The Sabres open their season against the Anaheim Ducks today at the Hartwell Areena in Helsinki, Finland. Expectations are certainly high for the Sabres to hit the ground running. They will certainly want to continue building on the momentum started last season after new owner Terry Pegula took over.
Offense: The Sabres start the season rough, as the Ducks are a highly physical team. The top six will want to avoid the physicality and use their speed to out-skate the Ducks’ big power-forwards. It’s also very important that the Sabres take shots early in order to test Jonas Hiller, who hasn’t seen much regular-season action since late February of last season. The Ducks, who used to be known for good defensive play, will have their hands full with the top-six of the Sabres, and not to mention their new weapon on the back-end, Christian Ehrhoff.
As I said before, the Ducks bring in physical power-forwards in the likes of Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, not to mention rounding out that top-line with skilled winger Bobby Ryan. They will look to control the front of the net and make life a living hell for Ryan Miller. The Ducks’ second line doesn’t bring any breathers, either. Teemu Selanne is coming off a more than a point-per-game season at the seemingly young age of 40. Now 41, Selanne’s coming into what will likely be his last season with the Ducks as he tries to win one last championship with the team before going out, and the guy can still bring it. What he lacks in speed at such an old age, he makes up for it in his still powerful shot and his ability to score.
The Sabres’ Defense: The Sabres have some new toys to play with on defense. Robyn Regher will want to re-familiarize himself with a team that has seen him four times a year for the past eleven seasons by getting in Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry’s faces all day in front of the net. The Sabres also bring out Christian Ehrhoff, who has already impressed with his big point shot. He’ll be a major part of the powerplay, as well. It’s important for Buffalo to keep Perry and Getzlaf out of the crease, which doesn’t seem to daunting considering Regehr and Ehrhoff’s physical play-style. Where I might have viewed as a weakness last season, the Sabres physicality on defense runs deep, as they’ll have a physical guy on each pairing, with Regehr, Ehrhoff, and Mike Weber being on separte pairings, not to mention Tyler Myers, who will be paired up with Ehrhoff as part of the team’s top pairing. All-in-all, it will be up to these guys to keep the Ducks’ big guns out of the crease of Ryan Miller, who is looking to have a career year in front of this new and seemingly improved defense.
The Ducks used to have a strong defense, but that has broken down in recent years. Lubomir Visnovsky had a Norris Trophy caliber season last year, and he returns as the Ducks’ best defenseman. Francois Beauchimin returned to the Ducks last year in a trade from Toronto, where he was a disappointment. Beauchimin and Visnovsky form a powerful top defensive pairing for the Ducks, and bringing in the rear, Cam Fowler, coming off a strong rookie year, and Luca Sbisa look to create more of an identity for themselves in the coming season. Look for Fowler to put points up from the point.
Sabres’ Special Teams: Last season, Buffalo ranked 9th in power play percentage (19.4%) and 13th in penalty killing (83.0%), and with the additions they’ve made, that can only improve. Christian Ehrhoff brings a type of player to the power play that the Sabres haven’t had since Brian Campbell was with the team: a power-play quarterback. Ville Leino brings a playmaker mentality that will go great with the big shots of Drew Stafford, Thomas Vanek, and Jason Pominville. At the other end, Robyn Regehr and Tyler Myers will more than likely be expected to be shut-down on every penalty kill, along with the usuals of Jason Pominville, Derek Roy, Patrick Kaleta, and Paul Gaustad.
The Ducks ranked 3rd last year in the power-play (23.5%), but their penalty killing left more to be desired, ranking 19th (81.3%). Their power play won’t skip a beat, so the Sabres will have their hands full, there. Meanwhile, the Sabres should be able to produce on the power play, as the Ducks didn’t do much to fix the penalty-killing unit in the offseason.
Injuries: Ducks forward Matt Smaby (thumb) and defenseman Toni Lydman (shoulder) are both out. Sabres forward Jochen Hecht (concussion) may be able to play, but it’s probably a game-time decision