After dropping four straight games to Florida, Boston, Ottawa, and Washington, the Buffalo Sabres have finally lost their lead in the Northeast Division, and now sit 3rd behind Ottawa and Boston.

Buffalo surprised most critics and opponents by racing out of the gate and being one of the last teams to be unbeaten in regulation before falling in Atlanta. Ryan Miller has been the center of the team’s success thus far, and continues to be the star of the franchise. Through 21 games, he has a league-leading 1.98GAA, a .930 save percentage and 12 wins.

The Sabres are currently 12-7-2, with 26 points and are sitting third in the Eastern Conference. The first 21 games have included matchups where the Sabres have played with stellar efforts, as well as matches in which Buffalo has fallen flat. Here are some of the more memorable and forgettable games of the first quarter of the '09-'10 NHL season:


Buffalo 1, Nashville 0: In an intense goalie’s duel, the Sabres outlasted the Predators in Nashville and won on a third-period tally by Mike Grier. Miller and Rinne (NSH) both had great games.

Buffalo 6, Detroit 2: The Sabres stunned the defending Western Conference champions in Buffalo during a game that was televised by Versus. Buffalo was firing on all cylinders as the Red Wings failed to show up in Western New York. This was the game that many people began to follow the Sabres after.

Atlanta 4, Buffalo 2: The defense failed to show up to the game in Patrick Lalime’s 2009 debut between Buffalo’s pipes. The offense outshot the Thrashers 42-27, but Atlanta’s Hedberg continuously denied Buffalo goals. Former Sabres Max Afinogenov also scored against Lalime.

Buffalo 5, Florida 2: Buffalo scored five times in the first period to put the Panthers away. Three of those five occurred in the first five minutes of the game.

Buffalo 2, Tampa Bay 1 (SO): The Sabres rallied back in the third period to score with 17 seconds left, and stun the Lightning after six rounds of the shoot out. Drew Stafford tied the game, and rookie sensation Tyler Myers won the game in the SO.

New York Islanders 5, Buffalo 0: New York dominated the Sabres all 60 minutes, and won with a stellar showing in net by Martin Biron and Tambellini’s hat trick. Biron won his 200th game against his old team and Buffalo went 0-5 on the power play.

Boston 4, Buffalo 2: The Sabres defense hung rookie goaltender Jhonas Enroth out to dry in his NHL debut, falling 4-2 in Boston.

Buffalo 3, Edmonton 1 and Buffalo 2, Calgary 1: Buffalo beat Western Conference teams back-to-back in one week, proving again that this Sabres squad has the mettle necessary to be a post-season contender. Dousing the Flames in a SO capped off a fantastic netminder battle between Buffalo’s Miller and Calgary’s Kiprusoff.

Florida 6, Buffalo 2…Boston 2, Buffalo 1 (OT)…Ottawa 5, Buffalo 3: All three of these games were lost because of a few fundamental errors, including lack of focus and physicality. The Sabres started with good effort then continued to slide going into the second and third periods of each game. What should have been six points for Buffalo quickly dwindled to a measly one.

In my opinion, the Sabres’ overall grade for right now is a B-. Their defense, despite not showing up for some games, remains one of the league’s best and goalie Ryan Miller continues to be a league leader in his position.

My only concern about the defense is Craig Rivet—Buffalo signed him for defensive prowess and veteran leadership, and may be lacking in both categories. He is also the captain, and might not be the best person on the squad for it. My pick for Sabres captain is Paul Gaustad. He’s the workhorse of the team, a good leader and an experienced player- he always gives his all.

The Buffalo offense has been even on scoring among players, with Clarke MacArthur and Drew Stafford both scoring six, and Thomas Vanek leading with seven. A few players also have five and four goals so far.

The Sabres are waiting on Vanek to ignite offensively and start to light the lamp more consistently—he needs to do better than last season, or at least as well, to help Buffalo score as many goals as possible.

Through 20 games, the Sabres have only scored 52 goals—22nd in the league. Buffalo is not looking for these kinds of numbers- the Sabres need power forwards that consistently light the lamp and give the defense some breathing room.

