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View from the Fourth Line

View of Sabres 5-1 stomping of Flames
By "Fourth Line"
March 19, 2000

The Sabres ended their disastrous Western road trip with a convincing 5-1 victory, actually putting forth a complete game that featured flawless play from our forwards, defense, special teams and goaltending.

With Ruff sporting new defensive pairings after defensive breakdowns in their last two games, the defense played solid conservative hockey from start to finish. There were less turnovers from the Sabres defensemen, better defensive zone coverage for the most part, the defensemen played more aggressively (although still not as aggressive as they can) and the forwards assisted defensively by backchecking more than they have in recent games.

Jay McKee puts the hurts on Jeff Shantz during the first period of the Sabres 5-1 victory over Calgary.
[AP Photo/Jeff McIntosh]

And the offense didn't let up either. The Sabres only had 21 shots on goal throughout the game but they made their chances count, scoring five times throughout the game. The Sabres offense as a whole hasn't been struggling lately at all but it's relieving to see that when the defense finally plays their games and shuts the Calgary attack down that the offense didn't let up. The passing still could use some improvement in the neutral zone but the offensive zone passing at even strength and on the power play was much improved and was shown by the two of the goals that came from centering passes. The Sabres produced a sound forecheck and made things happen in the neutral zone for most of the night.

For the first time in a week and a half, Dominik Hasek actually looked in control. He stopped 30 of 31 Calgary stops and looked more poised. I'll go more in depth with Hasek's stellar performance tonight when I assess his grade later in the analysis.

Statistically speaking, the Sabres were effective on special teams being 2 for 5 on the power play and 3 for 3 on the PK. The power play earned their marks. They kept the puck in the zone and cycled the puck around the perimeter effectively. When they had the open look at the net they weren't afraid to shoot the puck from the point. Even more impressive was that players like Varada, Gilmour and Gratton parked themselves in front of the net on the power play. You can tell that the power play is starting to evolve and come to its own since the addition of Gilmour and Gratton. And for the first time on the Western road trip they scored more power play goals than power play goals against. The Sabres killed off all three penalties but I'm still a bit worried about the PK. Normally an effective penalty killing team, the Sabres penalty killing brought me some worries tonight. On Calgary's power play late in the first period, Barnes and Satan both failed to clear the puck out of the zone. The Flames' second period power play was worse. There were lots of "close calls" where the Flames came inches from scoring on that power play halfway through the second period. Although the Sabres killed off all three penalties, our penalty killing was surprisingly a weak link in our effort tonight in Calgary.

I thought the Sabres played more physically tonight. The callers on the Hockey Hotline continue to show that they are not observant hockey fans. They're all complaining about the team toughness and the lack of sticking up for one another. In the hitting department, while I do think that players like Rhett Warrener haven't been hitting like they should, overall the Sabres were hitting more than they have in quite some time. Even non-hitters like Sanderson and Smehlik were hitting and playing physical along with some of the regular hitters like McKee, Rasmussen, McKee and Varada. Even worse was the callers making the mis-leading observation that no one stuck up for Hasek when he was slashed after the whistle blew by Marc Savard. If I was watching the right hockey game, I do remember Jay McKee joining Hasek in throwing punches and shoves in the direction of Savard after he tried slashing Hasek to pry the puck loose that the Dominator had covered up on. I don't mind the callers on the Hotline having different opinions than mine but they better have their facts straight when expressing their opinions of the hockey game and the team which they once again failed to do after tonight's game.

One of the few things that worried me tonight was the lack of killer instinct. Playing conservative hockey in the third period and not taking too many chances with the lead late in the game is all right as the Sabres have done that all year and because of it have been 13-1 when leading after two periods this season. But I thought the Sabres were pretty much on their heels in the third period. They only had two shots the entire third period, both of which were the Sabres' two third period goals.

