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Sabres Central

View from the Fourth Line

Sabres beat Isles 4-2
By "Fourth Line"
March 12, 2000

Like in their previous game against the Habs, the Sabres once again put out another strong performance this afternoon against the Islanders. In Doug Gilmour's first game as a Buffalo Sabre, he recorded two points and the rest of the team followed his lead in the Sabres 4-2 victory.

In the last meeting between the Sabres and Isles on Long Island, the Sabres looked flat. That team which we saw play one of their worst performances last weekend against the Islanders played today's game on the opposite side of the spectrum from last Saturday's dismal performance. This was clearly noticeable early on in the game where the Sabres generated more offensive chances in the first period than they had throughout all 60 minutes of last week's loss downstate.

Rhett Warrener gets off a wrist shot that goes over goalie Kevin Weekes shoulder, hits the crossbar and bounces out in the first period. The Sabres clanked the goal post twice in the period.
[AP Photo/Don Heupel]

The difference between last week's game against the Islanders and today's game was much more indicative than in the win column. Unlike last week's game in Long Island, the Sabres got to a much better start to the game, controlled the pace to this game, established a better neutral zone transition game, forechecked better, won much more face-offs, looked improved on the power play, had set forward line combos and defensive pairings, and got much better efforts all around the board. What a difference.

However, I still have failed to point out the biggest difference between then and now up to this point. The main difference lied with our defensemen, especially those who normally are stay-at-home defensemen, helping the offensive cause. Three goals, two shots rung off the goal-post, and numerous scoring chances came as a direct result of the defensemen unexpectedly driving to the area in front of the Islanders net between the two circles, catching the Islanders defense off-guard and getting prominent open scoring chances from the slot in front of Kevin Weekes. The first three goals scored by the Sabres were by defensemen, each of which were not from the perimeter but from close range. Ruff's astute game-planning that featured the offensive contribution from our blueliners provided the most offensive results from our defensemen that Sabres fans have seen since last year's playoffs. And not only did the offensive defensemen contribute offensively but even the likes of Jay McKee, Rhett Warrener and James Patrick constantly went to the front of the net. And it was just last night that thoughts through my head came about concerning the Sabres need to have defensemen take offensive chances after seeing how successful both the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs were in last night's game.

With Dominik Hasek and the backchecking forwards the Sabres have, this gameplan proved to be effective. Throughout the game, the Sabres played a system where the defensemen pinched and the forwards covered back, much like the system of play we were much used to seeing in last year's playoffs.

The power play looked more confident with the new faces. The passing around the perimeter was much more fluent and we actually spent a good portion of the power play in the offensive zone rather than chasing the cleared pucks in our own end, yet we were managing good power play shot totals. The first power play unit of Gilmour, Gratton, and Afinogenov up front with Satan and Warrener playing the point was more dominating than we have seen all year and expect this to continue although we were statistically 0-2 with the man-advantage for the day.

The only players that I thought didn't play good games, Jason Holland and Chris Taylor, won't be in the starting lineup anyway when the regulars return from injuries.

The Sabres, unlike in their disappointing game last week against the Islanders, controlled the pace throughout the game. They skated, passed, and stickhandled much better in the neutral zone. To no wonder, the neutral zone was more "open" than it was the week before not so much because of the Islanders letting up but more thanks in part to the Sabres making things happen between bluelines which they were unsuccessful in doing in their previous meeting with the Isles. Not only that, but when they got the puck in deep in the Islanders zone, they had better puck pursuit. They won the battles and got to the loose pucks throughout the entire game which contributed to a better forecheck than last week's game. This of course led to more shots and scoring chances than they had in Uniondale as they were able to set up offensively in the Islanders zone. And if not for the impressive performance from Islanders backstopper Kevin Weekes, the Sabres would've ran up the score in Gilmour's Sabres debut.

The players stuck up for one another. Of course Rhett Warrener in his return to the Sabres lineup stood up for his teammates like he always does but the rest of the team didn't back down either. Even Dixon Ward, someone who you wouldn't normally expect to do so, stood up for Maxim Afinogenov late in the game. This goes to show that there's more of a "team" sense and unity among the Sabres players since the trades, which also goes to show that a trade can IMPROVE a team's chemistry when conventional wisdom says that it takes a while for a team to jell as a team when the lineup changes. That was not the case with the Buffalo Sabres.

