I was pondering whether or not to write a new article this week and I have found that I have a lot on my mind regarding the Buffalo Sabres and their current playoff race. I will briefly touch on a bunch of topics and also give my opinion on the team's current status in the Eastern Conference standings.

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No suspension for Lapierre?

Sabres forward Patrick Kaleta has recovered from a minor concussion sustained in Saturday night's win against the Montreal Canadiens. Kaleta, who has already missed time with a head and neck injury earlier this season, was hit from behind by Canadiens' forward Maxim Lapierre.

Kaleta was cleared to practice Tuesday and is expected back in the lineup when the Sabres face off against the Atlanta Thrashers on Wednesday night.

The hit by Lapierre, in my opinion, was dirty, illegal and deserving of a suspension. Instead, Lapierre received a two-minute minor penalty and upon further review from the  league, the incident was dismissed.

Lapierre crunched Kaleta from behind, without letting up, right into the boards midway through the game. All Lapierre could see was Kaleta's numbers and yet he still went ahead and hit him. Kaleta's face and head dangerously crashed into the boards and could have caused a serious injury. Luckily, it did not.

If the league is going to try and eliminate dangerous hits from the game then why is this play going unpunished?

It is absolutely ridiculous that all Lapierre received was a two-minute minor penalty when he should have been suspended for at least a couple of games. The league dropped the ball big time on this one. Again, just my opinion.

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Max a healthy scratch against Montreal?

Saturday against Montreal, forward Adam Mair returned to the lineup. As a result, Maxim Afinogenov got the night off. For the first time in my life, I will actually stick up for Max.

No reason was given from coach Lindy Ruff on why he was benched. If he was a healthy scratch that is downright wrong. Max has been playing some of his smartest, and best hockey of the entire season. He has been a great addition to the second powerplay unit and has also been a nice compliment on the third line alongside Dominic Moore and Daniel Paille since returning from an injury. Max has three points in his last four starts.

This guy was finally playing somewhat like the way we all expect him to play and in return, he gets benched.

Yes, Mair scored a pivotal goal in the game but there are others far more suitable for benching than Max at this time. The first line has been horrid the last 12 games or so.

Thomas Vanek still hasn't "returned" from his jaw injury and is still wearing a protective shield. Vanek has just six points in 12 games since returning from the injury.

Derek Roy is also struggling to put the puck in the net with only two goals in 10 games, but Drew Stafford has been by far one of the most invisible Sabres during the month of March. Stafford has no goals and just two assists in his last nine games; Worthy of a benching? I'd say so.

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Teppo Numminen in, Andrej Sekera Out

Teppo Numminen will return to the Sabres blue line Wednesday night. Andrej Sekera will be a healthy scratch. Ruff said that Sekera has been struggling mightily of late and thinks that watching the game from the press box will help the the youngster regroup mentally.

Sekera admitted that he has completely lost confidence in his play and is struggling with his game. Sekera saw limited ice time against Montreal.

Numminen, 40, will start his first game since March 10.

Numminen has also been nominated for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, given annually to the NHL player who best exemplifies perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.

Everyone who knows hockey is probably well aware that Nummimen overcame heart surgery over a year ago, costing him all but two games last season.

I think Numminen has a legitimate shot at winning the award but he will have some pretty stiff competition with Florida Panthers forward Richard Zednik.

***

 

The playoff race

If the Sabres were scoreboard watching Monday and Tuesday night, then they are likely very disappointed with what they saw.

Monday, the New Rangers shutout Atlantic Division rivals, New Jersey Devils, 3-0.

Tuesday the Canadiens defeated the Chicago Blackhawks, 4-1, and the Panthers defeated the Ottawa Senators, 5-2.

The Eastern Conference Standings, seeds 7-10, now look like this:

7. New York Rangers- 77 GP, 40-28-9, 89 points

8. Montreal Canadiens- 76 GP, 39-27-10, 88 points

9. Florida Panthers- 77 GP, 38-28-11, 87 points

10. Buffalo Sabres- 75 GP, 37-30-8, 82 points

The Sabres have one game in hand on Montreal and two games in hand on both the Rangers and Panthers. But no matter what the standings say now the Sabres likely will have to win all seven of their remaining regular season games to have a shot at the postseason.

Here are the remaining games for each team (Wednesday, April 1):

Buffalo:  @ Atlanta, @ Washington, vs. New Jersey, vs. Detroit, @ Toronto, @ Carolina, vs. Boston

Montreal: @ Islanders, @ Toronto, vs. Ottawa, @ Rangers, @ Bruins, vs. Penguins

Florida: vs. Atlanta, vs. Pittsburgh, @ Philadelphia, @ Atlanta, vs. Washington

NY Rangers: @ Carolina, @ Boston, vs. Montreal, vs. Philadelphia, @ Philadelphia

In my opinion, Montreal has the weakest schedule left, in terms of their opponents. They will get to play three games in a row against bottom feeding teams.

