Seven months, a franchise-record and an NHL-leading 53 wins later, it's time for them to prove they're capable of contending for the Stanley Cup.
"It's all we've talked about all year. And it seems like it took so long to get here," Briere, the Sabres co-captain, said after a brief team meeting Monday. "Now it's time to start the real season. I can't wait."
It starts Thursday for the Sabres (53-22-7), who enter the playoffs as the league's top seed, and open at home against the New York Islanders (40-30-12) - an opponent that sneaked into the playoffs with a 3-2 shootout win over New Jersey on Sunday.
The Sabres were mindful to pay full respect to the Islanders, even though Buffalo finished with 13 more wins, scored 60 more goals and won three of four meetings against New York this season.
"By no means do we think it's going to be an easy series," Briere said. "This time of year, you can't take anything for granted."
Coach Lindy Ruff agreed.
"There's always surprises and it's my job to sit around and worry," he said. "And that's started already."
That doesn't mean the Sabres lack confidence or drive, knowing they have a hockey-mad city urging them on.
"Anything short of a Stanley Cup is going to be a letdown," goaltender Ryan Miller said. "That's pretty obvious to us and everyone."
The expectations are high because the Sabres enter the playoffs fully healthy after Tim Connolly and Maxim Afinogenov returned this past week. Connolly played the final two games after missing the entire season with post-concussion symptoms and a knee injury. Afinogenov was back after missing 21 games with a broken wrist.
Add to that, the Sabres return with mostly the same core that helped the team reach the Eastern Conference final last year before losing Game 7 to Carolina, the eventual champion.
And unlike last year, when Buffalo was initially discounted as a no-name bunch of overachievers, the Sabres this year have surprised no one. Buffalo has played off to pre-season projections, when numerous publications pegged the team a bona fide Cup contender.
"Well, obviously, last year helped us a lot. It gave us a taste of what it was all about," forward Jason Pominville said. "It kind of made us hungry and want it more. And hopefully, we can get to that next step."
The Sabres' strength is a balanced offensive attack that, with the addition of Connolly, gives them four solid lines. Buffalo led the league in goals scored (308), seven 20-goal-scorers, and became the fourth team since 1996-97 to have four 30-goal-scorers.
Briere led the team with 95 points (32 goals and 63 assists), while sophomore forward Thomas Vanek scored 43 goals - the most by a Buffalo player since 1992-93, when Alexander Mogilny scored 76 goals and Pat LaFontaine added 53.
They have depth with six veteran defencemen and a proven goalie in Miller, whose 40 wins set a franchise record and put him in a tie for third in the league.
The list of achievements mean only so much to Briere.
"I think we're better prepared than we were last year," Briere said. "But it won't matter when the puck drops. It's what you do when the puck drops and the game starts that's going to matter the most."
The usual suspects -- Bergeron, Kopitar, and Toews -- appear to be out of the discussion for the Selke Trophy. Here are five names that seem to have the best chance at stepping in.
When it comes to handing out hardware at the NHL Awards, the Selke hasn't been all that tough to figure out in recent seasons. For the last five years, the same three players have dominated the voting. Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews have accounted for all five wins, as well as eleven of the fifteen finalist spots.
But this year is shaping up like it could be different, with all three players slumping offensively. Maybe that shouldn't matter, since the Selke is supposed to be a defensive award. But over the years, it's morphed into a trophy that recognizes two-way play, which means you need to be scoring to get much consideration. If you pro-rate the lockout year, nobody has won the Selke with fewer than 55 points in the salary cap era. None of the Big Three are on pace to get there this year.
With half a season left to play, that could still change. And it's always possible that in the absence of a slam dunk candidate emerging somewhere else, voters could opt to play it safe and go back to one of the old familiars. But for the first time in years, the Selke really does seem up for grabs.
So who has a shot? Assuming that Bergeron, Toews or Kopitar don't take the trophy home this time, here are the five names that seem to have the best chance at stepping in.