Finally, I would like to give Lindy Ruff who gets an A+ grade for his coaching grade this afternoon. After the team played a spirited effort and lost to the Habs in a crucial game the other night, it could've been easy for the team to give up. But the Sabres, like against Montreal, played their second straight inspired game today and it resulted in our 4-2 win. I already pointed out his gameplan of the defensemen driving to the front of the net and contributing offensively, but even as noticeable was the fact that for the first time in ages, Lindy actually had consistent line combos. And this is how they looked like.

Tsyplakov-Gratton-Varada
Brown-Gilmour-Satan
Rasmussen-Barnes-Afinogenov
Ward-Taylor-Ray

Smehlik-Holland
McKee-Warrener
Patrick-Woolley

Of course this won't be the permanent line combos as Peca, Zhitnik and Sanderson were out of the lineup but it's a start. And all three forward lines besides the fourth line were dominating the Islanders throughout the game. The checking line (which was the Sabres first line today as they took the opening face-off) clicked the best in my opinion, but the three top scoring lines played inspired hockey this afternoon. The defensive pairing of McKee and Warrener is back and you could tell how much they feed off each other as Jay McKee turned around his game with his defensive partner back in the fold. I would be lying if I said they dominated the game physically like they're capable of doing, but they made up for this by contributing offensively which is a rare sight coming from this pairing who normally likes to stay at home. The only defensive pairing that didn't play a solid game was the pairing of Smehlik and Holland, mostly thanks to inexperienced mistakes by Jason Holland all game long.

Don't think of me as an "easy grader" after I assess the grades of today's Islanders game because the players earned their marks.

Chris Gratton (A+) - Gratton scored his first goal as a Buffalo Sabre today. While his goal came on an empty net, he earned the goal that iced the game for the Sabres by racing to beat Kenny Jonsson for a loose puck at center ice and lifting the puck over Jonsson's thrown stick into the vacant net. He also set-up Jason Woolley with a tape-to-tape centering pass on the Sabres' second goal of the game. All day long the checking line was clicking and Gratton led the charge. He played a solid game on both ends of the rink, continued to hit, passed efficiently and skated hard. Shift by shift, Gratton was the best player on the ice this afternoon.

Doug Gilmour (A) - Killer's first game as a Buffalo Sabre was an impressive one, much like Gratton's against Montreal. You could immediately sense his difference in the lineup, especially on the power play as Gilmour had and set up numerous scoring chances on the Sabres first power play that would've been sure goals if not for the sprawling saves Kevin Weekes made. He also rose the play of his linemates, Curtis Brown and Miro Satan, both of which have been struggling up until today's game. My only concern about Gilmour is his lack to play both ways. Having a defensively responsible Brown on his line will help, but as the game went on I noticed a lack of getting back into the play on Gilmour's behalf. He was splendid in breaking up a potential 2-on-1 chance late in the second period, but that was just one of the rare backchecking efforts we saw from Gilmour all game long. He had two assists today, his first one was one worthy of Sports Center highlights where he and Curtis Brown made perfect tape-to-tape passes before Brown set up Jay McKee between the circles in front of Weekes for the Sabres first goal of the afternoon. Rhett Warrener (A) - All I have to say is what a return for Rhett Warrener. Throughout the game he positioned himself well and made smart plays, his only mistake of the game coming late in the second period when he coughed the puck up that led to an odd-man break for the Islanders that Gilmour was back to neutralize. He didn't make any bone-crushing hits that we all know he's capable of making, but he produced offensively to make up for this. By surprisingly pinching up to the slot when the Sabres had puck possession in the Islanders zone, he had numerous scoring chances, including one shot that rung off the post early on in the hockey game. He also stood up for Doug Gilmour in the second period against the Islanders Steve Webb.

Vladimir Tsyplakov (A) - Tsyppy made me take back my statement that I made after the Montreal game that he's no longer effective without his former linemate Mike Peca in the lineup. He was all over the ice this afternoon and had some great scoring chances throughout the game. He worked well with his linemates Chris Gratton and Vaclav Varada, was flying on his skates, handled the puck extremely well, forechecked, hustled after the loose pucks, and was the best passer on the team today.

