Since I've already delved into the Tim Connolly chapter of the Sabres' history, I decided that today, in lieu of his return to the ice, I would discuss what I believe the Sabres need to do in order to be successful in the second-half of the season. This is, in my opinion, what The System needs to mean to the guys in the blue and gold.
Leadership. Cliche, yes, but it's the honest-to-goodness truth. The first step to team chemistry (which we all know the Sabres have; most of them came up through the ranks together, and you know they consider each other to be the best of friends) is a well-defined leader. It obviously hasn't worked thus far this season too much, with the absence of Captain Craig Rivet. The guys have not been holding each other accountable enough, and that's the main reason I wish that we had never lost tonight's foe, Chris Drury. But, with Rivet back in the lineup (hopefully, for good, now), this snafu should be cleared up. (Although, it was nice to see Gaustad call out the entire team the other night after the debacle against Washington. As I said, he had my vote for captain.)
Balanced scoring. The Sabres need to roll three lines in order to have this. That means everyone, and not just Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Drew Stafford, Jason Pominville, and Clarke MacArthur, need to step it up and bury the biscuit a little more often. Hopefully, again, with the return of Connolly, a little spice might be thrown into our game, and mix it up a little. True, seven Sabres have over 20 points, but only four have more than 10 goals. You might say I'm asking too much, but when we've got guys like Paille, Hecht, Connolly, and Kotalik have eight goals or less, something's got to give.
Discipline. Plan and simple, the Sabres have taken too many stupid penalties. How many times have we been whistled for too many men on the ice? Take that number, and add ten. That's that many too many. And some people might say the refs are out to get us, or they're still bitter over the Miller situation, but that's water under the bridge. Even if the officials are calling a biased game, no matter our opponent, the Sabres need to overcome that. It's what good teams do, and if the Sabres can't do it, well then we've got a very big problem.
Strong penalty killing. Yes, we're sitting at third overall currently, with an 86.7% average, but that needs to be maintained. And bettered at home.
Killer instinct on the power play. The Sabres have only converted on 20.6% of their man-advantages. That's only 11th in the league. Enough said. Basically, and it's easy for me to say, because I've never played hockey; but hey, I've only watched it since I was, oh, about three years old. Get the puck to the net, and have a guy down low. That's where Vanek had a ton of success last season, and Gaustad is effective there as well. Like I said, easier said than done, but it's an effective method. Again, Connolly's return will help with puck movement and pulling the opposition out of position. His presence will definitely have an impact.
Health. Thus far, we've lost 107 man games to injury. There have been 15 different instances of injury, many of which occurred to the same players. This doesn't even include games lost to illness (Paille, Toni Lydman, etc.). We've struggled mainly due to inconsistency of lineups. Hopefully, with Connolly and Rivet off the shelf (for the time being, at least), it will begin to improve. Now if only we could get Patrick Kaleta back into the lineup. It will be interesting to see what does happen with the roster when, or if, we reach full health, because there will be way too many guys in the locker room.
Effort and heart. I cannot tell you have many times I've left the arena in years past saying, "Well, it's too bad they lost. At least they played hard," or "at least it was a good game." I haven't been able to say that much at all this season. Honestly, I don't mind watching them play, even shelling out in the neighborhood of $100, if the Sabres play hard and battle, and then lose. It's part of the risk you take buying tickets, or even sitting down in the evening to watch a game, rather than write a term paper. What I hate most is when I do that, and the Sabres barely show up, and I wonder if my residents at the nursing home could play a better game of hockey. All I ask is for consistent effort, 100%, 60 minutes, night-in, night-out. It's what they're getting paid for, after all.
This barely scratches the surface of the issues with this team, but if they could get the ball rolling on those, this team could be great. They've all got the potential and the talent, but that only goes so far. That needs to be put into action to translate into wins. They're not going to post themselves automatically. I only hope that the Sabres can keep on the path that 2009 has them on, because if they continue to play that way, they'll be one of the teams to beat, come the stretch.