had the Caps won, they would have moved to just one point behind the Sabres. The 4-point game now gives them a 5 point edge over Washington and moved them out of a second-last tie with Atlanta, who lost to the Leafs 4-0.

"It was a great third period for this team," reflected Connolly about the Sabres 3-goal third period. "To get up, and have them come back, then to win a tight game when we really havenít been doing that lately, itís really something for us to build on."

The other Sabres scorers were Derek Roy (12 goals) and Drew Stafford, who collected his 6th of the season when he picked the puck up behind Kolzig and wrapped it around and into the net.

Royís goal came in the first period and he was given a gift by Kolzig when he came way out to clear the puck and instead swept the puck right onto Royís stick. With a gapping net in front of him, Roy easily shot it into the open net.

"You can't gift wrap two goals," and obviously angry Kolzig said. "The first goal ... I never go out and play the puck with one hand. It was just a rookie mistake...Third one was a bad break."

Even though the Sabres have won two straight (they beat the Islanders by the same 5-3 score on Wednesday), they have miles to make up if they want to get into the playoff race. Four teams are in front of them in the race for the eighth and final spot in the east.

The team has to go on at least a 10-game winning streak to get back to where they are in the thick of things again. Maybe if Connolly and Afinogenov pick up their scoring pace like in the past, the Sabres can finally get out of the cellar and make a run.

The reasons for the Sabres demise this season

The blame for the Sabres demise is widespread. Letís start at the top...

Darcy Regier & Larry Quinn -
This two-headed monster definitely gets a ton of blame for the Sabres dismal start. Had they operated like any other management team, the Sabres would have never left Daniel Briere or Chris Drury go. They would have been signed over a year ago as they were important cogs in the Sabres machinery. The Ottawa Senators have signed all their stars even before they get close to free agency. So does every other NHL team that is worth its salt.

Regier has always been a bottom line man. He feels that all the players should feel overly privileged to wear a Sabres uniform, that they would offer to cut their salary just to stay with the team. Not so in todayís professional sports. Like every other enterprise, an organization has to spend money to make money.

Teams like the Senators and Red Wings lock up their stars, while the Sabres front office plays games with the players that are the central core of the team. This season they have started to negotate early in-season to get some of their players signed long term. It could be too little too late.

The fans are doing their part in selling out each and every game. Regier & Quinn have dropped the ball so many times that they are lucky there arenít crowds of under 10,000 per game. That is coming next year as the fans have had it with this bungling management team.

Lindy Ruff -
While Ruff has shown to be a great NHL coach, especially the year he won the Jack Adams trophy, this year he has dropped the ball. While every other NHL coach has made the adjustment back to the pre-lockout clutch & grab trap hockey, Ruff has not been able to adapt. His team still plays a finesse game and turtle when they are hit. The word is out on the streets that if you hit the Sabres hard, knock them off their game, they wonít fight back and will hide in their shell. That is definitely whatís happening this year.

Ruff has to get his player to respond by picking up their physical game and going toe-to-toe in the physical aspect. If he doesnít then this is going to be a long, losing season for the Sabres and theyíll be back to where they were a few years ago, looking from the outside in come playoff time.

Ryan Miller -
Why is it that every time Miller faces an average or rookie goalie, that he is completely outplayed by that goalie?? Such was the case last Thursday when the Los Angeles Kings fielded a rookie goalie who had never faced a shot in the NHL. Miller came in relief for Jocelyn Thibault and allowed 4 goals. Then when the Bruins start Alex Auld, Miller allows 4 goals and is horrid in goal. Auld completely outplayed Miller. While Miller was allowed shots through the 5-hole, Auld was stopping everything thrown at him. How many times have fans seen Miller come up on the short end when facing a second string goalie at the other end? Too many times. It may be time for the Sabres to consider finding an "average goalie" like the kind that finds a way to stonewall them time and again.

- The Sabres forwards are having a rough year. From Maxim Afinogenov to Tim Connolly, to Jason Pominville, the forwards are not scoring like the past two years. Could it be the loss of Drury and Briere? That is one of the reasons. The other is that they are just not finishing off like they have in the past. Itís time for the forwards to start producing or the Sabres may have to make a trade.

Inconsistency - The Sabres, under Lindy Ruff have always played inconsistent. Against teams they should blow away, they play down to their level and lose. The recent road trip to California highlights this. The Sabres lost to the lowly Kings, last in their conference, by a embarrassing 8-2 score. Then, they blast the division-leading Sharks 7-1. The game at home, the Sabres outshoot the Bruins by twice the margin, but lose 4-1.

Physical play - The Sabres under Ruff avoid the physical play like the plague. When they get hit, they don't respond and get knocked off their game. That's what the Kings and Ducks did in the West Coast swing. The open style hockey that was the norm the first year and a half after the lockout is no more. The Sabres either have to adjust like all the other NHL teams have, or they will not make the playoffs this year and years to come. Hit or be hit should be their motto.



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