Buffalo's rookies have been invaluable this year, especially defenseman Tyler Myers. He's proven his case time and time again that he belongs in the NHL, and being paired up with Buffalo's veteran defense is helping him immensely.  I'm that Tyler Ennis, who tallied his first NHL goal in his first NHL game in Philadelphia, will see some more time in Buffalo if needed.

The Sabres need to regain their focus and work hard the next 20 games. Within the next quarter, Buffalo faces very tough opponents in Pittsburgh, Washington, and New Jersey, as well as Chicago in a rare Blackhawks visit to HSBC Arena.

I do have faith that right now the Sabres are slumping and that they will find the fire to propel this squad in the standings. I also believe that they are playoff-bound, as long as the team remains healthy. Buffalo has a lot of work to do this upcoming week, with games against Philadelphia, Carolina, and Toronto.

Buffalo’s GM needs to start scouting around for a reliable backup goaltender. The Sabres’ current success lies solely on the play of Ryan Miller, and might even give a false impression of the team’s ability. I’ve said it before, and I reiterate: if Ryan Miller is unable to play, this team will quickly fall apart.

I'm all for the return of Martin Biron to Buffalo.

 

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Maybe Buffalo sports are more connected than we think. It certainly has seemed that way, with one flop after another. The Bills have now blown six fourth-quarter leads. The UB Bulls have lost four games either in the fourth quarter or overtime. And our beloved Sabres have thrown up some ugly-looking third period efforts in the past three games.

Thus far, the Sabres are 4-5 in November, with each of those losses looking horribly reminiscent of the Sabres teams of the past two years. Conversely, those four wins (as well as most of October) are reminiscent of the last Stanley Cup team from 1999. So, the question remains:

Will the Real Buffalo Sabres please stand up?

The team that has won 12 games is going to outwork you, out-hustle you and stonewall your offense. Sound familiar? As in 1998-1999 familiar?

The team that has lost eight games (two in OT) has been unable to score regularly, lazy in the neutral zone (resulting in dumb penalties) and has seemed overall disinterested. You know, the norm here in Buffalo for the past two-plus years.

So, what next, you may ask. Here are three keys to watch for this week:

 

1. Patrick Kaleta's playing time

Kaleta leads the team with 55 hits, tied for 29th in the league. Not bad at all when you consider that every single player ranked ahead of him has averaged more time on the ice per game than Kaleta. In most cases, it's eight to 10 more minutes per game. Remember, Kaleta played on the fourth line until Mike Grier got hurt. Will Kaleta get more ice time in order to provide some much needed grit, or will his TOI diminish as Lindy Ruff attempts to spark the offense?

 

2. Tim Kennedy's Role

I love Tim Kennedy. I believe that he can be a special player in this league, along the lines of Michael Peca 10 years ago or Chris Drury three years ago. But he just hasn't been the same since Grier went down with an injury. He seems hesitant to rush the offensive zone and looks like the game is moving too fast for him at times. These are all signs of a developing player and evidence of how important Grier is to Buffalo's third line. Tim Kennedy will not be a third-line player for very long. Could Lindy Ruff move Kennedy up to the second line temporarily to compensate for a struggling Jason Pominville (four points in November)? Not likely, but an option that Ruff should explore in my humble opinion.

 

3. Buffalo's Neutral Zone Play

Congratulations, NHL. You have effectively removed any effect that the lockout may have had. We are now being forced to watch neutral-zone trap snore-fests again. Whereas Buffalo's trap resulted in four goals against and a save rate of over 95 percent for Ryan Miller during their most recent three-game win streak, their lackluster neutral zone play has resulted in 13 goals against over the past three games (all losses). Will Buffalo return to the trap, knowing that they are unable to score their way out of trouble as in past years?

 

Let's check back in a week and see where we are.

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The Buffalo Sabres are in unfamiliar territory this season. They are riding a three game losing streak, and not showing any signs of urgency.

Buffalo traveled up to Ottawa to take on a senators team that was on a roll winning their last three games.On the other end of the spectrum Buffalo had lost their last two games and not looked good in doing so.

Ottawa came out and dominated play in the first five minutes of the first period before Buffalo found their legs and controlled the final fifteen minutes of play. Nineteen minutes into the first period Thomas Vanek got Buffalo on the board first with a power play goal to end the period in Buffalo's favor 1-0.