The Rangers have a very tough schedule with only five games remaining and could very well lose all five games. The Sabres play only two teams that are not in playoff contention. Washington, New Jersey, Detroit and Boston all look like very tough match ups for the Sabres.

At this point, I would love to see the Sabres win out and have a chance to make the playoffs but it just may be a little too late. Ryan Miller has been a great boost for the team but the Sabres will need to play almost perfect hockey in their remaining games to even have a chance.

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Let me know what you think on all the topics and feel free to comment!

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It's that time of the year in the NHL, when bubble teams—and teams on the edge—begin making their final playoff push.

Saturday's Hockey Night In Canada match up had major playoff implications for both teams as the struggling Montreal Canadiens tried to hang on to eighth place in the East and the Buffalo Sabres tried to claw back into the playoff race.

Coming into the night, the Sabres were on the outside looking in.

With eight games left in the season, they were five-points behind the eighth place Habs and three behind the ninth place Panthers…needless to say, this was pretty much a must-win game for Buffalo.

The Habs had the benefit of playing at the raucous Bell Centre, but had been on a pretty rough slide themselves.

Since, the firing of Head Coach Guy Carbonneau, Montreal has been a mediocre 3-3-3, while barely hanging on to the 8th and final spot.

With less than five minutes left in the first period, Adam Mair struck first for Buffalo, scoring his eighth goal of the season from Hecht and Lydman.

Buffalo scored once again early in the second off an unassisted goal by Tim Connolly who notched his 17th.

The Habs made a fierce comeback, scoring three goals in a span of eight minutes; two courtesy of Alexei Kovalev who has picked it up right when he needed to.

Buffalo managed to score four minute into the third period, but that would do it for regulation.

Too bad for Buffalo, they let Montreal get a point. By this point in the game, Florida had already beaten Dallas 6-3, so the extra point became that much more important to both teams.

Overtime was pretty uneventful, but the shootout is where the stars came to shine.

Ryan Miller had already made 32 saves, while Carey Price had made 34.

In any other game, their performances would've been enough for the easy “W,” but not tonight.

Five rounds into the shootout, both goalies were perfect...until Toni Lydman stepped out onto the face-off dot.

On a risky move by Coach Lindy Ruff, Lydman took to the ice for his first ever shootout attempt and did the move ever pay off.

Lydman put the puck through the five-hole as victory came within grasp of the Swordsmen.

All that was needed was for Ryan Miller to shut the door one more time and luckily he didn't need to, with Maxim Lapierre missing wide on his attempt.

The win allows Buffalo to gain ground by one-point on the Habs and stayed on par with the Panthers.

With seven games to go, Buffalo needs to buckle down and play some shut-down defense while getting some offense from superstar Tomas Vanek.

As for Montreal, it looks like Carey Price is regaining some of that old confidence, but is it too late for them to hang on to the final spot?

It's going to be a tough job especially with the surging Panthers hot on their tail.

Give the Buffalo Sabres some credit.

All, but written off for a playoff spot a four days ago, the Sabres came back from a one goal deficit in the third period to defeat the Montreal Canadiens, 4-3, in a marathon shoot-out for their third straight win, climbing within four points of the last playoff spot with seven games remaining.

After taking a 2-0 first period lead, the Sabres took some ill-advise penalties in the second period and watched Montreal score three straight goals to skate off the ice up by a goal at the end of two.

Playing their second of back-to-back games on hostile ice against a Canadien team that needed a win as much as the Sabres, only the most die-hard fans of the blue-and-gold could have held out hope for a comeback.

No one must have told the Sabre players that their season was done, because they came out in the third and took control of the game, controlling the puck in the Montreal zone, and not giving the Canadiens any time or ice to mount their swirling attack.

Just inside of four minutes gone, the much maligned, Jason Pominville, won a battle for the puck in the Montreal corner. He passed to Tim Connolly at the top of the face-off circle. Connolly pivoted to create some space.

When the Montreal defenseman came to him, Connolly slid the puck back to Pominville who had an open path to the net.

Montreal goalie Carey Price managed to get his stick on Pominville's attempt to stuff the puck between his legs, but the rebound deflected right onto Clarke MacArthur's stick who fired it into the net for the tying goal.

The Sabres then tightened their chinstraps and proceeded to dominate the rest of the third period, out-shooting the Canadiens 16-7.

There was one dicey moment when Jochen Hecht failed to clear the puck after a Montreal flurry in the Buffalo end.  

A few seconds later, the puck came to Hecht again. With no Montreal player near him and ample opportunity to skate out of the zone, Hecht inexplicably fired the puck over the glass, incurring a delay of game penalty.

Hecht had already taken one stupid penalty in the second period for cross-checking in the offensive zone leading to a five-on-three power play and Montreal goal.