Ryan Kesler, Ducks
The case for: The veteran is having his best season since 2011, and is on pace for about 65 points while playing tough minutes for a first-place Ducks team. His advanced stats won't blow anyone away, but they're good enough that the analytics guys shouldn't push back too hard, and everyone loves a good comeback narrative.
The case against: While it wouldn't be held against him by voters, Kesler doesn't really fit our "new blood" theme; he was the last player to win the award before the Bergeron/Toews/Kopitar trinity took over, and he finished third in the voting last year.
More importantly, there's at least an argument to be made that linemate Andrew Cogliano deserves the award, too. If that line of thinking catches on, the two could end up splitting votes and knocking each other out of the running.
Mikko Koivu, Wild
The case for: While it's meant as a single-season award, voters tend to like to treat the Selke as more of a career achievement; it's rare for somebody to win the award without having built up a resume over the years. That works in Koivu's favor, as he's been considered a strong defensive forward for a decade now, finishing as high as fourth in the Selke voting back in 2009. He hasn't come especially close since, but he's had votes every year.
New coach Bruce Boudreau has leaned heavily on Koivu in the defensive zone, and his ability to handle the duties has been a big part of Minnesota's unexpected success. With the Wild emerging as one of the one of the year's best surprises, voters will be paying attention.
The case against: Koivu's all-around numbers are good but not great, and he's benefitting from a sky-high on-ice save percentage and PDO that's unlikely to continue. With Devan Dubnyk looking like the Vezina favorite and Boudreau having a shot at the Jack Adams, voters might figure that their ballots are already getting crowded with Wild names.
The case for: Backlund seems to have emerged as a trendy dark horse pick in recent weeks. It's well-deserved: his numbers are excellent, and he's posting them in tough minutes for a young Flames team that asks a lot of him. His offensive numbers aren't jaw-dropping, but he's leading the team in scoring, and that should be enough to satisfy those "two-way" demands if he can keep it up.
The case against: While Backlund's been an underrated defensive player for a while now, he's never received a Selke vote. Again, you can argue that that shouldn't matter, but history has shown that it does. That could make it tough for him to get enough votes to win outright.
Aleksander Barkov, Panthers
The case for: At 21, Barkov would fit the new blood narrative perfectly. And he's already on voters' radars after finishing sixth in last year's balloting. He checks most of the boxes that voters tend to look for, posting solid offensive stats and strong possession numbers. And in a season where the biggest story has been the emergence of the next generation of star players, you could see the voters turning to one of the best young two-way forwards in the game.
The case against: Barkov is hurt right now and has already missed two weeks, so if he's not back soon he probably falls out of the running. He's also been playing a more offensive role this year under new coach Tom Rowe, which may be good for the Panthers, but probably not for his Selke chances. And given how things are turning out in Florida this year, voters may not be interested in having many Panther names on their ballot.
Nicklas Backstrom, Capitals
The case for: If building up enough support to win the award is a long-term process, this could be your guy. Backstrom generated plenty of Selke buzz last year, but finished just outside the top ten for the second straight year. It helps that he's putting up the sort of big offensive number that voters like to see. And after years of largely playing in Alex Ovechkin's shadow, he seems to be settling in as one of those guys that everyone in the hockey world decides has been underrated for too long. What better way to make it up to him than with some awards ballot love?
The case against: In terms of pure numbers, you could make a good case that Backstrom's defensive game was better last year than it is now. That won't necessarily hurt him with voters who feel like he's finally due, but it could keep him from getting the kind of widespread groundswell of support that would help push him past a strong candidate like Kesler.
Honorable mentions (and why they won't win):
- Brad Marchand (Bruins): He's getting some buzz, and has earned votes in the past. But has he really become a better option than Bergeron right now? And if not, how can you win the Selke when you're not the best defensive forward on your own team?
- Nazem Kadri (Maple Leafs): He's a relatively new candidate who'll face the same uphill climb as Backlund, with the added disadvantage that plenty of people don't seem to like him.
- Sidney Crosby (Penguins): He's been underrated in his own end for years, and you could see him getting some consolation ballots if voters decided to break for Connor McDavid for the Hart. But right now, the Crosby focus is still on the MVP race.
