Monday, December 14, 2009

Why Are Buffalo Where We Want To Be?

Take a look at the standings. Your Habs are in eighth position.

Montreal fans don't seem to do well with the prospect of an actual marathon race. They don't mind 82 games, but prefer to sprint out in front and coast home, if at all possible. All this jostling is fraying for the nerves.

So take another look at the standings. There are teams who've sprinted ahead for one reason or another, there are teams that provide their fans with a level of comfort about what will happen in the standings this season, about what will happen any given night.

One of those teams happens to be leading our division – the Buffalo Sabres.

This can't be right, can it? The Sabres? They haven't fired a GM in a decade. Heck, they haven't even fired a coach in a decade. They never get a high draft pick, they never sign big free agents and they often lose their own stars for what usually amounts to nothing.

The Sabres are ahead of us? The Sabres are where we want to be?

One has to ask: Why?

Last summer, the Sabres went the opposite route to the Habs. While Gainey was busy replacing the players that left Montreal with free agents, the Sabres have done what they have done since time immermorial and called the Rochester Americans. Two 41-win teams taking very different routes to start a season. Is this why?

It certainly is tempting to point to this reasoning as the creator of said gap in the standings. Consistency over shuffle, development over hostile acquisition. There are a few who would reach at this to back up their instinct that Gainey lost his mind in the summer. I think that would be wrong. For every Gomez, there has been a Cammalleri in Montreal. The Sabres don't yet have a 10-goal man, you can't tell me they wouldn't have wanted one in place of say Mike Grier? We are in position to know that Spacek can be a good D to have around, even more so when you consider he fit right in Buffalo.

No, it's not the summer strategy...

Perhaps then it is the Sabres balanced approach to team offense and defence that sets them apart from the Canadiens.

Another low-hanging fruit, and certainly one the media spins out to no end. You know what though? Buffalo as a team has been allowing more than 30 shots a game this year just like Montreal. Their 30.5 shots against vs. our 31.6 for every 60 minutes is probably not the cause of the 7-point spread with games in hand.

Nor is offense their secret. They've scored more goals per game than the Habs, but fewer overall thus far. We have a better PP than them as well.

Look again at the standings. One thing might stand out more now: goals against. That check for the supposition above showed that it wasn't Rivet and his amazing compatriots guarding the Buffalo net in unison, yet the Sabres have allowed 30 fewer goals in 30 fewer games.

Ryan Miller...

Now I'm done with my silly introduction, I bring you to the answer all hockey fans knew as soon as they read the title. Ryan Miller is the answer.

To this point in the season, Ryan Miller is leading the league with a 1.83 GAA and an unworldly 0.939 save %. He has 18 wins in his 26 starts, to go along with 4 shutouts. 2 games ago he shutout the mighty Capitals who directed 35 shots his way.

The Canadiens for their part have Carey Price, who is indeed hot again. I thought it would be interesting to show you the difference between a goalie playing very well (Carey) and a goalie playing absolutely out of his head (Ryan). For fairness, I have only taken games from November 1st on, since before that time Carey was a bit of a basketcase – thereby making a comparison of their better play.

Carey PriceRyan MillerMiller differential
Games played16160 GP
Record7-6-310-5-13W, 4 Pts
GA4029-11 GA
GAA2.461.82-0.64 GA/G
SA517486-31 SA
S%0.9220.9400.018 (=9 GA)
S0033 SO
GF by team41410 GF
1-goal wins330 W
≥30 SA0.5000.667+0.167
Best S%0.9771.000+0.023
Worst S%0.8330.783-0.050

Impressed yet?

So as you settle in to watch Buffalo tonight be kind to Montreal skaters. They are facing a Buffalo opponent not seen since the late 1990s with a save percentage like that. Perhaps it is a bubble waiting to be burst, perhaps not.

Let's also hope Carey gets plenty of time to sit back and watch while his teammates test Miller adequately. He could use the rest and might learn some important lessons from a guy who has been showing that clicking on all cylinders for an extended period is possible.

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