Hecht has been one of the Sabres' worst underachievers this season and one had to fear for his safety back in Buffalo had Montreal scored the winning goal as a result of his gaffe, but the Sabre penalty kill held and once the penalty expired, Buffalo resumed their pressure on the Hab's goal.

As the period wound down, the Sabres pressed even harder, trying to win in regulation and deny Montreal the point they would gain for a tie.

The horn sounded with the score still knotted at 3-3.

The ice continued to tilt in Buffalo's favor in over-time, with the Sabres mounting several well-organized attacks and controlling the puck.

Their best chance came with a minute gone when Connolly led a three-on-two and fired his shot over the Montreal net. 

But neither team could score and the game headed to a shoot-out.

Thoughts once again turned to the departed Sabre Ales Kotalik, who for all his faults was an odds-on favorite to score.  Since Kotalik was traded, the Sabres have not scored a shoot-out goal.

Their dry-spell continued as Connolly, Stafford, and Pominville all failed to beat Price.

After Pominville's miss, the incredible pressure on Ryan Miller intensified as a Canadien goal wins the game and virtually ends the Sabres chances for the post-season.  Miller was more than up to the task, stoning Kovalev, Tanguay and Koivu.

Back and forth it went, with Price stopping Derek Roy and Miller turning aside Andrei Markov.  Vanek missed, but once again Miller stood tall, denying Tomas Plekanec.

For his sixth shooter, Lindy Ruff sent out defenseman Toni Lydman, who had scored all of three goals this season.

When Lydman skated in and snapped a wrister through Price's five-hole, the only sound was the jaws of the more then 21,000 Canadiens' fans in attendance dropping.

Seconds later, Montreal's Max Lapierre missed the net and the Sabres had won a hard earned victory.

As the Sabres poured over the boards to congratulate their goalie, Miller could be seen doing a very brief dance accompanied by an emphatic fist pump…and so the Sabres live to fight another day.

They only picked up one point on Montreal and the scoreboard did Buffalo no favors as Florida beat Dallas.

The Sabres have to pass both Montreal and Florida to sneak into the play-offs.

Buffalo probably needs to win at least six and maybe all seven of their remaining games and with Washington, Detroit, New Jersey and Boston, among others, remaining, the task is monumental.

But stranger things have happened.

At least it's fun to watch the Sabres play with desperation.  If only they'd turned it on a few more times earlier in the season.

Montreal 3 Buffalo 4 SO (Bell Centre)

posted by Rocket
AllHabs.blogspot.com

It was a very entertaining hockey game tonight: two teams battling for a playoff spot; two good coaches; two excellent goalies. Despite the loss, there were positives for the Canadiens.

Bob Gainey has to be pleased that his team took five of six points this week. He should be happy that at times, they are playing closer to their potential and look like a completely different team than under their previous coach.

It was an exciting first period. The Habs played well outshooting Buffalo 12-to-8. Carey Price and Ryan Miller traded great saves. The Sabres scored as a hard pass by Johan Hecht was tipped in by a wide open Adam Mair. Saku Koivu hit the post as the period expired.

The only ones not on their game in the first were the officials. The linesmen threw both Saku Koivu and Alex Kovalev out of the faceoff circle which led to a rarely called minor penalty to Kovalev. The linesman seemed to be at fault for delaying to drop the puck while both were set.

Buffalo's goal came a mere five seconds after Kovalev's penalty expired.

The Canadiens started slowly in the second. Buffalo scored a power-play goal when Price made a great save on Thomas Vanek but the Habs couldn't clear. Connolly buried his shot with traffic around the net.

The Habs came to life on a terrific shot by Chris Higgins. Good work by Metropolit and Dandenault to set up the play.

The Canadiens then scored two more making it three goals in a seven minute span to lead the Sabres 3-2.

Price made several more big stops including saves on Pominville and Vanek to finish the period.

The Habs sat back in the third period. They weren't aggressive on the forecheck. They weren't getting pucks deep in the Buffalo zone. The Sabres outshot the Canadiens 16-to-7.

Buffalo's tying goal came as the Habs were caught chasing the puck. Montreal fell into the bad habit of poor defensive coverage.

Price had a great game and was the best Canadiens' player. He hasn't lost in regulation in seven games with a record of 4-0-3. The Canadiens have taken 11 of a possible 14 points with Price in goal.

Chris Higgins continues his terrific play and was rewarded with a goal tonight. Metropolit is playing smart hockey and Dandenault is great on the forecheck.

Koivu's line continues to provide the offensive spark. The trio had five points tonight. Kovalev had two goals with one coming via the power-play.

Matt D'Agostini continues to struggle. He played less than five minutes in this game. Plekanec and Sergei Kostitsyn will hopefully welcome back Andrei Kostitsyn on Tuesday night to help this line to contribute.