Ruff did change up the defensive pairings tonight but the forward line combos pretty much stayed in tact tonight as you might expect with the Sabres offense clicking so far this Western road trip, only being let down by our defense. The player grades obviously will be much improved from the grades in the last two games considering the outcome of the game which resulted from solid play from the Sabres forwards, defense and goaltending.

Chris Gratton (A+) - Gratton has continued to play magnificent hockey since coming to Buffalo from Tampa. He possesses quick hands that he utilized on the Sabres opening two goals. He also had quite a few chances from close range and went to the net all night. On the Sabres first goal of the night, he fed Vaclav Varada a perfect cross-ice one-timer across the slot that Varada made no mistake about putting past former Sabre Grant Fuhr. Gratton attained his second assist by feeding Dixon Ward a pass at the Calgary blueline that led to Ward scoring the Sabres' second goal of the night.

Dixon Ward (A+) - Dixon Ward has been playing extremely well as of late but this was his best performance yet. He was all over the ice on all ends of the rink doing everything possible to help his team, whether it be the big things like scoring his second goal in two games or helping clear the zone by diving after a loose puck and clearing the zone with his glove. He skated up and down the ice, played with an edge, won the battles along the boards and in the corners, and played an outstanding game with and without the puck. He was once again rewarded statistically as he scored his second goal in as many games in the second period of tonight's game. Dixon wore his heart on his sleeve at even strength, on the power play and on the penalty kill.

Dominik Hasek (A) - The Dominator bounced back from allowing six goals in San Jose to playing marvelous in Calgary, turning aside 30 of 31 Flames shots. He seemed more confident and on top of his game, like Dominik in his essence. The only goal Hasek allowed can't be attributed to weak goaltending as he made two incredible saves on Jeff Shantz before the rebound came loose up high over a sprawled Hasek and Shantz high-sticked the puck into the net for Calgary's only goal. Since Shantz's stick was above the height of the cross-bar at the time that he knocked the loose puck into the net, the goal shouldn't have counted and Hasek should've had a shutout tonight that he well deserved. He didn't make any saves that made you jump out of your seat, but did make some brilliant saves that was shades of the Dominik of old, including what I thought was his save of the night (although Empire awarded the save of the night earlier to a previous save that was less spectacular) was late in the game when he made a sprawling glove save on Jason Wiemer's backhand shot.

Vaclav Varada (A) - Varada played a complete game. He forechecked, passed and skated well. Because of the work by him and Gratton, along with Tsyplakov to a lesser extent, the checking line was able to generate the most pressure in deep in Calgary territory and was the best line on the ice tonight. Like he has been doing in the second half of the season, Varada's continuing to battle hard and sacrifice the body winning the battles. When he had the puck he wasn't afraid to shoot it on goal from any distance or angle. He wasn't only a force in the Calgary end either. In transition and in the backchecking effort, Varada also made his name tonight. To cap off another strong performance from Varada, he scored on a breakaway that closed the scoring in the final seconds of the 5-1 victory.

Jay McKee (A-) - McKee was once again our most physical defenseman. While he didn't make any bone-crushing bodychecks he did play physical. He made a nice hit on Krivokrasov just over halfway through the first period against the boards in the Sabres end and also defended Hasek by joining Dominik in throwing punches at Marc Savard after he tried prying the puck loose that Hasek covered up on.

Jason Holland (B+) - No, Jason Holland wasn't the most noticeable defenseman on the ice in a Sabres uniform but he didn't make the kind of mistakes that he has made over the last few games, the Canucks and Islanders games to be exact. Holland played a safe, positional game. Nothing spectacular but he got the job done defensively and his +2 rating on the night reflects how defensively capable Holland was tonight. Let's just hope that if Zhitnik doesn't return to the lineup against Montreal on Monday that Holland doesn't revert back to his unpolished defensive game that he seems to play every other game.

Doug Gilmour (B+) - Another strong effort from Doug Gilmour, once again proving what kind of an influence both Gilmour and Gratton have had on this team since they came here before the trade deadline. He picked up his sole assist of the night on the Sabres third goal by winning a battle along the boards around center ice, knocking the puck loose to Miro Satan who fed Curtis Brown a beautiful cross-ice pass that resulted in Brown netting his 19th goal of the season.