The second period the roles reversed as Ottawa continued to pound Buffalo. Phillip Kuba was able to get his point shot past goaltender Patrick Lalime to knot the game up at one, early in the second. But buffalo fans could see the tide swinging. Daniel Alfredsson would prove the Senators were in this game as he got his wrister from the slot past Lalime to pull Ottawa ahead.

The second period would end much like the first, with one team holding a one goal lead. The third period was where it all cam unglued again for Buffalo. As Ottawa just destroyed any chances of Buffalo making a comeback.

The Senators would net the next three goals within the first eight minutes of the third period to take an eventual 5-1 lead. Buffalo would come back on Ottawa pulling within two goals as Patrick Kaleta and Jason Pominville would score, but it was too little, too late. And Ottawa skated away with the 5-3 win.

 

Thoughts and observations

Craig Rivet: This guy looks old. He continues to get caught flat footed and out skated far too often to be in a No. 1 pairing.

The offense: The box score says they put 41 shots up tonight, but holy cow how many actually hit the net? I can think of at least seven shots from fifteen feet or closer that were shot terribly wide.

The defense: Again back up goaltender comes in and they forget how to play defense. I do not recall on blue liner even trying to drop to block a shot all night. Not to mention what happened to the defense clearing the front of the net so the goaltenders have a chance? Absolute terrible team performance. Toni Lydman may be next to be visiting the press box.

The coaching: How is it Lindy Ruff cannot get his team up on a consistent basis to play back to back games? This has been a bug a boo for him for years now. Maybe a little less being the nice guy and a little more of being the disciplinarian Lindy.

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This is the first in a series of articles meant to familiarize the casual reader with the history of the Buffalo Sabres.

 

For a town as hockey-crazed as Buffalo, the average citizen recognizes the name “Tim Horton” for all the wrong reasons. On any given winter morn, a blue collar worker might pull up to a drive-thru window for a steaming cup of Joe, glance at a receipt that says “Always Fresh,” and never give the name a second thought.

Here’s what the Buffalo Sabres fan, and even more so, a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, thinks of when we hear “Tim Horton”:


The Stats:

Tim played for the Toronto Maple Leafs, the New York Rangers, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Buffalo Sabres in a career that spanned from 1949 to 1974. He won 4 Stanley Cups as a member of the Maple Leafs and was a six-time All-Star. His 1,446 NHL games resulted in 115 goals and 403 assists.

Tim was inducted posthumously into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1977, and his No. 2 jersey was retired by the Buffalo Sabres in 1998, just the fourth number retired by Buffalo.


The Stories:

Gordie Howe, arguably the greatest hockey player ever, called Tim Horton “The strongest guy in hockey.” One look at Tim and you would be hard-pressed to argue. His signature fighting move was to wrap an opponent in a crushing bear hug. Tim Horton’s Wikipedia article recounts the following anecdote:

Boston Bruins winger Derek Sanderson once bit Horton during a fight; years later, Horton's widow, Lori, still wondered why. "Well," Sanderson replied, "I felt one rib go, and I felt another rib go, so I just had—to, well, get out of there!"

Bobby Hull adds: "There were defensemen you had to fear because they were vicious and would slam you into the boards from behind, for one, Eddie Shore. But you respected Tim Horton because he didn't need that type of intimidation. He used his tremendous strength and talent to keep you in check."

King Clancy, who wore No. 7 before Tim Horton in Toronto, once stated that “If only he’d (Horton) would get angry, no one would stop him in this league.”

His long-time coach, “Punch” Imlach, sadly recounts his last conversation with Tim: "He was hurting too bad to play a regular shift in the third period. We faded without him and lost the game to the Leafs. After the game, he and I took a little walk up Church Street and had what was our last talk.

"He was down in the dumps because he didn't like to miss a shift and he felt he had cost us the game. I got on the bus with the team. Tim drove the cursed car back to Buffalo. He didn't make it."

On his way back to Buffalo at 4:30 the morning of February 21, 1974, Horton lost control of his speeding car on the highway near St. Catharines, rolling it several times. Tim Horton was killed instantly.


The Legacy:

Between 1961 and 1968, Tim set the NHL record for consecutive games played by a defenseman with 486 consecutive games, and remained until 2007 when Kārlis Skrastiņš passed the mark. It still stands as a Maple Leafs record.