The Lapierre line didn't play well. Guillaume Latendresse was missing in action for most of the game. Lapierre was only 28 percent on faceoffs and delivered a questionable hit to Patrick Kaleta. Tom Kostopoulos fought Craig Rivet.

Josh Gorges was back to his inconsistent play. Mathieu Schneider played too many minutes and his defensive play suffered. Roman Hamrlik seems to try too hard when paired with Patrice Brisebois.

Brisebois is simply the worst player on the ice each night. His play is embarrassing for an NHL defenseman.

The Canadiens once again could not play a solid 60 minute game. Giving up goals in the third period is also becoming a bad habit in this home stand.

The conference standings for the playoffs are even tighter after tonight just as the Canadiens are scheduled to face tougher opposition.

Pre-game

Starting lineup: Lapierre, Latendresse, Kostopoulos, Brisebois, Hamrlik

Carey Price and Ryan Miller started in goal.

O'Byrne, Laraque, and Stewart were scratched from the line-up. Andrei Kostitsyn was out with the flu. Bouillon and Lang were on injured reserve.

Lines:

Koivu-Kovalev-Tanguay
Plekanec-D'Agostini-Sergei Kostitsyn
Lapierre-Latendresse-Kostopoulos
Metropolit-Higgins-Dandenault

Rocket's three stars:

1. Ryan Miller
2. Carey Price
3. Chris Higgins

(photo credit: Getty Images)

Picture: Ryan Grimshaw (Rochester–Harvard) and a few western N.Y. teammates at the Empire State Games in 2008. The western New York region men’s ice hockey team has won eight consecutive Empire State gold medals. The tournament is a set of annual Olympic-style competitions for amateur athletes from the state of New York, divided into six different regions of the state: Adirondack, Central, Hudson Valley, Long Island, New York City and the Western region.


Does Minnesota really deserve to be called “The State of Hockey?”

Eh...maybe...if one state was already the 11th province, but, comparatively, the state of Minnesota does not stand a chance to upstate New York and specifically, the western region.

Minnesota and upstate have three things in common: They border our northern neighbors, Canada; have a major city called Rochester and its residents praise ice hockey, but upstate has quite a bit of an edge when it comes down the sport, itself.

Because upstate is clouded by the misconception that everything in New York, is merely the Big Apple, one must draw the conclusion that, while “the city” and its metropolitan area makes up more than half of the state population, it only takes up about 118-miles of a state that has more than 55,000.

In fact, in just upstate, alone, most of New England (Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and parts of Connecticut—minus Rhode Island) can fit within its limits and this is where the bulk of ice hockey reigns supreme.

According to Fromtherink.com, an online sports magazine “for the fans,” upstate produces the most collegiate, amateur, Olympic and NHL players from the United States than another state in the country—the majority of players come from the state’s second and third largest cities: Buffalo and Rochester or generally known as western New York.

Reports from NHL.com indicate that upstate provides an average of three players a year to the league's first round draft, since documented in 1963.

Upstate produces the most NCAA Division I colleges and universities for men and women’s ice hockey, while often making the Associated Press and other ice hockey poll’s top 25 list with Clarkson, Cornell, Niagara University, Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and St. Lawrence, to name a few of the elite.

According to USCHO rankings, in both men and women’s Division III top 10, upstate gives the poll four teams, while the rest of the colleges come from various states across the rest of the Great Lakes region, mid-Atlantic, Northeast and upper Midwest.

The majority of the future NHL’s talent is produced in upstate due to holding four AHL teams—more than any state: Albany River Rats (Carolina Hurricanes), Binghamton Senators (Ottawa Senators), Rochester Americans (Florida Panthers) and Syracuse Crunch (Columbus Blue Jackets).


Everyday is hockey day across upstate—at every level.

Upstate is America’s hockey showcase.

At 20 below zero in Plattsburg, the state’s northernmost recognized city, you can find men, women and children, of all ages, gearing up for a competitive game of pond hockey on Lake Champlain.

Head south four-hours to the state’s capital, Albany, in the summer and you’ll see, at any hour, people blocking the roads with their nets and teams battling for a street hockey victory.

Go west, five-hours, past central New York's hockey zone in Syracuse, to Buffalo-Niagara Falls and you’ll find people counting down the days to mid-September when the city usually sees its first frost and signs of frozen ponds around Lake Erie, and a parade of western New Yorkers rioting in the streets during a Sabres game.

...And just 50-miles northeast in Rochester, you’ll see people shouting across the border to their friendly Canadian neighbors to "come on over" or boat across Lake Ontario to play in the annual Battle of the Border Cup challenge: Canada (Burlington, Ontario) versus USA (Rochester).