Curtis Brown (A) - The most improved player award goes to Curtis Brown. After looking invincible lately, you could easily feel the effect of having Doug Gilmour as his linemate. He raised his game up to Gilmour's level and was all over the ice. He made a perfect set-up pass to the open Jay McKee on the Sabres first goal of the game and also made a nice move around Kenny Jonsson and skated all alone on Kevin Weekes, taking the initial shot that James Patrick followed up on early in the third period to give the Sabres a commanding 3-1 lead at the time. He not only contributed offensively and in transition but also defensively. He covered for pinching Sabre defensemen all game long in his Selke-worthy performance this afternoon. Just another sign of what a player like Doug Gilmour can do for his linemates.

Jay McKee (A) - The phyically dominating defensive pairing of Jay McKee and Rhett Warrener dominated in a different way this afternoon. Who would've even dreamed of the time when Jay McKee and Rhett Warrener turned into "offensive defensemen". Well they did that today. McKee, like his defensive partner, drove to the front of the net often. This resulted in the Sabres first goal of the afternoon scored by McKee who received a centering pass from Curtis Brown and beat Weekes from between the circles to open up the scoring. He also played well defensively after struggling in his defensive game recently. Expect McKee to continue playing solid hockey with Rhett Warrener back in the lineup, much like they did last season after Warrener came here from Florida in the Mike Wilson trade.

Vaclav Varada (A-) - Completing the dominating check line that we saw this afternoon of Gratton, Tsyplakov and Varada, Vaclav put forth a strong effort. He clicked with his linemates and was tenacious on the forecheck. He set up Chris Gratton with a perfect pass for an excellent scoring chance in the second period that was goal-bound if not for another tremendous save by the Islanders netminder Kevin Weekes. The only beef I had with Varada's game this afternoon was that he mishandled the puck too often, especially late in the game when him coughing up the puck almost cost us our 3-2 lead in the final minutes of play. Maybe he should try using a new stick next game and see if that solves his pass receiving and puck handling problems. But all-in-all, Varada put forth yet another spirited game once again and has been playing superb hockey the last few months after getting off to a horrendous start to the season. Jason Woolley (A-) - Another solid game from Jason Woolley. He played well in both ends of the rink, joining the rush offensively and playing stellar in his own end. He hit a post and scored a goal from the slot by driving to the open area between the two circles that the Sabres defensemen were doing throughout the game, extending his scoring streak to three games (not bad for a defenseman). His shot accuracy has suddenly improved dramatically from earlier this season when most of his shots were well off the mark, but part of the reason for that is that with him getting open in the slot area his shots are now from closer range which generally means higher-percentage shots.

James Patrick (B+) - James Patrick wasn't the most noticeable defenseman on the ice but was positionally sound for the entire hockey game which can be denoted in his +2 plus/minus rating that led all defensemen for the game. Not only did he play solid shift by shift but also even scored a rare goal, following up on Curtis Brown's rebound that laid out in front of Kevin Weekes.

Dixon Ward (B+) - After Ward got out to a brutal start to this season, I have really been impressed with Ward's play as of late. That positive trend continued today as he was hustling, skating and even hitting this afternoon. And playing on the forth line with non-NHL'ers like Chris Taylor and Rob Ray (sorry Razor) didn't stop him either. He even stood up for his teammates today when push came to shove which shows that Ward's head is finally back in the right place once again.

Maxim Afinogenov (B) - Max didn't have any breathtaking rushes up the ice today, but his presence was known with the kind of chances he had today. On the opening power play, all he had to do is flip the puck past a sprawled Kevin Weekes' glove that was positioned on the ice and he would've given the Sabres an early 1-0 lead. He made up for not rising the crowd to their feet with end-to-end rushes in transition by being a huge factor in the Islanders zone, having quite a few handsome scoring chances from point-blank range and it's too bad Afinogenov's not a "finisher" or else he'd be a 50-goal scorer with all the chances he has.

Erik Rasmussen (B) - Erik Rasmussen played his usual gritty game this afternoon. His hit on Eric Cairns in the second period was the "Carubba Collision" of the game and he once again used his size to his advantage against the Islanders, whether it be in the form of hitting or winning battles along the wall on the forecheck.

