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Sabres Central

View from the Fourth Line

Four points lost in crucial game
By "Fourth Line"
March 11, 2000

Boos sprung rapidly from the Marine Midland Arena crowd in the final minutes of tonight's hockey game while the Habs were preserving their 3-2 lead. I was one of those booing, not so much towards the team's effort tonight but more out of frustration that in a game that we played hard enough to win that we'd come out on the losing end of.

More frustrating was seeing the Sabres, who could've moved into a tie with the Canadiens for the 8th and final playoff spot, now are four points back of the Habs after tonight's heart-breaking 3-2 loss. The Sabres as a team, with a few exceptions of course, put forth their best effort since their convincing win in Florida in February. They deserved to win this game more than they deserved to win their last win over the Bruins.

Besides the crucial loss to the Habs, the big story of tonight's game was Chris Gratton. While Doug Gilmour sat in the Marina press box, Chris Gratton in his first game as a Sabre emerged as an on-ice leader in the absence of Mike Peca. Since the opening face-off (which he won of course), Gratton put forth a spirited game from start to finish. He won most of his draws, played with an edge making his physical impact right from the get-go, skated hard, back-checked, made crisp breakout passes out of the zone, and took the initial blast on the Sabres second goal that Maxim Afinogenov tapped home.

A few things I noticed from Gratton immediately. His passes are crisp. They're quick and accurate. Since he was back-checking and won a lot of loose pucks in both ends of the rink, he was often in position to make that break-out pass out of our zone. Most of the time his break-out passes were right on the tape and that's something we have been lacking. Of course on the one poor pass he made out of his own zone to an open wing, it led to the Habs first goal. Go figure.

Another thing that I noticed was that he wasn't afraid to shoot the puck. The typical Sabre looks for the pretty pass or the extra, un-necessary pass. Gratton didn't do that. He did pass when the shooting lane was blocked, but when he had an open shot he didn't hesitate to pull the trigger. Those instincts led to Afinogenov's goal that tied the game at 2-2 for the meantime. And after a while, I noticed that the rest of the team took Gratton's lead by example and started shooting more often themselves instead of making that extra pass when you have an open shot. Now all we need is to actually shoot some of our shots on net a la Jason Woolley's perfect wrist shot from between the circles that tied the game at 1-1. And we thought that with Holzinger traded and Zhitnik out of the lineup that our shots would be accurate. Ha, think again!

With Gratton, the face-off percentage dramatically increased. What a difference winning face-offs makes on your power play. You lose a face-off in their zone on your power play, chances are the other team easily clears the puck out of the zone taking chunks off the clock, especially when you have Zhitnik standing behind his net for thirty seconds trying to set-up the rush the other way on the power play (I'm sure we all missed that tonight with Zhitnik out of the lineup). You win a face-off on the power play in the other teams' end (like Gratton often did tonight and probably will continue to do) and you're setting up your power play around the perimeter. And for those who saw tonight's game, you cannot deny that the Sabres power play did look improved tonight and with Gilmour coming in for Sunday's game against the Islanders, that can only get even better.

We also played better in transition. The centermen (Gratton, Barnes, Brown, and even Taylor) led the rushes in transition and did a nice job in doing so. Our neutral zone passing was much more efficient and we created more breaks by doing so. Our forwards were skating better with and without the puck, and plus our defensemen were joining in on the rush.

The forecheck was improved tonight. Without Primeau or Grosek, you'd assume the forechecking effort would be diminished. But Gratton, Rasmussen and Barnes (yes, even Barnes, who despite his size was a force in the corners on the forecheck tonight), our forechecking won us a lot of loose pucks that we weren't winning in previous games. We also started to go to the front of the net, not to the extent that Montreal did, but more than we have been.

Lindy Ruff keeps switching up his forward line combos. He did keep the checking line of Brown, Tsyplakov and Varada together for most of the game and also kept the fourth line together for all of the game, but still didn't have concrete line combos for the top lines.

Our defensive effort was poor. Hasek bailed us out more than he should've and in a game so important, our blueliners made too many mistakes. We failed to clear the zone (JLPG), failed to cover the open man (Smehlik) cutting to the front of the net, and allowed for too many chances throughout the game. Our offense didn't let us down for once, it was our sub-standard defensive game that did us in this game.

As expected after today's shake-ups, the effort in the game that followed was not lacking. The effort was there to win tonight's hockey game, but crucial mistakes cost us the hockey game as Montreal didn't fail to capitalize on our errors. From a spirited opening shift to the final seconds when we were applying the pressure trying to tie the game at 3-3, I thought all-in-all tonight's game was a hard-fought game that we deserved to win. But close does not count, especially when you're playing the Montreal Canadiens for a chance to gain ground on them in the standings. This was a heart-breaking loss, but there's still time to gain ground. If we put more efforts like these for the next month, I still wouldn't rule a trip to the playoffs out of the possibility.

Now for the Sabres player reports.

Maxim Afinogenov (A+) - Once again, Afinogenov was flying and contributed on both Sabres goals. He made a perfect pass onto Jason Woolley's stick on the Sabres first goal and followed the play on the Sabres' 2-on-1 to tap in the loose puck that snuck under Hackett's pads on the Sabres second goal.

Chris Gratton (A) - His first game as a Sabre was an impressive one. Had it not been for his mis-guided pass that to the open wing that allowed the Habs to come back and score their first goal of the night, I would've given him an A+ along with Max. He won face-offs, was hitting everything in sight, wasn't afraid to let his terrorizing release go, passed the puck with crispness, back-cehcked, and was all over the ice.