As USA Hockey, the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based national organization headquarters, proclaims and promotes "Hockey Weekend Across America,” the signals about the pastime's popularity influence and reach in the U.S. gets seemingly more mixed every day, but it depends on where and how you look at it:

1. Geographically;

2. Organizationally.

According to Denver Post columnist and ESPN contributing writer, Terry Frei, while Sun Belt NHL franchises are struggling, youth hockey is gaining popularity in those areas.

Watching their NHL team on TV generates interest that goes beyond paying $50 for a ticket. Players from "non-traditional" areas in the U.S. are starting to show up in the NHL and that trend will, hopefully, continue.

The often-disdainful focus on Sun Belt markets, in some ways, misses a bigger issue.

Especially in this economy, the only way most U.S. markets will fill or come close to filling, their buildings, is if their teams win—and win in stretches sustained enough to create a demand for season tickets, the pressure to be the first in line for single-game tickets or to use the league's officially sanctioned ticket exchange service.

That's as true in Buffalo, Detroit and the Twin Cities, as it is in Florida and Phoenix.

Go back to the regression that happened during the AHL Rochester–NHL Buffalo affiliation debacle. It was one of the reasons, owners, Tom Golisano (Sabres) teamed up with Steve Donner (Americans) and got away with taking the Sabres’ affiliation northeast to Portland, Maine.

It's near to impossible that this situation could happen again and that’s to say that if there is a U.S. market that now seems immune to drastic fluctuations in the league, it's Buffalo, where the Sabres have sold out every game, since then.

Although, Detroit has deemed the name Hockeytown, USA, NHL editor for Yahoo!, Ross McKeon, dug inside NHL information and discovered that Buffalo was the runner up, only losing due to lack of Stanley Cup appearances. “It was an unfortunate time for Buffalo when the league picked the heart of 'Hockey Town',” McKeon said.

However, in 2006, there was a grassroots movement to western New York and Buffalo was labeled as the "New Hockeytown" by Ilitch Holding, Inc., the parent company of the Red Wings, due to an overwhelming fan presence that was previously clouded by Minnesota and Detroit, and the state's general reputation.

The only time Buffalo failed to sell every seat in their arena was on Oct. 15, 1972 when it was only 475 seats under capacity.

Buffalo is the only city that hosts an NHL team that, not only, sells out every game, including pre and post season, but also holds and sells space for people to sit outside the Sabres’ HSBC Arena and watch the game on the large, erected video screen in the parking lot.

While the sport has been ingrained in the upstate culture for generations, perhaps in some places, as much as in Canada, the reach now is more pervasive than it has been.

Upstate, of course, is only one of a few hockey-loving regions that are preeminent on the country’s hockey scene, along with the rest of the Great Lakes region, mid-Atlantic, Northeast and upper Midwest, but it's the leader.

The Olympic Centre located in Lake Placid, N.Y. was home to the 1932 and 1980 Olympics, where the U.S. men’s hockey team made history in winning gold, coming in as the underdogs.

The Olympic Centre is not just about history, though.

Today, its four fully operating rinks provide an adventure for hockey players in the “true upstate” and east central-southeastern Vermont regions.

One of the rinks that the Olympic Centre features is the Herb Brooks Arena, named after the legendary Olympic coach who led the unheralded 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team to its historic defeat of the Soviet Union and ultimately, a gold medal.

At almost 8,000, the Herb Brooks Arena has the largest seating capacity of the Olympic Centre’s indoor rinks. This part of the Olympic Centre was officially dedicated to Herb Brooks on Feb. 23, 2005, the night of the pinnacle celebration for the 25th anniversary of the 1980 Winter Games.

There’s an average of more than 15 hockey jerseys, of professional and high school players to come out of the respective area, on display at all professional ice hockey arenas—including the Olympic Centre—as part of the museum-like atmosphere you can see at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

This advertises the sport's reach that makes arriving early to the arenas and taking a walk around the main concourses advisable for first-time visitors.

Part of the experience is knowing that high schools and towns in the area bore a plethora of NHL standouts like Jason Bonsignore (Rochester–Edmonton Oilers); Tim Connolly (Syracuse–Buffalo Sabres); Brian Gionta (Rochester–New Jersey Devils), captain of the U.S. Olympic Team; Pat Kane (South Buffalo–Chicago Blackhawks), the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2007, etc.

The World Junior Hockey Championship, which is held at the, more than, 19 thousand seated HSBC Arena, is the same arena where the Sabres play and will make history in 2011 as the first city in New York State to hold this tournament and only the fifth U.S. city to host the championships in its 32-year existence.

Dwyer Arena on the campus of Niagara University will serve as the secondary facility for the event.

“Buffalo is a wonderful city and we could not be more pleased to be bringing the World Juniors to western New York," Ron DeGregorio, president of USA Hockey, said. "The Sabres are a first-class organization, and the participants and fans from around the world will have the chance to experience that first hand.”

