Sometimes the focus is so white-hot on one half of an equation it’s easy to forget there’s another side to the coin.
While Vancouver Canucks fans were hand-wringing — and worse — on Saturday night, Buffalo Sabres supporters were high-fiving after their squad completed a clean sweep of Western Canada by downing the Canucks 5-1.
Three wins in three stops, leading to one early-season question frequently scorned Western New Yorkers are likely scared to ask themselves: Is this Sabres team for real?
Obviously there’s not a ton to sink your teeth into through five games and if you want to be that way, you can point out Buffalo’s advanced numbers are nothing to write home about.
But don’t think about the whole just yet and, instead, consider how good many of the pieces have been. Rasmus Dahlin had already set a new NHL mark for defencemen by scoring a goal in his first four games this year, but oh no, that wasn’t good enough for the 2018 first-overall pick. The Sabres blue-liner netted the game-opener versus Vancouver to make it five straight out of the gate with a tally. His career-best 53-point season from last year has been put on notice.
Alex Tuch was the next guy to hit paydirt and he now has six goals this season and 18 in 55 games since coming over from Vegas in the Jack Eichel trade that happened nearly one year ago. Last year was Tage Thompson’s breakout; this year, Casey Mittelstadt is likely playing the best hockey of his career. Owen Power — the other first-overall D-man on this squad — is seeing over 22 minutes a night so far. And save for defence-first behemoth Mattias Samuelsson, every single Sabres who’s played four games this season has at least a point on the board.
Then there’s the battery of Eric Comrie and Craig Anderson, with their combined .943 save percentage. Unsustainable? Of course. But Comrie was a really solid goalie last year in Winnipeg and what has the 41-year-old Anderson done throughout his career but battle?
Buffalo, of course, went 16-9-3 through the final two months of last season, so there was some momentum heading into camp. There was also no black cloud hanging over things, as was the case when the Eichel drama dragged on.
If any other fan base is capable of some empathy for the Canucks and their current state, it might well be those Buffalo supporters, who’ve definitely been there, done that, thrown the jersey.
Right now, though, the people in Sabres uniforms are performing well. And there’s more than a little reason to believe that’s just the new reality.
• Buffalo obviously has its share of experience with the NHL basement and, last season, it wasn’t alone in terms of fellow Atlantic and Eastern Conference teams being near the bottom of the pile. Right now, though, it’s fair to wonder if the bottom-feeders this season will have a pronounced Western Conference bent. Six of the nine worst teams in the league last year were from the East, but Detroit won on Sunday and is 3-0-2 on the season and when you factor in Montreal being .500 despite a weekend loss and Ottawa looking good on its current homestand, there’s not a lot of soft touches at the moment in the East. In fact, right now, the eight worst teams by goal-differential are located in the West. You don’t get to an Eastern club until you hit Columbus at minus-five. In all, only four of 16 teams in the Atlantic and Metropolitan Divisions have a negative goal-differential.
• One West team we all excepted to be near the bottom of the standings was the Chicago Blackhawks. And while the Connor Bedard hopefuls among the Chicago base are likely thinking, “just give us time!” kudos to the Hawks for their fight early on. Sunday’s 5-4 win over Seattle was the third straight contest in which Chicago overcame a multi-goal deficit to claim victory. It also marked Max Domi’s second straight game with a goal — giving him three on the year — as he enters the early conversation for best one-year value signing of the summer.
• Speaking of seizing an opportunity, how good does Danton Heinen look riding shotgun with Sidney Crosby? The former Bruin and Duck had a pair of tallies in Saturday’s 6-3 win over the Blue Jackets. Heinen now has six points in five games for the unbeaten-in-regulation Penguins as he looks to become the latest guy to take his career to a whole other level playing next to Crosby.
Does Joe Pavelski ever stop? The 38-year-old registered a hatty Saturday night in Montreal and has four goals on the season for a Dallas team that looks fantastic. It’s hard to believe this is already Year 4 in Texas for Pavelski and a little crazy to consider he’s got 139 points in his past 143 outings as a Star.
Red and White Power Rankings
1. Calgary Flames (4-1-0): There’s been so much talk about Calgary’s summer acquisitions — Nazem Kadri has at least one point in every game he’s ever played for the Flames — that it’s easy to forget the squad made a major addition late last year getting Tyler Toffoli from Montreal at the trade deadline. The right winger has looked great on the top line so far and his overtime winner versus Carolina on Saturday was his third tally of the season.
2. Toronto Maple Leafs (4-2-0): The Buds started a five-game roadie off the right way in Winnipeg, dropping the Jets 4-1 on Saturday. Vegas is next, followed by a tour through California.
3. Edmonton Oilers (2-3-0): The Oilers are 16th in goals-per-game and 17th in goals-against; that’s a formula for disappointment through five contests.
4. Ottawa Senators (3-2-0): Hello, Shane Pinto. The six-foot-two rookie centre has goals in four straight after lighting the lamp in Saturday’s trouncing of the Arizona Coyotes.
5. Winnipeg Jets (2-3-0): Connor Hellebuyck’s save percentage since an opening-night win is .888 in three outings.
6. Montreal Canadiens (3-3-0) It took all of six NHL games for Arber Xhekaj — who got his first big-league tally in a loss to Dallas Saturday — to become a folk hero in Montreal. How was this kid an unsigned free agent 12 months ago?
7. Vancouver Canucks (0-4-2): I truly can’t recall things getting this ugly this quickly for a franchise in recent times.
The Week Ahead
• It’s a big Monday night in the NHL. Golden Knights forward Phil Kessel is set to tie the all-time ironman streak — established just last year by Keith Yandle — and, wouldn’t you know it, he’ll do it against his old team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. That game will be preceded by Crosby and Connor McDavid going head-to-head as the Oilers try to break even on their season-opening six-game homestand when they host the Penguins.
• Josh Bailey is slated to play his 1,000th NHL game on Friday in Carolina and all 998 he’s skated in so far have been in an Islanders uniform. That franchise has an incredibly rich history, so it’s saying something that Bryan Trottier and Denis Potvin are the only guys to play more games for the Isles than Bailey.