Miroslav Satan (B-) - Satan, who has been struggling of late, played a much better game today playing on a line with Doug Gilmour and Curtis Brown. While his goal drought continues, signs of life on Planet Satan still exist after he was continuously involved in the offensive attack this afternoon.

Stu Barnes (B-) - Barnes was less noticeable than he has been recently, but did put forth a good, honest effort. His statistics on the scoresheet (0 goals, 0 assists, -1 rating) isn't at all impressive but he did the little things right. He won face-offs, he played well in transition by skating and passing well, and was a force on the forecheck, winning a ton of battles in the Islanders zone for a player of his small stature going up against a towering Islanders blueline.v Richard Smehlik (C+) - Despite the poor play of his pairing partner Jason Holland, Smehlik played a much improved game from the Montreal game. He kept the puck in the Islanders zone time and time again, didn't hesitate to shoot the puck from the point and covered his designated men better than he did against Montreal. However, I would've liked to have seen Smehlik cover for Jason Holland better. Holland's defensive mistakes and turnovers should not have led to Islanders breakaways and this could've been easily prevented if Smehlik was positioned and read the play better than he did.

Rob Ray (C) - Ray did his job as the fourth line right winger. You didn't expect him to be the most dominating player on the ice but he was solid throughout the entire game. When he got the puck and gained the red line, he smartly would shoot the puck into the Islanders zone and played a smart positional game. He wasn't a major contributor, but he wasn't a major impediment either. The only time he did make a major impact was late in the second period when he had a spirited shift, almost dropping the gloves with Steve Webb and had a good scoring chance in front of the net seconds later.

Dominik Hasek (C-) - Hasek stopped only 14 of 16 shots and his two goals could've been stopped if he had better rebound control today so I cannot give him full marks. He did stop the occasional breakaway, his most impressive on Tim Connoly and also made a game-saving pad save with his right pad on Claude Lapointe with the Sabres up 3-2 late in the game, but he did not have enough work to warrant a higher grade than a C.

Chris Taylor (C-) - As we might've expected from the call-up from the Rochester Amerks, Taylor was invisible for most of the game. He did occasionally forecheck and played stellar on the penalty kill unit but had no shots on goal throughout the game and was un-noticed for most of the game outside of when he was skating with the puck in the neutral zone a few times.

Jason Holland (D) - Good thing I'm not using a bell curve when grading the Sabres players today or you would know who the failure was. Holland was the worst player on the ice today hands down. He did generate quite a few chances along with Richard Smehlik from the perimeter early in the game, but his constant inexperienced mistakes almost cost the Sabres the hockey game today. On the Islanders first goal, Holland failed to clear the rebound that was loose right in front of Hasek and allowed Nabokov to pounce home the loose rebound with Holland standing there like a statue. A few minutes later he coughed up the puck around center ice to allow Scatchard to break all alone on Hasek. That was not the only time his miscue led to an Islanders breakaway. Later on in the game, he coughed up the puck once again that allowed Tim Connoly to race in all 1-on-1 on Dominik Hasek. After the kind of mistakes he made today, he owes both Dominik Hasek and his defensive partner Richard Smehlik big time.

The Sabres since Friday when they made their blockbuster deals for Gilmour and Gratton have played inspired hockey, both the other night against Montreal and again this afternoon against the Islanders. These kind of efforts must continue throughout the rest of the season if they want to have any shot at winning one of the two final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. Here are the updated standings in the tight conference race from between the 7-12 spots.

7 - Pittsburgh (70 points, 69 GP)
8 - Montreal (70 points, 69 GP)
9 - Carolina (69 points, 69 GP)
10 - NYR (69 points, 70 GP)
11 - Buffalo (68 points, 70 GP)
12 - Boston (64 points, 69 GP)

The race is heating up which serves as greater incentive for the new-look Sabres to continue playing hard-fought hockey from now until the end of the regular season. Unfortunately, this will be my final game analysis until next Saturday's game against Calgary. Wednesday and Thursday's games against San Jose and Vancouver are a part of a Western road trip which means I'll only get to see the first period (if I'm lucky) the next two games. I might set my VCR, but I usually am not in the mood to post a write-up of a game that's concluded the night before so I'll take a break for the San Jose and Vancouver games.

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