“We are honored that USA Hockey has chosen the Buffalo Sabres and HSBC Arena as the host for the 2011 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Tournament," Tom Golisano, Rochester native and owner of the Buffalo Sabres, said. "All of western New York will benefit greatly from this world-class event being staged right here in Buffalo.”

“The interest level of the World Junior Championship continues to grow,” Dave Ogrean, executive director of USA Hockey, said. “The tournament is a crown jewel within international hockey circles and an event at which fans will see the future stars of the National Hockey League and Olympic games.”

The United States has earned six medals in the event's history, claiming gold in 2004 and 2008, silver in 1997 and bronze in 1986, 1992 and 2007. Team USA has played for a medal in each of the last six World Junior Championships.

Recently, several junior hockey players from upstate have participated in the World Juniors: Mike Cieslak (Rochester–Vermont), Ryan Grimshaw (Rochester–Harvard), Kevin McCarey (Baldwinsville, N.Y.–New Hampshire), Kevin Montgomery (Rochester – Ohio State/London Knights OHL), Jeremy Morin (Auburn, N.Y.–Pioneer High School), Joe Palmer (Yorkville, N.Y.–Ohio State), etc. A few years ago, Stephen Gionta (Rochester–Lowell Devils), Brooks Orpik (Amherst, N.Y.–Pittsburgh Penguins), Adam Reasoner (Honeoye Falls, N.Y.–Boston College), etc. participated in the games.

Another one, of many, hockey events to happen in upstate, was the NHL Winter Classic held in Orchard Park, N.Y., at Ralph Wilson Stadium, home of the National Football League’s Buffalo Bills, between the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Winter Classic in Buffalo was the first NHL outdoor game and to date, it attracted the most fans and sold more seats than any Winter Classic, with an attendance of 57,167.

On Jan. 1, 2008, in a blizzard, high of 23-degree-day and more than, already, 60-inches of snow, Sabres fans were not phased by the weather.

Some fans went shirtless sitting outside with their favorite hockey player’s number painted on their chest, while Pittsburgh fans shivered uncontrollably in their seats, as more snow and temperatures dropped drastically, hoping for a victory.

Unfortunately for Sabres fans, the Pens got just that.

Out shooting the Sabres by seven shots on goal, Pittsburgh eventually won in a shootout, 2-1, but despite a failed attempt by Buffalo, they still made league and franchise history.

Western New York Hockey Magazine featured several articles on first hand experience of the Winter Classic, including player interviews and broke down all major hockey events happening in the area.

“The magazine is the definitive guide and source for local hockey action,” publisher, Steve Mason, said. “You'll find great photos, features and articles from award-winning writers like Hockey Hall of Fame writer, Jim Kelley—plus all the news from this country's ‘Hockey Hotbed’!”

Just last year, the magazine took an in-depth look at two of the nation’s most prominent tournaments, held right in the World’s Imaging Centre, Rochester.

In 2007, western New York experienced two major hockey tournaments in the city of Rochester by hosting the Atlantic Hockey Conference Championship and Division I collegiate club championships, at the nearly 12 thousand seating capacity of Blue Cross Arena, home of the AHL’s Rochester “Amerks.”

Both tournaments were a success, bringing in revenue and thousands to the city, and settling a victory for RIT and Robert Morris (Moon Township, Penn.).

College hockey, including the ranked teams mentioned in the beginning, remain popular around the state, and brings an estimated 25 percent of fans into the New York border from Ontario and Québec.

“With their love of hockey, French speaking people and number of Canadians there, upstate really should be the 11th province,” contributing online blog writer, Miguel Cardosa, said. “There is no doubt, that ‘state’ eats, sleeps and breathes ice hockey...all year long.”

Take, for example, even something most people think as small as high school hockey; it’s all some towns have and the only time you’ll ever see the streets of Potsdam, N.Y., a small town in the “true upstate,” ever have a traffic jam.

According to Americanhockeycenter.com, the largest high school ice hockey tournament in the U.S. is held in Rochester with the Rochester Rumble Hockey Tournament. All division AAA teams from the state and selected hockey teams from across the country enter the tournament held at the ESL Sports Centre. All tournament finalists are invited to participate in the season ending Advanced Tournaments “Tournament of Champions.”

It's difficult for upstate to have more of a "State of Hockey" résumé than Marty Reasoner. Playing for McQuaid Jesuit High School in Rochester, Reasoner was awarded several NCAA, Olympic and NHL awards, including Rookie of the Year and tournament MVPs, and is part of the display that honors the hockey arenas in western New York.

He played three seasons at Boston College before turning pro with the St. Louis Blue in 1998 and started his World Championship career in 2002 with the U.S. Olympic Team in Sweden. His NHL career is still prospering while he was just traded, last year, to the Atlanta Thrashers from Edmonton.

As for other upstate hockey players, the Buffalo Sabres have a roster of more players from upstate than any other team. “There’s nothing like playing at home for my favorite team growing up as a kid,” Patrick Kaleta (Angola, N.Y.), forward for the Sabres, said.