In the 1962 Stanley Cup run, Tim’s 16 points in 12 playoff games (it only took 12 wins to win the Cup back then. It takes 16 now) stood as a Maple Leafs defenseman record until 1994.

In 1969, Tim was awarded the J.P. Bickell Memorial Cup in recognition of his outstanding service to the Toronto Maple Leafs Hockey Club.

Tim’s last year in the NHL was the 1973-1974 season, the year before the Sabres made their first appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals. Tim’s leadership is credited with aiding the maturity of the young Buffalo club into a serious Cup-contending team.

In 1995, the Toronto Maple Leafs listed Tim’s No. 7, a number shared with King Clancy, as an “Honoured Jersey Number.” (Check here for an explanation of the Maple Leafs unique policy on jersey numbers)

In 1998, The Hockey News listed Tim as No. 43 on its list of the 100 Greatest Hockey Players.

I do not have a citation for this, but Tim Horton is credited by some as the inventor of the slapshot.

Toronto has not won a Stanley Cup since Horton’s playing days.

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The Buffalo Sabres tried to continue the winning streak tonight as they hosted the Florida Panthers at the HSBC arena.

Unfortunately for Buffalo the third period would prove to be their sticking point tonight as the Panthers rolled to a 6-2 victory.Though a bit on the boring side, the first 40 minutes of play was tightly contested as Florida was hanging on to the 2-1 lead.

But in the third period the wheels came off for Buffalo. After Cory Stillman gave Florida a 3-1 lead, Clarke Macarthur brought Buffalo back to within one goal scoring his sixth of the year on the power play.

Unfortunately for Buffalo the one goal deficit would not last long as again Florida would tickle the twine behind goaltender Ryan Miller , as Michael Frolik scored his second of the night on the ensuing power play to regain Florida the two goal lead.

As a bit on insult added to injury 14 seconds after the Frolik goal Florida would add another with the net empty in favor of the extra attacker for Buffalo. Florida was now in total command with the score at 5-2.

The last bit of sand thrown in Buffalo's eyes was when Buffalo's last year's deadline acquisition Dominic Moore scored his first of the year on Ryan Miller with one minute left in the third period.

This must have been an exciting goal for Moore as he decided he needed to collect the puck from the referee that signified his 36th career goal in just under five seasons in the NHL. Good for you Dominic congrats. I think the state of Florida is working on the heroes parade for you as I type this.

None the less Buffalo was outworked terribly in the third and showed little

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There are many stories floating around about Ryan Miller these days, especially since he has been named the Third Star of the Week by the NHL. I’m not here to say that they’re undeserved, so don’t get the wrong idea. He leads the league in wins, GAA, and save percentage, so any accolades that come his way are well earned.

From a Buffalo point of view, I’m here to address the question: Why is Ryan Miller so important?

Ladies and gentlemen of the Jury, I present my evidence.

 

Exhibit A – He is evidence that the front office made the right decisions the past few years.

The decisions to let Mike Grier and Jay McKee leave town back in 2006 were not popular among Sabres faithful. Marty Biron, Brian Campbell, Chris Drury, and Danny Briere leaving town over the course of the next couple dozen months or so nearly started a riot in Niagara Square. What did the Sabres brain trust do in response?

Re-sign Miller, Thomas Vanek, sign Craig Rivet, and draft Tyler Ennis, a top prospect in Portland of the AHL (with the pick from the Campbell trade).

McKee played himself out of a job with the Blues. Drury has played well with the Rangers, but not at the level in which he’s getting paid. Briere is always injured and has worn out his welcome in Philly. Campbell got paid $5 million to do what the Sabres paid Jaroslav Spacek $3 million to do last season. Grier has come back home to tutor Buffalo’s young prospects, and Marty Biron may be on his way out as well (I’m really hoping this will come to pass, anyway) after falling out of favor in Philly.

Cost-conscious? I think there is a crystal ball hidden somewhere on Washington Street. The decision to build the team around Miller has thus far resulted in a 12-4-1 record.

 

Exhibit B – He gives Buffalo star power on the national stage.