- Joe Thornton (Sharks): He gets votes every year and finally had his first top five finish last season, so the timing seems right. But his offensive numbers are down this year.
- Ryan O'Reilly (Sabres): He's been in the mix before. But the Sabres' disappointing season may doom him; there's never been a first-time Selke winner from a team that didn't make the playoffs.
- Jordan Staal (Hurricanes): He'd face the same hurdle as O'Reilly if the Hurricanes miss the playoffs, although these days that seem less and less likely. He may have the best case of anyone in this section.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008, most recently for ESPN and Grantland. He spends most of his time making jokes on twitter, where you may know him as @downgoesbrown. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.
The search is on for the next coach of the Islanders following the firing of Jack Capuano, and a familiar face could be in the mix after New York received permission to speak with Gerard Gallant.
Speaking to media Tuesday about the firing of coach Jack Capuano, Islanders GM Garth Snow said there was no clearcut timeline on when the organization would plan to bring in its next coach and replacement for current interim bench boss Doug Weight. That said, Snow reportedly isn’t wasting much time looking into his options.
That Snow is, or possibly was, considering Gallant for the position should come as no surprise. Gallant’s work behind the Panthers bench was fantastic, especially his work with the group during the 2015-16 season which saw Florida post the most wins in franchise history and finish atop the Atlantic Division.
It would be interesting to see what Gallant could do in New York, though, given how he turned around a Panthers team that had mustered only 29 wins two years prior. In his first season behind the bench, the Cats improved by 25 points and posted nine additional wins. That was followed by another nine-win improvement and another 12 points in the standings. The Panthers struggled early this season, which led to Gallant’s firing, but some saw Florida’s change in direction as a move made as much because of philosophy as it was the team’s on-ice performance.
Beyond Gallant’s recent track record of turning around struggling clubs, Gallant has a history with the Islanders organization spanning two seasons. In 2007, Gallant came aboard as an assistant with New York and he remained with the team until 2009, working under coaches Ted Nolan and Scott Gordon. Snow was in his first few years as the club’s GM during Gallant’s years as an assistant with the Islanders, and the two certainly have a relationship from that time with the club.
Turning around the Islanders won’t simply be about finding the right coach, though. New York’s off-season moves, which included letting Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen walk while dishing out big money for Andrew Ladd, haven’t paid off in the least and the inability to build around captain John Tavares has been apparent. The Islanders aren’t likely to simply hire the first former NHL bench boss they can find, either, and the process of hiring a coach is almost certain to take longer than a few days or weeks.
This is a crucial time for the Islanders, who looked ready to take a step forward but are instead sitting in the Eastern Conference basement. Whether Gallant lands the job or the New York chooses to go another direction, it’s not a decision the team will be making overnight.
Thomas Vanek is having a career resurgence in Detroit and as a free agent in July, he could be an attractive option for contenders looking for forward depth.
Left winger Thomas Vanek was a hot property in 2013-14. In a significant (and nowadays, rare) early-season trade, he was shipped on Oct. 29, 2013 by the Buffalo Sabres to the New York Islanders. At the March 5, 2014 trade deadline, Vanek was dealt by the Islanders to the Montreal Canadiens.
Vanek's stock has tumbled since then. Following two disappointing seasons with the Minnesota Wild, he was bought out of his contract last summer and inked a one-year, $2.6-million deal with the Detroit Red Wings.
With the Red Wings falling further out of playoff contention this season, Ted Kulfan of The Detroit Newsspeculates they could become sellers by the March 1 trade deadline. He believes Vanek could once again attract interest in the trade market.
Despite missing 11 games earlier this season with hip and groin injuries, the 32-year-old is putting up good offensive numbers. With 12 goals and 30 points in 33 games, he's on pace for 25 goals and 65 points. The last time he saw those numbers was during his well-travelled 2013-14 campaign.
Vanek does have a reputation for inconsistency, especially in the post-season. But with his solid play thus far, his affordable contract and eligibility for unrestricted free agency in July, he could be an affordable rental player for teams seeking scoring depth at the deadline.