Other upstaters who play in Buffalo with the Sabres are Tim Connolly (Syracuse), Tim Kennedy (Buffalo), Matt MacDonald (Niagara Falls) and Derek Whitmore (Rochester), and Andrew Peters is from nearby, St. Catherines, Ontario.

These hometown heroes are the reason hockey is so eminent in upstate and gives a reason to believe, especially during times of crisis.

When tragedy hit on Feb. 12, 2009, when Continental Airline flight 3407 crashed into a suburban Buffalo home, it created a devastated western New York. “Hometown heroes” and local hockey clubs helped keep the focus off the devastation by helping out and playing games.

The Sabres had a moment of silence during the Buffalo-San Jose game, that next day and the region began feeling slightly at peace with the situation.

The league had offered the Sabres an option to postpone the game, but the team refused the proposal, because it would give residents a moment to forget about their sorrows.

This story was heard around the country and helped the sport gain respect.

Hockey fans in upstate are quick to admit that there is not enough advertising to highlight that a region of New York State, of all places, is the country’s hockey heaven or the real “State of Hockey.”

Yes, upstate lives this sport.

These are tough times to be a Buffalo Sabre.  

You're in tenth place, five points behind Montreal for the last playoff spot.  The team hasn't played well down the stretch, going 4-7-2 since starting goalie Ryan Miller was hurt.

That said, the Sabres did come from behind to beat Florida, another playoff rival, two days ago.  And tonight in HSBC arena, the Buffalo sprinted to a 4-0 lead and hung on to beat Toronto 5-3.

But even winning doesn't seem to quiet the barbs fired at the team by the writers of The Buffalo News.  

Bucky Gleason titled his column following the Sabres' victory over the Panthers, "Sabres' win not that big a deal."

I hate to think what he's going to say after tonight's victory.  Probably some snide remark about how Leafs scored three goals before the Sabres put them away.

Another columnist, Jerry Sullivan, inaugurated a fictional doghouse in a recent column in which he proposed to put "a player who has been struggling (or) a coach who has gotten under my skin."  His first nominee was Sabres' center Tim Connolly, who recently signed a new two-year, $9 million deal.  

Sullivan was upset that Connolly hadn't scored during the Sabres' recent string, and appeared even more irritated that Connolly has suffered a variety of injuries that kept him out of the lineup much of this year and last.  

The fact that Connolly had scored 37 points in the 40 games he has played this year and that players who score a point a game are paid as much, or even more, than Connolly doesn't seem to matter to Jerry—Connolly's a bum.  

Ohhh.  He did score a goal and assist in the win against Florida and added another two goals against Toronto tonight.  Must have been because Jerry called him out.

Clearly the Sabres are not immune to the constant negativity. 

In his article titled "Tellqvist defies critics after first win," News writer Mike Harrington quoted Tellqvist, who Buffalo acquired from Phoenix to fill in for Miller, as saying, "Not bad for a team with no character, eh?  Everybody was counting us down, saying we were going to lie down."  

Interestingly, Harrington is among the worst of the finger pointers, writing in his own pre-game blog today, "Hey I call 'em like I see 'em, folks.  Thoroughly unimpressed by that victory as you might have noticed."

Harrington and his fellow Sabres beat reporter John Vogl have criticized the Sabres for not beating up Scott Gomez after his collision with Miller resulted in Miller's sprained ankle.  They've called the team soft and gutless.

Tonight, when the Leafs Alexei Ponikarovsky ran into Miller, Paul Gaustad confronted him after the whistle and ended up planting a few fists on Pavel Kubina's face.

Tonight, the Sabres jumped to a four goal lead.  Leafs' goalie Curtis Joseph was not playing his best, but is that any reason to fault the Sabres for scoring?

Tonight, the Leafs came back and scored three goals to make it a game.  They are a team with nothing to lose. 

They hate Buffalo. 

Every player on the Leafs' roster is trying out for a spot on next year's roster. Harrington would have you believe the Leafs are just a lousy 11th place team.  They had won four of their last five games.

Tonight, when the game was on the line, the Sabres stiffened and scored a hard working goal to give themselves a 5-3 lead.  (Harrington still denigrated the goal by saying the Leaf's goalie misplayed it).

Tonight, the Sabres won the game, their second in a row.  They face Montreal in Quebec tomorrow night, the second of back-to-back games. 

To get in the playoffs, they probably have to win that one and just about every other one after that.

I'm not sure they're going to do it.  And even if they do somehow manage to squeak in, I'd be amazingly surprised if they advanced past the first round. 

The Stanley Cup?  Only in my dreams.

This has not been the Sabres' greatest season.  Several of their key players have had bad years.  They haven't played as hard as I would have liked every game.   But I'm a fan.  And as a fan, I'm disappointed by the constant negativity and dripping sarcasm of The Buffalo News hockey writers.  

