Sabres fans have long waited a return trip to the NHL Playoffs, and it looks like their time has arrived.

The Sabres are almost halfway through the regular season and they have built themselves a comfortable lead atop the Northeast Division, and as an added bonus they are only five points out of first place in the Eastern Conference. However, despite their position in the standings, the Sabres should consider themselves lucky because this team still has many holes to fill going into 2010. Here is a look at some of the highlights and disappointments so far.

 

Highlights

Ryan Miller

No doubt, he is the best goaltender in the NHL right now and he has stolen a ton of games for the Sabres.

Their are however a couple of worrisome statistics to be aware of. The first one is the number of games Miller will start this year. If the Sabres do plan on going deep into the playoffs they will have to keep Miller as well rested as they can. If you combine the fact that he is on pace to play over 60 regular season games plus the Olympics, you can't help it be worried how long he will last. Another factor is his play of late. In his last three starts Miller hasn't looked as sharp/focused as he normally is, and for the first time this year he almost cost the Sabres a victory. Even though the Sabres weren't exactly stellar in that first period against Pittsburgh, two of the three goals were shots that should have been stopped (especially the weak bad angle shot from Bill Guerin). The bright side to this is that Lalime has stepped up his play since his demotion to Portland (AHL) including his ability to come in to the game down 3-0 and give his team a chance to win. Whether this is a fluke or not the Sabres wil need Lalime to be sharp if they wan't to keep Miller rested.

 

Tyler Myers

What can I say? He's 19 and he's already has more points this year (39 games) than Luke Schenn (a guy who was picked 7 spots ahead of him) does in his career (108 games). Myers also leads all rookies with 18 assists and in ice time. He is definitely a vital piece of the Sabres back-end for the present and the future.

 

Patrick Lalime

While he didn't start out too hot, he has performed well over his last few starts including Tuesday's 27 save shutout relief after Miller was pulled. It is essential for the Sabres that Lalime continues his efforts in goal because as I mentioned Miller will be playing a ton of games this year.

 

Disappointments

Thomas Vanek

I know he's been hurt, but with the money he is making I would expect a better performance. Considering the fact that he has less goals than he does assists, (11G, 12A) it is a cause for concern. Plus it doesn't help Vanek when he is put on a line with Grier and Kennedy.The only upside is that now that his abdominal problems are behind him he can only get better as the Sabres go into the last half of the season.

 

Jason Pominville

He is performing better of late, but if he continues this trend of slow starts then the population of Pominville might be all gone. We all know Pominville has the skill but for whatever reason he just can't put up the numbers. I liked his performance when he was playing on a line with Stafford and Connolly, and it worked for him in the back half of the season. Again the only upside to this is that Pominville has nowhere to go but up.

 

Jochen Hecht

I might have put Stafford instead, but after his response to getting benched (2G 1A) against the Penguins I decided to put Hecht. After all Stafford isn't the one getting 3.8 million and producing goals equal to that of Patrick Kaleta. On the bright side he is doing better than he was last year around this time and he has had his moments. I'm hoping for his sake that he steps his game up in the second half.

 

Team Has

Defence and Goaltending. The Sabres have given up the third fewest amount of goals this year, and that is thanks to outstanding goaltending and solid defence. The Sabres also have the seventh best penalty-kill in the league. If Miller and the Sabres defence can keep this up throughout the year, then expect this Sabres team to stay on top of the Northeast division.

 

Team Needs

The Sabres are 19th in the league in scoring, and that might not be sufficient enough. The solution is the Sabres need a spark offensively. Whether it comes from an individual catching fire (i.e Vanek) or if they acquire someone in the near future. It's nice to have good defence and good goaltending but last time I checked, to win in this league you have to score more goals than the other team.

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The Buffalo Sabres have had a great season so far, and have re-energized their play on the ice and their fanbase. This is my first attempt at a slideshow, so let's see how this works. I want to address the reasons that the Sabres have been so successful so far, and what this team is doing that gives its fans and supporters a reason to cheer.

Begin Slideshow

If you’ve ever been lucky enough as a sports fan, there’s a certain point in a season when something has happened, which makes you realise your team is going to have a special year.  It’s not something that can be easily explained; you just know .