Miller always seems to have the experience necessary to make Buffalo relevant. Need a story on the state of American-born hockey players? Miller was born in Michigan. Need evidence that the Hobey Baker Award (the weird, ice-skating cousin to Heisman) is not meaningless? Miller won it in 2001. When the press needed an experienced outdoor player to interview during the first Winter Classic? Yep, there was Miller, who played in the “Cold War” game for Michigan State against Michigan in 2001. How about a commercial? There was the Amp Energy Drink ad campaign from 2008 (Yo Mama’s so ugly, she made an onion cry!).

 

Exhibit C – He gives Buffalo star power on the International stage.

International experience is not lacking here. Miller was a member of the 2001 USA Men’s team at the IIHF Men’s World Championship. He played on the team for the next two years, leading the tournament with a .949 save percentage at the 2002 IIHF Men’s World Championship and was second in the tournament with a 1.76 goals-against average.

The U.S. finished in fourth place in 2001 and seventh place in 2002. He even watched his cousin Kevin play in the 1988 Olympics. There were many people in Buffalo who were furious at Miller’s snub from the 2006 U.S. Olympic team in favor of Rick DiPietro (remember him? Me neither.)

And I seem to recall hearing something about a tournament in Vancouver this season…

Ryan Miller has already punched his ticket into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame as one of the most popular athletes in city history. He has brought a spotlight not seen in Buffalo since Dominik Hasek vacated the crease in HSBC Arena. His charitable work doesn’t get anywhere near the attention it deserves (his Steadfast Foundation aims to ease the suffering of cancer patients, most notable those living with childhood leukemia).

If he ever helps bring Lord Stanley’s Cup to Western New York, this is the man that everyone will clamor to hear at the podium. Why? Because he bleeds blue and sweats gold.

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The stage was set. Buffalo versus Philladelphia. A chance for the Sabres to avenge the drubbing the Flyers put on them no more than a week earlier.

As the game was about to start, I still wondered if the Sabres could finally break that ugly habit of playing horrid on the back side of back to back games. It did not take me long to get my answer.

This was a war from the opening puck drop to the final horn. It had all the makings to set up the next two tilts these teams will have with each other this season. Scrappy play, bad blood, two goalies that will not back down,and two extremely talented teams looking to leave their respective marks on the Eastern conference. 

Thomas Vanek was the recipient of an early Flyer's penalty, and a nice centering pass to get Buffalo off and running early. His wrister found it's way past goaltender Ray Emery just over three minutes into the first period. Buffalo took the lead 1-0.

Though no goals were scored the rest of the period, it wasn't for lack of effort. Both Emery and Ryan Miller made some great saves to keep their teams in the game early. In all six penalties were called in the first period with Philly receiving four of them. 

The second period started with Buffalo controlling play for a majority of the period. Both teams realized they were in for a full 60 minute game and decided maybe the second period was not an ideal time to leave their team short handed.

At almost the 15 minute mark of the second period, Tyler Ennis playing in his first NHL game for Buffalo netted his first career NHL goal to give Buffalo a semi-commanding 2-0 lead. The second period would end at that score, But Philly seemed to be finding their game late in the second. It only amped up the possibility of a great final period.

Just as I thought, Philly came out flying in the final frame. Buffalo was on their heels and holding on for dear life. Chris Pronger announced his presence on the score sheet early in the third when his slapper from the point blew by Miller to cut the lead in half.

But a costly high sticking penalty by former Buffalo Sabre Danny Briere opened the door for Buffalo to capitalize once more. And center Paul Gaustad made no mistake as he deflected a Tyler Myers shot from the point past Ray Emery to regain the two goal Buffalo lead.

Philly was down but certainly not out of it.

As, yet again, they showed just how dangerous they can be short handed as Jeff Carter cut back into that Buffalo lead by scoring his seventh of the season just over half way through the third.

The Flyers continued to pressure the Buffalo Sabres for ten more minutes. But Ryan Miller and company were up to the task. Buffalo grab the short plane ride back home with a narrow 3-2 win.

 

Thoughts and Observations

Thomas Vanek has been a penalty magnet as of late. He really needs to focus on the game, and stop taking lazy, undisciplined penalties.

Chris Pronger may be my favorite defense men in the NHL. It is amazing at his age How well he still does everything. Without question Philly's best pick up in a long time.

