Dear Buffalo Sabres and Portland Pirates executives,

There are a lot of rumors flying around about the potential that the Portland Pirates are leaving Maine and heading to Albany, New York.

There are a few reasons why the Pirates should stay in Portland:

 

1. Maine breathes hockey

Portland has had a team since 1977, when the Maine Mariners joined the American Hockey League, and stayed until 1992 before their parent team, the Boston Bruins, moved the team to Providence, Rhode Island.

Portland was awarded the Baltimore Skipjacks in return, and renamed them the Portland Pirates. They won the 1994 Calder Cup.

However, Albany's old AHL team, the Albany River Rats (affiliates of the Carolina Hurricanes) are moving to Charlotte, North Carolina to be closer to their affiliates.

 

2. Portland will fight to get the Pirates back

The Facebook group "Keep the Pirates in Portland" already has over 1,000 members, and was created less than a week ago (you can find it here: http://www.facebook.com/pages/KEEP-THE-PIRATES-IN-PORTLAND-ARRRRGHHH/315359767157?ref=ts).

People in the group are picketing. Maine Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe (both Republican) have each released statements regarding the "Pirates Situation."

Snowe said "The [Pirates] are a tremendous economic asset to the city of Portland and part of the fabric of the greater Portland area. It is vital that their home remains in Maine."

 

You see, hockey is the most popular sport in Maine. Our QMJHL (Quebec Major-Junior Hockey League) team, the Lewiston MAINEiacs (the only QMJHL team located outside of Canada), is rumored to be moving out of Lewiston and into Ontario. It seems as though the deal is all but finalized.

Losing the MAINEiacs hurts, but losing the Pirates would put a dagger in the hearts of most southern Mainers.

Hockey is the fabric of Maine. The University of Maine Black Bears hockey team has one two national championships in the last fifteen years, after the hockey program was founded in the late 1970s. The Pirates and the Black Bears rule the sports headlines in Maine.

So you see, if the Pirates do move out of Portland, expect an all-out war, courtesy of the State of Maine.

You've been warned.

 

Sincerely,

Anthony Emerson

Proud Mainer

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This is where the real games begin.

No more Norway.

No more Swiss.

No more three freebie goals courtesy of Martin Brodeur miscues.

Make no mistake, the USA faces a very tough test against Finland on Friday.

Finland were narrow runners-up in both the last Olympics and the last World Cup of Hockey.

Sweden, the team that defeated Finland in the last Olympics and the only team to defeat them so far in this Olympics, is out.

The Finns don't usually give up goals easily, and are fresh off shutting out a high-powered Czech attack.

And they can score. Teemu Selanne, the Koivu brothers, Olli Jokinen and Niklas Hagman are just a few of their offensive threats.

Most importantly, almost from top to bottom of their roster, their players play a two-way game, and they play as a team, as one cohesive unit.

That's what has made Finland so dangerous in the last three major tournaments, including this one.

No doubt, Team USA coach Ron Wilson will have studied Sweden's victory over the Finns and figured out any tricks to beating the Finns that were in the Swedish playbook.

But even if he has, Team USA's players will need to be on top of their game, and Ryan Miller will need to be every bit as strong as he has been so far in the tournament, if the stars and stripes are to advance to the gold medal game.

USA definitely has a strong chance to win. But the Finns have a chance too.

As an American, I'm somewhat nervous heading into this game.

Outside of Canada, Finland was the team I most feared having to play.

Here's hoping Miller stands tall, and Kiprusoff has an off-night. He has had his fair share of those lately: more than backup Nicklas Backstrom, who I'm very glad won't be the starter.

Here's hoping the American skaters play with the same relentlessness they did against Switzerland, and the same opportunistic nose for the net they did against Canada.

If they do, Team USA may survive it's most serious threat to date, and live to play for gold come Sunday.

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Given the United States' performance in Vancouver, there are a couple questions that require some attention and answers:

1.) Are the Americans the new favorites to win gold?

2.) Is Ryan Miller the best goaltender in the world?

After an impressive 2-0 shut out Wednesday against the Swiss, the second question is causing quite the conversation.