For Buffalo sports fans, one of the prime examples of this was the 1990 Bills team.  Since 1986, the team had been stock-piling talent like there was no tomorrow (Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith, Cornelius Bennett, Thurman Thomas and so on), without being able to transfer it to the football field with any consistency.  In fact, the team even became known as the ‘Bickering Bills’ at one point.

However, it finally all came together in a week four match-up at home to the Denver Broncos during 1990.  Entering the fourth quarter, the Bills had been totally outplayed and trailed 21-9. 

With the Broncos lining up to kick a field goal that would increase their advantage, the attempt was blocked and returned 80 yards for a Bills touchdown.  This started a 77-second, three touchdown explosion that resulted in a dramatic 29-28 victory.

A similarly stunning come-from-behind victory the following week against the L.A. Raiders merely confirmed that something special was happening and the team went on to make the first of four Super Bowl appearances.

The reason for bringing this up is because the people of Buffalo may have just experienced a similar scenario, this time involving the Sabres.  Last night’s 4-3 victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins has a feeling similar to that created by the 1990 Bills team.

The team had already enjoyed an impressive start to the 2009-10 season.  Entering yesterday’s game, the Sabres were leading the Northeast division and were only five points off the pace for the best record in the NHL.

In Ryan Miller, they had a goaltender with the best save percentage in the league.  In fact, the team as a whole had allowed the third-fewest goals.

However, a game against the reigning Stanley Cup champions was the perfect opportunity to showcase the Sabres title credentials.  It also offered the chance for revenge after losing a shoot-out to the very same team just ten days earlier.

Unfortunately, it didn’t start out that way as the team found themselves 3-0 down just 1:28 into the second period.  It would have been easy for Buffalo to give up the fight and live to fight another day, but head coach Lindy Ruff wasn’t having any of it. 

While respected around the league, the NHL’s longest-tenured coach is surprisingly still underappreciated in Western New York.  However, Ruff replaced Miller with Patrick Lalime, who went on to stop all 27 shots aimed at his net.

Another sign of Ruff’s coaching talents came with the decision to put forward Drew Stafford back into the line-up one game after benching him.  This move had the desired effect as Stafford responded with two goals and an assist as the Sabres completed an amazing comeback to win 4-3.

As Stafford said after the game, “It comes back to how you respond.” 

Lalime echoed this sentiment.  “We played well, we came back strong.  (It’s a) good character win.”

In the process, this result will surely have given the Sabres the belief that they can now beat anyone, no matter how hopeless the situation appears.  Of course there's never any guarantees, but this season is beginning to have that special feeling for Buffalo sports fans.   

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Last years trade deadline had so much promise and yet it ended in  disappointment as neither Kovalchuk, Nash (who later signed an extension), Connolly, or Bouwmeester were dealt. However, this years trade deadline shows much more promise and perhaps more prosperity for the Buffalo Sabres.

Although at first glance a Kovlachuk deal to the sabres may look unlikely I've looked into rumors on what the Thrashers may be considering and perhaps their might be a chance. According to sources the Atlanta Thrashers are looking for a deal similar to the Joe Thorton deal a few years ago.

The asking prices is a top six forward (not too old), an A type prospect (i.e a first rounder), a young defenseman ( obviously has to be a decent prospect), and of course a first round pick.

So do the Sabres have what it takes to acquire Kovalchuk? Yes they do (permitted Darcy Regier feels necessary).

First of all the sabres have to make sure that the deal is good enough to acquire Kovalchuk but also is not too good because it seems that their is a 99.9 percent chance that Kovalchuk won't re sign with Buffalo for Regier's asking price.

First order of business is the top six forward, for me that would be Clarke Macarthur. He is second on the sabres in goals and at 24 years old he's still got un-tapped potential that could land him a 30+ goal season and considering the names floating around from other teams Macarthur might me Atlanta's best top 6 forward offered.

For the Grade A prospect there are a number of choices to go through, but the player I would put in the deal would be Mark Mancari. It might sound like too much but considering the Canucks are rumored to be willing to give up Michael Grabner, Mancari might be the only prospect Forward the Atlanta Thrahshers are willing to accept.

