I, for one, am very excited about the upcoming matchup between the Buffalo Sabres and the visiting Montreal Canadiens. If the Habs can pick up where they left off on Wednesday, i believe that we, as fans, will be privy to quite the spectacle. As long as the players can dwell on all of the positives that emerged over the course of their last game, a heartbreaking shootout loss to the Bruins, there is reason to be optimistic about two things:
- the entertainment value to the spectators
- the possibility that the fabled Habs will emerge victorious and start anew on a winning streak
With all due respect to Sabres Fans, Montreal must be ready to pounce on the weak. Buffalo is coming off a 7-2 trouncing at the hands of the Flyers on Thursday night. The 14th ranked team will not only be demoralized, they will also be tired playing their second game in as many nights. The edge here, on paper, must belong to Le Bleu-Blanc-Rouge.
Don’t get me wrong. I really like the Sabres and i respect them immensely from the top-down. The ownership group opened the coffers and spent vast sums of money to put together a talented team. Lindy Ruff is an excellent coach who can relate to his players while extracting from them what the team needs. And of course, there are the guys on the ice. What is not to like about a club that includes goalie Ryan Miller, Tomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Drew Stafford, Ville Leino, Jochen Hecht, and Paul Gaustad?
Why the skilled Sabres roster has not come together to form a successful team remains a mystery to me. I reckon that i can say the exact same thing about my Habs. In many ways these teams are similar and perhaps that is why the teams are near the bottom of the Eastern Conference with only 2 points separating them (with the Sabres holding one game in hand). I suspect that in each of the respective cities, there were far greater expectations around these clubs relative to what was eventually delivered. Is there still time to turn this thing around for either or both teams? That, is a most difficult question to answer. The encouraging thing, however, is that a decision around this issue will have to be made at the management level soon. Neither team will remain in limbo past the trading deadline which is a mere 11 days away. Decisions will be made and regardless of which way they go, there will be supporters and dissenters. I am a mere blogger yet i feel tremendous anxiety as T-Day approaches and this must pale in comparison to what several of the GMs around the league must be going through. I have to date not decided what my preferences are as far as the fate of the Habs goes. I thought, just after the All-Star Break that i had made up my mind but the reality is that i remain oblivious as to what is best for the team that i have supported for nearly 40 years. Sometimes a lifetime of experience is of no help whatsoever…
So, what to expect about the Friday Night Clash of the Near Cellar Dwellers? The teams have squared off 3 times this season and Buffalo has emerged victorious in each of the contests. The Sabres, however, are riding a three game losing streak. As mentioned earlier, but it merits repeating, the team lost 7-2 to Philly on Thursday and was edged 2-1 by Tampa Bay and 4-2 by the Devils previous to that. Montreal, not faring much better than the counterparts, has lost its last two games. Apart from the aforementioned shootout loss to Boston on Wednesday, Nos Glorieux fell to the lowly Canes by a score of 5-3. The losing streak came on the heels of a rare shootout victory by Montreal over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It seems so weird to put this down on paper, so unlikely, but the Habs have actually scored 16 more times than the Sabres and have allowed 11 fewer goals. The Sabres’ performance has resulted in a minus-30 goal differential. That must be pretty tough for owner Terry Pegula to stomach and just as difficult for the fans to do as well. The Habs, while unable to manage a positive differential, have been a bit more balanced and are sitting at minus-3 overall as far as that stat goes.
In an effort to spice up this column a bit, i am inclined to explore something unrelated to players and stats for a change. Both teams are arguably underachieving big-time and i wanted to assess the impact of this on attendance at the games that they participate in. Despite their 11-12-8 record at home in the Bell Centre, Le Tricolore has sold out each and every game this season (21 273 seats per game). In fact, every single home game since the end of the lockout has been declared a sellout. So, Montreal ranking 13th place in the East, boasts the 2nd largest average home game attendance in the league. Only the Chicago Blackhawks draw more people per game (21 486).
14-th seeded Buffalo has also managed, despite its losing ways, to retain a loyal following. The average attendance at First Niagara Center games is 18 498 which represents 99% of the auditorium’s capacity. The team ranks 12th overall in the league as far as drawing fans to home games is concerned. I recognize and admire immensely that the citizens of Buffalo cannot be described as a fickle bunch. Respect. Imagine playing in Phoenix where a mere 69% of tickets are sold on the average for Coyote games. To add insult to injury, it is entirely clear that not every ticket holder in the desert attends each game. Catastrophe!
I also found it rather interesting that the Sabres draw slightly more fans at road games than do the Canadiens. 96.5% of tickets are sold in the opposition’s arena when Buffalo is visiting (5th ranked) compared to the corresponding 95.9% (6th ranked) gobbled up when Montreal is playing away from home. The New York Rangers rank # 1 in terms of drawing fans to their “away” games.
My prediction as far as the Friday night game goes has nothing to do with skill levels on each team. I firmly believe that, regardless of relative ability, the team that can pump itself up more than the opposition does will walk away with the two points. I understand that it is difficult for teams, discouraged by the hole that they have dug themselves into, to find motivation at this stage of the year. I suppose, then, that it will surely come down to which team truly believes in itself the most.
Go Habs Go!
Note: This entry is only one man’s version of a pre-game assessment and is admittedly written from the perspective of a passionate, biased Montreal Canadiens’ fan. I encourage you to get another perspective and to be well-rounded prior to puck drop by checking out what our friends in Buffalo are saying on SabreNoise.com.