Now that the USA (4-0 for the first time) is in the "Final Four" of the Olympic tournament, the former Michigan State Spartan and Hobie Baker Award winner Ryan Miller will get to strut his stuff for the globe to see.

Miller, 29, has been anchoring the NHL's Buffalo Sabres for six years. The 2010 games in Vancouver are his first go in the Olympics, and he's shining brighter than the snow that covers Whistler.

Miller ranks in the top 10 in every pertinent NHL goaltender statistic: seventh in wins with 30, second in goals against with a paltry 2.16 average, second in save percentage (.930), and fifth in shutouts with five. More importantly, he's keeping the state-siders in medal contention.

Impressive numbers, but there's one accolade that Miller is capable of attaining that would cement his name in the "world's best net-minder" conversation: bringing home a gold medal for the first time since the famed "1980 Miracle On Ice."

Early on, the uber-talented, deep, and experienced Canadians were the front-runners to don the gold medal around their necks on the winners' podium in Vancouver. It would appear that the tide is changing, and the No. 2 team (USA) is forging ahead like a speeding locomotive—thanks to the on-loan Sabres gate-keep.

The USA has struggled a bit offensively at times—Miller's breathtaking display between the pipes has kept it competitive. He's given up just five goals in four games, three of which were to Canada.

Without Miller, the United States wouldn't have half a chance to beat a team that boasts such talent as Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, Philadelphia's Chris Pronger, and San Jose's Dany Heatley.

Crosby is tied for the most goals in the NHL with Washington's Alex Ovechkin, and "The Kid" would love to put a few pucks past Miller should he be given the chance.

The list of Canadian superstars goes on and on—our neighbors to the north are stacked at every position. 

Are the Americans the new favorite?

Can they beat the juggernaut Canadian Dream Team?

The Americans have already knocked it down once (5-3), but it's likely going to take another round with Goliath to get the job done.

Perhaps Olympic hockey fanatics will have to wait until the gold medal game to have their suspicions satisfied. You can bet your bottom dollar that Miller will have something to say come go-time.

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When Drew Stafford played his first season for the Buffalo Sabres back in 2006, the young forward showed tons of promise, but as of late, Stafford has been much less than what was expected.

The 2004 first-round pick has worsened statistically every year since his rookie season.

In the 2006-07 season, Stafford’s average production time was 19:56—that’s almost one point every 20 minutes on the ice. This season, his average production time is 30 minutes.

While we are on the topic of ice-time, Stafford is averaging just 15 minutes per game, which is 38 seconds less than what he played last season. Also, he has also played over 18 minutes just seven times this year.

Stafford has just two points and is a minus-two in a combined 11 games against division rivals the Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, and Ottawa Senators.

Stafford has shown promise with some dazzling moves in the past, like here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5eTN8fB25UQ&feature=related

But it just isn’t enough to keep around past March 3, which is the NHL trade deadline, but more importantly, my birthday.

Hopefully the Sabres will grant me my birthday wish and get rid of “captain” Craig Rivet by then too, but that is a different article—one that you can read by clicking here: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/337834-sabres-defensive-woes-led-by-captain

But let’s get back to Stafford.

In his last 12 games, Stafford has just three points and is a minus-three. The worst part is his plus/minus rating. He has had a positive rating in just one of those 12 games—this means that his defensive play is following his offensive play down the drain.

The first-rounder could still prove to be an excellent third-liner for a contender or even a first or second-liner for a team looking to build. Either way, the Sabres need to look at Stafford as a viable option to bring in a goal-scorer.

Buffalo has had a lot of trouble lately in terms of scoring and Stafford—along with a second or third round draft pick—might do the trick to bring in a player like Nathan Horton of the Florida Panthers, who according to the Buffalo News, may be headed the Sabres’ way.

Regardless of what happens from now until March 3, Stafford has not put himself in the best of positions to be in Buffalo much longer—but only time will tell.

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With the Olympics in full swing, there isn’t much news from the Buffalo Sabres—but that isn’t going to stop me from writing about them.

It’s been a while since I’ve made some bold predictions—so I am going to attempt to predict exactly where the Sabres will finish in the Eastern Conference and what their record will be at the end of the regular season.

Currently, the Sabres are 33-18-9 and are seeded fifth in the East and second in the Northeast division.