Not only was he AHL rookie of the year last year he also is having another strong season leading the Portland Pirates (affiliate AHL team of the Sabres) in points with 28 in 33 games. A hefty price to pay however this might me the part of the deal that entices Atlanta to part ways with Kovalchuck.

Now here is the easiest part of the deal for the Sabres, the defenseman. I would put Mike Weber in this deal. He is a decent prospect whos shot has been compared to Chirs Pronger however he has never worked out in Buffalo's system because he isn't exactly suited for Buffalo's new defensive style of Hockey.

Not a lot of other teams have the luxury the Sabres do when it comes to the defenseman side of prospects so they can afford to part ways with a guy like Mike Weber.

Of course their is the obvious cap issue so the Sabres and Thrasher will have to work out as a secondary  part to this deal.

My suggestion would be getting rid of Jochen Hecht for a less expensive third liner. Hecht currently takes up $3.5 million of the sabres cap space and yet he plays on the third line and Henrik Tallinder who Sabres fans have wanted to see get traded for what now seems like forever. He would most likely be dealt for a pick, prospect or maybe nothing at all (which is still good considering his cap hit is $2.5 million)

Last and certainly the least of this teams worries should be the first round pick because lets face it, if the sabres do acquire Kovalchuk what are the chances of our pick being hire the 20th?

My finalized trade:

To ATL:Clarke Macarthur, Mark Mancari, Mike Weber, Jochen Hecht, Henrik Tallinder, and first round pick

To BUF:Ilya Kovalchuk, Jim Slater, Noah Welch

On another note I would like to make it clear that Jeff Carter will NOT be dealt, those rumors are fake.

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Often, watching any sports team will lead you to believing that there is at least one "untouchable" player or group of players. Disturbing or moving an "untouchable" player would shift the team identity, and probably kill the success of a team.

In the NHL, I think that this dependency breaks down into three main categories:

1. Goaltender Dependent. These types of teams rely on a star goaltender, and also a good defense in order to win games. Rarely can these teams win a high-scoring game. For examples, see the New Jersey Devils (Martin Brodeur) and the '99 Sabres (Dominik Hasek).

2. "Top Six" Dependent.
These teams win on skill and speed. They make the highlight plays and win with lots of goals, the opposite of the Goaltender Dependent teams. For an example, I would choose the Atlanta Thrashers (Savard, Kovalchuk, etc.).

3. "Bottom Six" Dependent.
These teams win with momentum generated from the gritty forwards on the third and fourth lines. Hitting well and crashing the net are the keys to winning a game for this team.

As you can see, I neglected to give an example for this last category, because it is hard to pinpoint these teams down, as it's hard to see grit and determination over skill.

This said, I believe that the 2009-2010 Buffalo Sabres are this third category: "Bottom Six" Dependent.

Now I know that many of you would argue that the Sabres are actually Goaltender Dependent.

However, I would contend that there is a fourth category not really mentioned above, and it's one where the better teams reside. These teams are dependent on one aspect, but very good in another as well. While the Sabres have a great goaltender in Miller, their foundation is laid in the "Bottom Six."

Why, you ask?

Balanced Scoring . Currently, Thomas Vanek leads the team with 11 goals. However, nine forwards have more than 6 goals. And while the top-line forwards lead the scoring, they are not running away with the goal lead.

Types of goals. Of course there's not a stat for this, but think about the type of goals that the Sabres have scored, especially in tight games. There haven't been many "highlight reel" goals, and more often than not, goals have been by crashing the net, by deflections, or through screens. Here's where the top six have been influenced by the bottom six.

The Corsi Number . The Corsi number is a stat metric developed by current Sabres goaltending coach Jim Corsi. You can find a description here , but the general rule of thumb is that the Corsi Number measures the amount of shots towards the opponents net while the player is on the ice.

A higher Corsi Number is good, while a lower one is of course, bad. That said, the Corsi leaders of Sabres forwards (found here ) are Mair, Ellis, Kaleta, and Gaustad, all gritty forwards. Clearly, they're getting the puck towards the opponents net, which is always a good thing.