Ray Emery has re-emerged as a top 15 goaltender in the NHL. It seems like decades ago now when he had his problems.

Buffalo's power play continues to struggle. Lazy passes, poor shots from the point. Something really needs to be done.

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At the beginning of this hockey season, the talk was not who was going to be the net minders for Team USA in the upcoming Olympics, but rather who would be the starter. Goaltender Ryan Miller has answered that question for everyone.

At the end of the 2008-2009 season, questions started to surface about just how "great" Miller could be. Or even if he was a franchise goaltender.

But those questions have now since all fallen by the wayside as Miller has shown his previous season was merely a blip on the radar.

As the season began Miller looked like a new man between the pipes. His footwork had gotten better, his confidence was soaring, and most important his success has never been better.

At this point of the season Ryan is leading the NHL in wins, save percentage,and goals against average. And is one shutout out of leading that category as well.

Know as a very cerebral goaltender, Miller is the kind of player that can get himself into a zone where his is almost unbeatable most nights. And as a spirited competitor he also wants to avenge any loses or poor outings right away by playing the next game.

As Buffalo fans continue hearing the announcers call "Miller robbed him blind," the coaches for team USA will have very little to think about when on Jan. 1. they name their starting goaltender for the Olympics.

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Yes, I know it's only November. I know the Sabres have only played 15 games. And yet, I can't help but be excited about this year's team. Maybe it's the fact that the Bills are so bad this year that I've moved on to hockey early. But it's equally likely that the Sabres this year could actually be (dramatic pause) good .

Hear me out. I have a case, I promise.

Let's start with the offense. Through 15 games, the Sabres are scoring nearly three goals per game. They're allowing just over two per game.

Every forward except for Adam Mair (who hasn't played a game) has scored at least one goal. Tim Connolly is leading in points scored at 15. Tim Connolly! If you had asked me a year ago who would be leading in points, he would not be on my list.

The Sabres have also earned points in over two-thirds of their games to this point, which is the best out of any NHL team through 15 games.

Now at this point you are saying "Hey, those stats are okay, but they're not great." And you'd be right.

The offense isn't really the reason I think this team is good. It's the reason that this team isn't bad .

The reason the Sabres are good this year comes down to one player: Goaltender Ryan Miller.

Through 15 games this year, Miller is 10-2-1 with a .923 save percentage and 23 goals against. That is, every single game that the Sabres have won has been with No. 30 in net.

There have been games when he has carried them on his back, making highlight reel saves in close games against good teams like New Jersey. He's done the same against teams that the Sabres have had trouble against in the past, like Tampa Bay.

Miller has been the key to all of the Sabres wins this year.

With Patrick Lalime injured and Jhonas Enroth having absolutely no experience, I don't think coach Lindy Ruff can trust anyone else besides Miller at goaltender this season. Unless they sign someone (Marty Biron?) as a reliable backup, that will continue to be the case through 2010.

I think the Sabres have made a strong enough start that if the offense continues to function and Miller plays at a high level, they can run deep into June.

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When the Buffalo Sabres this past offseason announced that they had signed defense men Steve Montador, I thought to myself—Okay, not a bad seventh D-man; maybe sixth, if injuries happen. Probably see 10 minutes a night in ice time .

I can't think that anyone even the Buffalo Sabres thought any different.

But what a pleasant surprise Montador has been to the Buffalo Sabres blue line. Not only is he logging a very modest amount of ice time—around 17 minutes a night—but it is possible to argue that he has never played better in his career.

Montador is known as that character guy in the locker room. Not exactly the most gifted on the ice, but what he lacks in talent he makes up for with heart. Already, Sabres fans have gotten to witness first hand how Montador sticks up for his team mates even if it means getting his head beat in.

This is something the Sabres have been lacking for years now. Teams have to be aware that it is not going to be so easy to run into or bump goaltender Ryan Miller without having to answer the bell for their actions.

Is it any coincidence that goaltender Ryan Miller is having a giant bounce back season from last year? I think not. Personally, it is players like Montador that make Miller able to find his comfort zone in the crease.

Wednesday night Montador scored his first goal as a Buffalo Sabre. It was very fitting for a guy who has come to this team and shown what it means to play with heart and passion. My prediction is that Montador will soon become a fan favorite among the Sabres community in the very near future.

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