Curtis Brown (B) - Brown got off to a rough start to the game, missing a lot of passes and mis-handling the puck. Late in the first period, he lost the puck at the Sabres blueline but luckily the Flames were ruled off-sides on the play saving Brown from public humiliation. After the shaky start, Brown came back to play a pretty strong game and was one of the best Sabres on the ice in Calgary. He also scored a goal in the second period that put the Sabres into the locker room at the second intermission with a comfortable 3-0 lead by joining Satan's rush to the front of the net after Gilmour led Satan loose up the left side and scoring on Satan's cross-ice pass in front of Grant Fuhr.

Jason Woolley (B) - Woolley played a much better defensive game and also joined the rush, much like the Jason Woolley we saw in last year's playoffs. I thought most of Woolley's passes, both stationary and on the rush, were well on the mark but he still made the occasional careless pass. Halfway through the first period when the Sabres were on the power play, he threw a terrible pass to the middle of the ice in the Flames zone that made my heart skip a beat with how many shorthanded goals have been scored against the Sabres the last two games.

Vladimir Tsyplakov (B) - Tsyplakov was the least noticeable player on Gratton's line but did contribute on the first two goals of the night. He, like his linemates was tenacious on the forecheck and was fluent with his passes. He did stickhandle well in Calgary's end that allowed him to be versatile with the puck when he gained the loose pucks on the forecheck.

Richard Smehlik (B-) - Smehlik's defensive play improved. He played a complete game, from being more solidified positionally, joining the rush giving the Sabres an extra attacker and option for scoring chances or even making some hits against the boards instead of his usual pokechecks. Unfortunately, Smehlik always seems to make the "big mistake" that always outweigh all the little things he does right and hence isn't a fan favorite among most Sabres fans. Tonight's example of this was on the Flames' only goal where Smehlik was tying up the wrong player in front of Hasek while Shantz was left unchecked in front of the Sabres net where he scored Calgary's only goal of the night. And I was all set to put Smehlik in the "A" range after tonight's strong performance defensively.

Miroslav Satan (B-) - You can't blame him for not trying. Much like Geoff Sanderson and Stu Barnes last year, Miro's doing everything he can but put the puck in the net. But you can tell that he's in a severe scoring slump by seeing him miss chances that are "sure goals" when he's on one of his tears. With the Sabres already up 3-0 late in the second period, Satan had the perfect chance to extend the Sabres lead to 4-0 on the clear-cut breakaway on Grant Fuhr. He deeked to the backhand like he's famous for doing and had a good part of the net to shoot at with Fuhr down, but he totally missed the net wide. Then on the Sabres third period power play, Satan was given a pass right in front of Grant Fuhr that when he is on top of his scoring game would've one-timed past Fuhr, but in his scoring drought mis-handled the puck that kept Satan's 11-game scoreless slump extended. In his early shifts, he looked very determined and involved with and without the puck. He may not be scoring but he sure is contributing offensively which was shown by Miro collecting yet another assist in the second period by sending Curtis Brown a nifty centering pass coming off the left wing on a 2-on-1 break.

Maxim Afinogenov (C+) - Afinogenov started off the game rough. Most of his passes early on were well off the mark. He did improve as the game went on though. No spectacular, Afinogenov-like rushes but he did move with the puck with confidence in traffic which was shown by his goal in the third period where he took the puck from the corner in Calgary's end and made two deeks around two former Sabres Phil Housley and Darryl Shannon to the front of the net where he slid the puck by Fuhr for Buffalo's fourth goal of the night. You can tell that his shot is improving day by day. He wound-up and took a towering shot from the top of the left circle in the second period that was going top-shelf if not for the spectacular quick glove save Fuhr made on Maxim's shot.