In summary, the stats should show it all. The bottom six is succeeding at getting more shots on the opponents than getting shot on. More importantly, they are getting the shots in with a frequency near to the more "skilled" top-line forwards.

Without the energy from the grit lines, Buffalo crumbles into a turnover filled game, which will often results in a loss. But with a solid "Bottom Six," the momentum and scoring turns Buffalo's way, and with a goaltender like Miller, that's a winning formula.

 

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This year, the NHL is using a condensed schedule. Every team is playing more games on back-to-back days, especially on the weekends.

One of the things that people don't usually think about when it comes to the condensed schedule is practice. However, that's just the thing that the Sabres need right now.

They haven't been playing terribly during the season since they're third in the conference and first in the division. However, they have a terrible power play.

It's 27th in the league with a success rate of 15.8 percent. That's just the thing that the Sabres need to work on.

The problem is the condensed schedule. They are not getting enough practice time to effectively work on their power play. Instead, they are being forced into more games, and their numbers are getting worse.

However, I don't see what can be done. We pretty much need a condensed schedule this season with the Olympics coming up. We wouldn't want to play the regular season until the end of April.

Neither would we be able to crown a Stanley Cup Champion until mid-June, which would screw up the draft.

I think that the Sabres just need to work on whatever they can during pregame and take what practice time they can get.

Hopefully this will get better over the next few weeks and the Sabres will be able to start turning around their power play.

You may see more of my NHL opinions at Tips for Hockey

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Okay, let me rephrase my headline.

"Buffalo Sabres Need a Star (Who Isn't a Goaltender or Defenseman)".

First and foremost, I would like to say that I am incredibly pleased with the way that the Sabres' season has gone thus far. Buffalo is atop the Northeast Division, third in the Eastern Conference, and boasts one of the best defenses in the league.

I'm also incredibly happy with some players on the team, such as star netminder Ryan Miller, and even his backup Patrick Lalime.

Rookie sensation Tyler Myers has been absolutely stellar this season, and is picking up the more ice time per game than any other rookie in the league. He's been a cornerstone on the blue and gold's defense.

Clarke MacArthur has impressed this season also, with a team-high 10 goals this season.

And that's when I start to worry, after typing that sentence.

"...a team-high 10 goals..."

And that sentence is why I'm writing this article. Again, I am not complaining or being pessimistic, I would just like to point this issue out.

League leaders in scoring include Gaborik, Marleau, Ovechkin, Crosby, etc...and while I realize that Buffalo may not get a player of that magnitude in the near future, I'm just concerned that the Sabres' best goal scorer has less than half of the league leaders.

However, what is apparent among the Sabres and lacking in other squads is the "goals by committee" system that Lindy Ruff is pushing among his players, and so far it's working just fine. As long as the defense keeps going the way it is.

Only three Sabres starters (Rivet, Mair, Butler) are without goals. Four players have scored one apiece, another four have scored two, two have scored six, three have scored seven, Derek Roy has nine and MacArthur and Vanek both have 10.

The system of pushing towards the net and simply putting shots on goal has worked, especially in times of dire need (such as Buffalo's last win against Toronto).

Other times, when the system fails, the outcome is ugly (such as Buffalo's loss against Washington last night).

That was painfully obvious watching the Sabres fall to the Capitals, as Ryan Miller did all he could to stop Washington. But, a goalie can only do so much, and especially without the offensive help that's needed.

That's why I get this feeling that if Buffalo had that one stud forward, a power scorer who could ignite this Sabres offense, the team would be just about unstoppable. I'm trying not to be a homer, but I truly believe that.

One of the biggest disappointments so far is Buffalo's supposed superstar, Thomas Vanek. He's injured, yes, but only 10 goals so far? In many fans' opinions, he is not earning the salary that Buffalo is shelling out for him.

Am I calling for a trade? Perhaps. Something, please something, to get this offense going. Buffalo is currently ranked 21st with just 94 goals for, compared to league-leader Washington's 132.

There are many rumors about players like Lecavalier, Carter, and Kovulchuk being moved within or after this season, and the Sabres might want to consider pursuing a top-ranked offensive machine.

I'm not saying capturing one of the mentioned three is likely, but in my opinion the Sabres management needs to do something.