If the Wings decide to put Vanek on the trade block, perhaps the Ottawa Senators will express some interest. The Ottawa Sun's Bruce Garrioch reported last Thursday that Senators GM Pierre Dorion continues his search for forward depth. He's seeking someone who can have an immediate impact under coach Guy Boucher.
Dorion's finding the pickings slim so far in the trade market. Garrioch claims only the Arizona Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche can be considered sellers right now.
While Dorion said he's not fussy over the type of forward he gets, a scoring left winger likely tops his list. The Sens are among the bottom third in goals-for per game (2.49). That lack of production is jeopardizing their chances of securing a playoff berth.
TSN's Frank Seravalli believes the Senators lack sufficient assets to land a top-line left winger. He speculates once-promising forwards Curtis Lazar and Nick Paul could be trade bait. With this year's draft considered a shallow one for talent, Seravalli wonders if Dorion might consider shopping his first-round pick.
Oft-concussed left winger Clarke MacArthur is expected to return to the Senators' lineup by the end of January. He could provide them with an offensive boost, though concerns over his health will linger over the rest of the season.
COULD JETS SHOP A GOALIE?
The Winnipeg Jets are once again struggling to remain in playoff contention in the Western Conference. Goaltending continues to be their Achilles heel. The tandem of Connor Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson have allowed 3.06 goals-against per game, ranking among the league's worst.
Sportsnet's Nick Kypreos observes the Jets current goalie setup isn't working. On Tuesday, they recalled former starter Ondrej Pavelec from their AHL affiliate. Kypreos speculates they could move Hutchinson. He said the San Jose Sharks had some interest in the 26-year-old earlier this season.
The Sharks, however, seem to be making do thus far with Aaron Dell as their backup. He's won four of his six starts, with a 1.96 goals-against average and .929 save percentage. Hutchinson may have more experience than Dell, but his performance this season (4-10-3 record, 3.23 GAA, .894 SP) won't tempt the Sharks.
Rumor Roundup appears regularly only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).
Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon is on pace to set career-highs in goals and points, and his outstanding goal Tuesday night will be the offensive highlight of his season.
Jared Spurgeon might not be a household name outside of Minnesota, but come Wednesday morning, hockey fans everywhere are going to be talking about the diminutive defenseman’s awesome hand-eye coordination.
A number of players have scored some batted beauties this campaign — Sidney Crosby’s behind-the-net, off-the-back tally stands out — but none have done it quite in the fashion of Spurgeon, who didn’t simply swing at an airborne puck. Rather, Spurgeon purposely tossed the puck out to his stick in order to take a swing for the open net.
Spurgeon’s moment of brilliance came late in the first period of the Wild’s Tuesday meeting with the New Jersey Devils with Minnesota operating on the power play. As the puck was worked along the right wing wall to Mikko Koivu, Spurgeon saw a chance to slide down the left wing and potentially set himself up for a tap-in should the puck come backdoor. In a sense, that’s exactly what happened, but in rather astounding fashion.
As Koivu’s shot came in from the wing, it was tipped by Nino Niederreiter on goal and turned aside by Devils goaltender Corey Schneider. However, in making the stop, Schneider pushed the puck right in Spurgeon’s direction. Using some quick thinking, Spurgeon batted the puck with his glove down to his stick, got his left mitt back on his stick and swatted the puck past Schneider:
That’s one of the more impressive feats of hand-eye this season, and that it comes from a blueliner who’s known less for his puck handling ability and more for leaning into blasts from the back end makes it that much better.
As far as point-getting rearguards go, Spurgeon is one of the more underrated in the league and he seemingly continues to improve with each passing season. He became an NHL regular in 2010-11 and has worked his way from seventh defenseman to top-minute guy across the past several seasons. His point total has followed, too, especially over the past four years.
In 2013-14, Spurgeon set a new career mark with five goals and 26 points, followed that up by posting nine goals and 25 points, flirted with the 30-point plateau with a solid 11-goal, 29-point year and is on pace to again set a new career best, as he already has six goals and 21 points in 39 games. None of this is to mention he’s skating nearly 24 minutes per night on a Wild team that sits atop the Western Conference.