Geoff Sanderson (C+) - Sanderson's biggest contribution of the night came on his open-ice hit on Bobby Dollas that was awarded the "Carubba Collision" of the night. I prefer having him playing the point on the power play than Satan. He makes quick and accurate passes to the other pointman Jason Woolley around the perimeter in search for the open shot and when he does get a clear look at the net, he doesn't hesitate one second to blast a shot. Now all he has to work on is getting his shot on net. Like Satan, I feel sorry for a guy like Sanderson who usually puts forth his best efforts everytime he steps out onto the ice but can't seem to score goals. Late in the second period he had a golden opportunity to cash in with an open net to shoot at and the puck bouncing in his direction, but Sandman couldn't handle the puck. He's also playing more of a two-way game in both ends of the rink. Notice how he used his speed not only in transition starting back up the ice in potential rushes but also to get back into the play.

Erik Rasmussen (C+) - Rasmussen wasn't a huge impact in the Sabres victory but played a decent game, making a few hits and rushes up the ice. He played his diligent game to assist the forechecking cause and passed the puck adeptly in the neutral zone. In the second period, he made a heads-up play by taking advantage of Valeri Bure's bad pass in the neutral zone and blasting a shot that Fuhr had to make a nice glove save on. Rasmussen played his best shift late in the second period where he was skating, passing and forechecking well the entire shift in the Calgary zone.

James Patrick (C) - Patrick played a better defensive game than he played against San Jose and Vancouver. I think Ruff switching up the defensive pairings helped Patrick as he was not on the same page as his former defensive pairing partner Jason Woolley. He only gets a "C" because he wasn't noticed that much in Calgary which means he did nothing spectacular but didn't make the kind of mistakes he made against the Sharks or Canucks either.

Stu Barnes (C) - Barnes wasn't the most productive Sabre forward on the ice tonight but once again did excel in transition and had a few rushes and read the play well. His above-average instincts led to a good rush up ice when he stole the puck and center ice and skated hard up the ice halfway through the first period. He still worries me with his clearing attempts in his own end. Like in previous games, Barnes had trouble clearing the puck out of the zone on the penalty kill especially on the Flames power play towards the end of the first period.

Rob Ray (C) - Ray didn't log much ice time throughout the bulk of the game, only receiving regular shifts when the Sabres had the game in the bag but when he did get his rare shift or two, he did play inspired hockey. Late in the third period, Ray made a spirited check against the glass in our end and on his next shift he actually got the puck into scoring position. Unfortunately, his shot was so far off the mark that even Sabretooth was taking more accurate shots in the Sabres carnival than Ray had on his sole scoring chance of the night. And while I'm on the topic of Rob Ray, did anyone notice how Jim Lorenz said during Ray's SECOND shift of the third period that Ray was playing in his first shift since early in the first period when he just was on the ice a few shifts ago?

Rhett Warrener (C-) - Will the real Rhett Warrener please step up? I don't know if his injury's still bothering him or not but he is not playing the physical brand of hockey that he's known to play. Not only is he not being the physical force that he used to be but he's also looking out of place the last few games. Halfway through the game, Krivokrasov raced in on Hasek on a semi-breakaway as Warrener was struggling to keep up to the newly-acquired Flames forward. Jason Wiemer had a chance right in front of Hasek late in the third period while Rhett was just standing around strides behind Wiemer. This is not the Rhett Warrener we're used to seeing and whether it's his injury that's still bothering him after his return or just a lack of effort on Warrener's part, I am distressed by his play the last few games.

When running through the out-of-town scoreboard and seeing that the NY Rangers, Montreal and Boston won their games tonight, it only made tonight's game in Calgary that much more of a "must win" game for the Sabres. They did their job tonight, but will they be up to task for Monday night's game against the Habs. The last time the two teams met, the Sabres put forth a tremendous effort but despite their efforts they lost a crucial game to Montreal 3-2 just over a week ago. If they lose tomorrow night's game, that loss to the Habs that would allow them to go four points up on the Sabres with a game in hand will be looked at as a key point in time where the Sabres lost their playoff hopes.

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