I want to open this up to the readers, Sabres fans or not. What do you think could help out this offense, and relieve some pressure on the defense?

 

And to those reading: A blessed and Merry Christmas to you and yours!

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

Dany Gare. The Steve Tasker of the Buffalo Sabres Alumni. Anyone who does not live in Buffalo will have no idea what that means, but those of us on Lake Erie get it immediately. Tasker and Gare shared not only a tenacious attitude in sports, but they are two of the most recognizable faces in Western New York. Charity work, endorsements, and a beloved figure in Buffalo history.

The Stats:

Danny Gare played for the Buffalo Sabres from the start of his career in 1974-1975 until he was traded to the Detroit red Wings in the 1981-1982 season. He stayed on with Detroit for four+ seasons, ending his career with an 18-game stint in Edmonton in 1986-1987.

In 827 career games, Danny scored 354 goals and 685 points to go along with 1,285 penalty minutes. Gare was a two-time participant in the NHL All-Star game and led the NHL with 56 goals in the 1979-1980 season. The Buffalo Sabres retired his Number 18 on November 22, 2005.

The Stories:

In Gare's rookie season, 1974-1975, the Buffalo Sabres played in their first Stanley Cup Finals. While thrilled with his good fortune ("Wow, this is great, this is gonna happen every year!" Gare recalls thinking), he was impressed with Bernie Parent and the Broad Street Bullies in Philadelphia. "It was tough to win in Philadelphia. I don't think we ever won a game there during our series but it went to six games. Bernie Parent was unbelievable."

Renowned hockey analyst Don Cherry's first game as a head coach in the NHL was against the Sabres in 1974. "We got hammered 9-5 and I'll never forget a little guy with a bubble helmet got a hat trick. A rookie! Danny Gare."

John Davidson, a hockey analyst and former goalie, says, "When you look at Danny's career, he was an original...he played with guts, determination, fought when he had to, scored when he could...and was very good at all of those different aspects."

When he was only 13, Gare's father told him that if he had any chance at making the NHL, one of the things he was going to have to do was "learn how to box."

Wayne Gretzky: "There's not too many players that I got a chance to grow up and idolize, and then get a chance to play with. But I had that pleasure with Danny Gare [in Edmonton]."

Larry Playfair: He's tough, he played through pain, and he was the best Captain I ever played for."

The Legacy:

Danny Gare helped to groom the leadership skills of two future Hall of Famers: After his Captaincy was over with the Sabres, he was succeeded by Gilbert Perreault. After serving as Captain for four seasons with Detroit, he was succeeded by Steve Yzerman.

Gare scored his first NHL goal 18 seconds into his first game, against the Boston Bruins,  which is still a team record.

Because of his goal scoring ability even during the "French Connection" years, he pushed Rene Robert back to defenseman on the power play for the Sabres.

Three times, he was selected as the Sabres' Most Valuable Player.

Along with Ric Martin, he was able to score 50 goals in a season more than once.

Was an NHL Second Team All-Star selection in 1980.

Elected to the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in 1993.

Elected to the Buffalo Sabres Hall of Fame in 1994.

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This is actually stemming from a post that I read at DoubleEdgedSabres.com  that talked about a post from Puck Daddy.

The post from Puck Daddy pretty much said that the Sabres were like the other teams in the Eastern Conference trying to get a playoff spot. However, I strongly disagree with that.

The Sabres are a lock for the playoffs. In fact, they will probably finish in the top three. Right now, they are six points ahead of the Boston Bruins in the division and nine points out of eighth place.

Over the entire season, scoring has been an issue. Right now, they are 22nd in the NHL in offense. However, the Bruins are in 28th. The difference for both teams is defense.

On the blue line, the Sabres beat just about everybody. The only people that have a better defense than the Sabres are the Devils, who aren't in the division, and the Blackhawks, who aren't even in the conference.

Now, I don't want to underestimate the Ottawa Senators. They haven't been playing their best hockey recently (5-5-0 in their last 10), and when they're on, they're on. They could come back and take the division.

However, I think that's unlikely. They are having a little bit of trouble both offensively and defensively. They have the 17th best defense in the NHL, compared to Buffalo's third.

