So, let's recap. When last we saw our heroes, the season had just ended with most Sabres fans hating the team, hating the coach, hating the GM, hating the president, and the love affair with shiny new owner T-Pegs in serious jeopardy. For a very large part of the season, Ryan Miller played awfully poor hockey, as did the team in front of him. Lazy and sloppy were the watchwords of the season. The team showed very little passion.
Then, somewhere in late January or early February, when it was almost too late, something happened. I envision it being a lot like the scene in Christmas Vacation where Beverly D'Angelo goes into the garage, flips on a light switch hidden behind the freezer on a whim, and blinds the entire neighborhood with the brilliance of Chevy Chase's Christmas lighting display. The Sabres, in much the same way, fumbled around in the dark before flipping a switch that blinded the NHL with their brilliance. Suddenly, down was up, left was right, darkness was blinding light, and the Sabres put together a stretch that got them to within a couple points of the playoffs after being dead last in the Eastern Conference.
Although out of the playoffs, fans were left with some slight optimism that some changes would be made and the team would come back to pick up where they left off. Then a couple of key aquisitions were made, John Scott and Steve Ott being the biggest. And somewhere along the way, Darcy drafted well. And there was hope. And then came the lockout.
I'm not going to get into my thoughts on the lockout, or how it's absurd for players to think a business can stay viable when putting 57% of its revenue to labor. Suffice to say I was squarely with the owners this time. What I will say is the lockout left me bummed out about the lack of a season. It left me not really caring much about the players or what was happening, or if there would even be a season. At the very least we should have all been blogging once the lockout ended but, as recently as this morning, I was feeling very ambivalent towards the whole thing.
Then I watched the season opener.
I've been a fan of Buffalo sports teams long enough to know not to get my hopes up this early in a season. Things can, and often do, go horribly awry with our teams. But I have to say, I was very pleasantly surprised today. With only a few changes, this appears to be a completely different team from last year's train wreck. It's obvious that the Sabres finally got tired of being the laughingstock of the NHL. If the Sabres are looking to change their image, they went a long way towards doing so today. Which brings me to the topic of this post... swagger!
This team had swagger today! Not the swagger of the new kid at school who acts tough but is terrified on the inside that everyone will find out he watches Glee and drinks chai tea. They had the attitude of a team that has strength behind it, and that strength came from Steve Ott. I'll admit, I only knew a little about Ott when the Sabres traded for him, and most of it was from Googling his highlight reels. After today's performance, I'd say he's going to be a nice addition to the team. He made the entire team tougher just by his presence. Marcus Foligno, no prima donna himself, played like a beast in the presence of Ott. And Drew Stafford throwing down with Hartnell doesn't happen without Ott and Scott on the roster this year to watch his back.
I said last season that I don't care about losing games if the team is giving 100%. While sloppy at times, this team let it all hang out. And I loved every minute of it. A perfect example was Cody Hodgson's goal in the 3rd period. Vanek skates in, shoots, and Hodgson comes screaming in from the parking lot to jam home the rebound. Another example is that not once but twice, Sabres players hustled to beat out icing calls and keep plays going. There isn't a single player on the team who would have put that kind of effort in last season.
And while I'm on the topic of Vanek, five points in one game? Craziness! Congratulations to him on a huge day.
Again, I'm going to be cautiously optimistic because I'm tired of getting my hopes up only to see them dashed, but today was a great start. As I said in this post a year ago, almost to the day, the Sabres needed a heart transplant to turn things around. I'd say they got it with Steve Ott, along with a healthy dose of swagger.