The Sabres haven't won the Stanley Cup, but I haven't seen any Pulitzer Prizes on those guys' desks, either.

 

 

Here in Ontario, it's a pretty nice day.  The sun is shining, and, while the temperatures aren't balmy by any stretch, it is comfortable outside.  Nicer than it has been in the past little while.

And what does all this mean?  

Well, it means a lot of things.  It means spring may truly be here.  You could also say it would be a nice day to head on down the QEW and visit our good friends in Buffalo tonight.

As is usual the case, the HSBC arena expects tonight's game between the Maple Leafs and Sabres to be a sellout, with about half of the arena donning the blue and white, hoping for a chance to see their modern day heroes put a dent into the already dwindling playoff hopes of Buffalo.

And it will be Curtis Joseph who gets the start tonight against the Sabres, who will have Ryan Miller back in between the pipes.  

Joseph is coming off his best performance of the season, a game where he only played about five minutes, but still came away as the victor.

And deservedly so.

Joseph sprung into action after Martin Gerber was ejected, and looked sharp in his short stint, robbing the Washington Capitals of many glorious chances in regulation and the extra frame, before going a perfect three-for-three in the shootout to seal the victory for the Leafs.

For the record, that was Backstrom, Semin, and Ovechkin who were stopped by the veteran net-minder.

The Leafs have also called up goaltending prospect Justin Pogge in light of the Gerber suspension.

It is unknown whether Pogge will get the start Saturday night when the Leafs go head-to-head against the conference leading Boston Bruins.

 

Harrison comes home

The Toronto Maple Leafs also announced today that they have signed defenseman Jay Harrison to a one-year deal, believed to be worth the league minimum.  

Harrison, a former Maple Leaf draft pick, left the club at the start of the year to pursue a career in Europe.

Harrison is expected to add depth to the AHL affiliate Toronto Marlies, as they are in the middle of a tight playoff race, though one can't rule out seeing him possibly getting in some game time at the NHL level.

 

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A couple of real quick announcements as I am pleased to announce a few new partnerships.

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The Twitter blog will be the fastest way to keep up on my latest articles, as well as get instant Leafs news such as trades, or lineup notes.  

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I know a couple other talented Bleacher Report writers have joined "The Barn", and I look forward to working with them, and everyone else, over there.  

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It only took a matter of 46 minutes for the Buffalo Sabres to wake up against the Wednesday night opponent Florida Panthers. 

Trailing 3-1 in the third period, the Sabres exploded for three goals in a span of 2:07. Jason Pominville, Clarke MacArthur, and Tim Connolly all scored in the third period with Maxim Afinogenov putting away the game with an empty netter.

With the Sabres 5-3 victory over Florida, the Sabres are now five points back of eighth place Montreal who was idle tonight.  Both the Sabres and Canadians have nine games remaining in the season.

In a game that saw players and coaches arguing with one another over line changes and turnovers, and the crowd raining dis-pleasures onto the players, the lifeless Sabres finally looked like a team with desperation. This was the first come from behind win the Sabres have had since Feb. 13th against the San Jose Sharks.

The Sabres look to get a lift Friday night against the rival Toronto Maple Leafs as their franchise netminder, Ryan Miller, could possibly return from an ankle injury that has sidelined him since Feb. 21st.

In what it seems to me an indication of how desperate the Buffalo Sabres are to win at this point in the season, goalie Ryan Miller is expected to be back between the pipes Friday night when the Sabres host their division rival, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Last week Miller began skating on his own and participating in light practices. His movement around the crease was limited and he also had difficulty pushing off his injured ankle.

Monday, Miller was able to partake in a full workout, taking shots from his teammates. Tuesday, Miller's ankle responded well and there was even a slight probability that he may return tonight when the Sabres host the Florida Panthers.

Instead, backup goaltender Mikael Tellqvist will get the nod against the Panthers giving Miller an extra few days before he makes his long-awaited return to lineup.

Miller has been sidelined since sustaining a high ankle sprain Feb. 21 when he was knocked down by New York Rangers forward, Scott Gomez. Friday will mark exactly five weeks since the injury.

Over that five week span the Sabres have been on a downward spiral in the Eastern Conference standings. They are now seven points behind the Montreal Canadiens for the eighth and final playoff spot. During Miller's absence, the Sabres have gone 3-7-1, mostly under backup goaltender, Patrick Lalime.

The Sabres have only 10 games remaining in the regular season starting tonight when they face the Panthers. The Panthers are currently in ninth place, five points ahead of the Sabres.

The Sabres would likely have to win out, or at least win eight or nine of their remaining games to even have a remote shot at making the playoffs. Not an impossible task, but a highly improbable one. Hopefully for the Sabres, Miller's return is exactly what they need to climb out of this terrible slump.