However, they are only slightly better than Buffalo in offense. They are 18th compared to Buffalo's 22nd.

And, they don't have the goaltending that Buffalo does. Ryan Miller is the best goalie in the NHL right now, leading the league with a 93.8% save percentage, and a 1.89 goals against average.

My point is that the Sabres will be able to ride to the playoffs with strong defense. Although I don't think that they'll finish higher than third, I do think they'll win the division and finish in third.

See more of my opinions at my blog, Tips for Hockey

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Buffalo Sabres forward Drew Stafford sat at his locker room stall with his head in his hands, clearly unhappy after a 2-1 shootout loss to the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins Saturday night at the HSBC Arena.

The feeling throughout the Sabres’ dressing room was mutually discontent after dropping a hard fought contest, which forward Jason Pominville said was theirs to be had.

“I think our power play has to find a way to make a difference,” said Pominville of his team’s 26th ranked power play. “I’m sure they’re saying the same thing on their side, they didn’t score. But I definitely think that we could have won a game if we get one on the power play.”

Both teams’ unit with the man advantage was equally ineffective. Pittsburgh’s power play which now ranks second to last in the league went 0-for-5, with three unsuccessful tries in the third period. The Sabres, however, went 0-for-8, squandering four of those opportunities in the third period, as well as one more in the overtime frame.

“We definitely have to play better, especially when we got the goaltending that we did,” Pominville said. “Patty [Lalime] played great and made some big saves, but the power play could have made a difference.”

The game remained tied at one through four periods, before Penguins defenseman Kris Letang would score the lone goal in the shootout a backhand over the right shoulder of Lalime.

“We played a good game. We were solid defensively,” said Lalime, who made 23 saves in defeat. “I think our penalty killing was very good. We played a good overall game. We had our chances but just couldn’t get the winning goal…I thought it was kind of a playoff game a hard fought battle out there.”

Pominville opened the game’s scoring after tapping home a rebound off a Clarke MacArthur slap shot 15:05 into the first period. The Sabres looked more determined in the first period against Pittsburgh, opposed to the effort put forth in the opening period against Toronto on Friday, coach Lindy Ruff said.

Buffalo’s defense was able to control the high-powered Penguins’ offense for the majority of the game, nonetheless a minor slip up late in the first led to a Chris Kunitz goal to tie the game at one.

Pittsburgh was able to carry that momentum into the second period with a flurry of scoring chances, but could not solve Lalime.

“I felt good,” Lalime said. “Those guys were moving the puck a lot…It makes my job so much easier when our guys are boxing out and try to take the second chances away.”

During the second period, Penguins’ captain Sidney Crosby fired a cross-ice pass to fellow superstar Evgeni Malkin while on the man advantage, but the perennial all-star was unable to hit the open target.

“They had one power play that their shooters were a little bit off,” Ruff said. “Malkin missed a wide open net. I though the penalty killing was pretty aggressive on both sides besides that one power play where a couple of their special players had a couple of good opportunities.”

Either team was able to correct its futility on the power play in the third as well. Buffalo would come close in the final frame when forward Tim Connolly rang a low slap shot of the left goal post.

Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, however, stymied the Sabres’ offense, stopping 31 Buffalo shots, as well as all three in the shootout.

The Sabres’ power play has converted just once in its last 26 tries. And with the absence of Thomas Vanek on Saturday due to a abdominal injury, the unit has been unable to gel, Ruff said.

“We haven’t really practiced in a week, we really can’t” he said. “We’ll rest up and be ready to play again. We’ll have to do our best job through video to try and find a few seems to try and give them one more play.”

On a positive note, Ruff said he was pleased with his backup goaltender’s performance in his second straight start. Lalime made 39 saves in a 2-1 win over the Chicago Blackhawks on Dec. 11.

“I think it’s confidence,” Ruff said. “I think he feels good about the way he plays; when he went [down to Portland]. I think he feels good about the way he played his last game. That feeds into a lot of things.”

The Sabres will next travel north on Monday to take on division foe, Toronto Maple Leafs, in a 7 PM faceoff at the Air Canada Center.

 

This article is featured in The Record Student Press at Buffalo State College

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