Stu Barnes (A) - Although this time he was held off the score sheet, Barnes was one of the best players on the ice. His biggest impact was in transition and on the forecheck. In transition, he stickhandled the puck well, skated fluently and knew that to do with the puck. He was a workhorse along the boards and in the corners forechecking to add onto his multi-dimensional performance tonight.

Vaclav Varada (A) - Varada continued his superb play, even with the loss of Mike Peca. He continued to be a physical force and even skated well. He made things happen, whether it be skating hard with the puck on a rush up the ice or cutting to the front of the net from in the corner behind the net resulting in a glorious scoring chance. Who said that Varada's only effective when he's playing a physical-only game?

Dominik Hasek (B+) - He let in three goals which is more than I'd like him to let in, but the goals scored against him weren't his fault. The Habs first goal was partly Hasek's fault as he let up a big rebound that was pounced home, but the Habs second and third goals were not to blame on Hasek. Smehlik failed to cover Trevor Linden as he bursted to the front of the net and scored on a one-timer out in front on the Habs second goal and on the game-winning third goal, he stopped the initial shot from Brisebois that he couldn't even see but had the rebound batted out of mid-air and into the net by Brian Savage. Looking at the box score and seeing that Hasek only stopped 17 of 20 Montreal shots, you may be led to believe that he played a poor game but he really kept us in the hockey game stopping some high-percentage shots that came his way.

Chris Taylor (B+) - You're saying "what the hell"? No, I'm not kidding. Chris Taylor, being called up from Rochester, surprised the heck out of me with his performance tonight. He was getting some tremendous chances and led the "minor league line" with Hamel and Ray on the wings.

Jason Holland (B) - Solid game from Holland on both ends. As inexperienced as he is in the NHL, I thought he was our best defenseman on the ice. He played well in both ends of the rink. He did have quite a few chances offensively for a defenseman, but also played sound in his own zone as well.

Erik Rasmussen (B) - Rasmussen wasn't the brute force he was the other night but played a solid game. He continued to hit (not to the extent of the Boston game though) and like Varada made some rare rushes using his powerful straight-ahead speed.

Denis Hamel (B-) - Being called up from Rochester, I didn't expect much from Hamel but he put forth some spirited shifts on the fourth line along with Ray and Taylor.

Rob Ray (C+) - Completing the "minor league line" of Taylor, Hamel and Ray that Lindy Ruff threw onto the ice tonight, Ray fulfilled his role adequately. He stuck up for his teammates and got into a shouting match before the refs were separating him from the Montreal player he was shouting at in defense of his team.

Jason Woolley (C) - Didn't have his best game defensively but made up for it with a perfect wrist shot that gave Buffalo its first goal of the hockey game from between the circles. Most of his shots were well off the mark as usual, but somehow he found nothing but twine on this shot and it paid dividends. I also have to give him credit for playing through his injury that he suffered in the first period.

James Patrick (C) - Wasn't spectacular but did do a nice job covering for his defense partner for most of the night. Like in the playoffs, he isn't the most noticeable player on the ice but brings well-needed stability on our blueline.

Curtis Brown (C) - He took over the checking line in place of the injured Mike Peca. He played a sound two-way game, made some good passes in transition once in a while and was most noticed when hustling hard after a crucial icing late in the game, but needs to become more noticed. Brown hasn't been all that noticed lately and his invisibleness has hurt the Sabres. We definitely miss the Curtis Brown that we saw earlier this season.

Vladimir Tsyplakov (C-) - You can tell that he's not the same without linemate Mike Peca in the lineup. He did make a rare strong hit and connected a few passes here and there, but looked flat for most of the game.

Dixon Ward (D+) - He was a non-factor unlike in previous games, which comes to my surprise since you'd figure he'd step up his game so he wouldn't be the next to be traded out of Buffalo after Holzinger, Primeau and Grosek were shipped out of town today. He wasn't an impediment on the ice but he wasn't at all noticed either.

Jay McKee (D) - McKee, coming off his worst game of the season against the Bruins, got off to a slow start to tonight's game. He was blowing defensive coverage early on and looked out of place. He wasn't hitting and still misses the presence of Rhett Warrener in the lineup. He did block the occasional shot and played better as the game went on, but this is definitely not the same Jay McKee we saw at this juncture of the season last year.

Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre (D-) - Poor game from JLPG tonight. His inability to clear the puck out of his own zone cost us the game-winning goal and he is not making any impact. Where is the JLPG that we saw last year? The high-flying, energetic, physical JLPG? He is nowhere to be found.

Miroslav Satan (F) - Miro's slump continues. You can tell that he's been off his game. He's not getting into his predominant scoring position, looks lost on the ice and when he finally does get the puck in good scoring position, he's more unassertive with the puck. Not the 40 goal scorer that we see and his consistency (or lack thereof) scares me. He needs to be more of a consistent scorer and not have all his goals come in bunches, because a scoring drought late down the stretch like this can really hurt the team.

Richard Smehlik (absent) - Richard Smehlik isn't even worthy of a grade after the despicable show he put on tonight. How does he allow Trevor Linden (who was clearly his man to cover) cur right to the net in front of Hasek untouched to score on Hasek. The way he played tonight scared me. He was caught out of position too often and his defensive zone coverage was abominable. Worst player on the ice bar none for the Sabres tonight and I wouldn't be surprised if he's the next one to be packing his bags out of Buffalo.

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