The 33-18-9 record means that there are how many games left? That’s right, 22 all you math majors.

Before I go any further, I am predicting the Sabres’ final record based on the current roster and tendencies that Head Coach Lindy Ruff has shown throughout the season. I am not responsible for any trades—please get rid of Patrick Lalime—and/or any injuries that take place from now until April 11.

I have looked at every game remaining on Buffalo’s schedule. When analyzing the remaining games I look at several factors: If it’s a home or road game, their record against the opposing team this season, how much rest they are on, and what the other team’s schedule is like.

Let’s use the March 21 game against the Carolina Hurricanes as an example of how my brain works. Carolina has come on as of late, but they still are not very good and are a team the Sabres should be able to beat—but look closer at the game.

Buffalo’s road record is 14-11-3 and they will be in Carolina that day. Also, they are 1-1-1 against the Hurricanes this season and have lost the last two.

Both teams play the day before, but Carolina plays in Pittsburgh at 1 PM, while the Sabres play in Florida at 7 PM. In regards to scheduling, Buffalo is at a slight disadvantage. If Ruff decides to give Ryan Miller a rest on the back-to-back, then the Sabres are at a big disadvantage.

Normally I would give the game to Buffalo, but given all of the factors at hand, I like Carolina 3-2.

Note: If the Hurricanes actually win the game 3-2, no I don’t know where that $20 from the other night went. My psychic abilities apply to hockey only—like when I said that the Washington Capitals would beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-4 right before the Olympic break.

How I analyzed the game at Carolina was how I examined every other game left on the Sabres’ schedule.

Now on to exactly where Buffalo will end up at the end of the season. I think the Philadelphia Flyers will finish strong and give the Sabres a run for their money for that fifth seed, but Buffalo will hold on by a point or two.

The Sabres will finish the season going 11-8-3, with an overall record of 44-26-12. They will finish second in the Northeast Division and fifth in the East.

And just in case you are wondering who they’ll play in the first round of the playoffs—the New Jersey Devils, who are going to lose their Atlantic Division lead to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

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There was a time when the Buffalo Sabres were almost automatic in the shootout. Daniel Briere would pull off some amazing deke and score—and even if he missed Ales Kotalik and Thomas Vanek were there to pick up the pieces.

But Briere has moved onto bigger and more expensive places, Ales Kotalik has begun to travel from team-to-team, and Vanek, well, he doesn’t participate in the shootout anymore—at least not regularly.

Drew Stafford had taken over the responsibilities in the shootout for a little while, but has been ineffective as of late. Stafford is just two of seven in the shootout this season.

Currently, most of the Sabres are struggling in the extra-extra period, and as a result Buffalo has a 3-6 record in the shootout

From a percentage prospective, Jochen Hecht—of all players—has scored on three of four opportunities and leads the team at 75 percent.

If Hecht surprised you as one of Buffalo’s best shooters, then one of Buffalo’s worst shooters might surprise you even more. Tim Connolly—known for his puck control—has scored just once this season on seven attempts in the shootout.

But the most impressive shooter for Buffalo has been Jason Pominville. He does not resort to fancy dekes and maneuvers, he simply finds an opening and snipes the puck through it. Pominville’s opening of choice has been the five-hole more times than not.

What amazes me is that the goalies have not picked up on it by now. Many of the goalies throughout the league study video footage of the shooters and look at their tendencies. Well, Pominville has shot from about 15 feet out on every one of his attempts so far this season without deking one—and he has scored on four of eight.

But like many teams, the backbone of the shootout lies in net for the Sabres. Ryan Miller has been the gold standard of shootout goalies throughout most of his career, but has struggled significantly this season.

Miller has stopped just 18 of the 29 shooters he has faced to this point. His career shootout save percentage was around .730 at the start of the season, but has dipped to .709 after his recent stretch.

To his credit, Miller is third all-time in shootout wins, trailing only Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Brodeur.

While the Sabres are struggling in the shootout lately, it’s just a matter of time before the right pieces fall into place again—or at least the right shooters are traded for.

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It has been 30 years since the Miracle On Ice.

Since then a lot has changed.

The Cold War ended, hockey players from behind the Iron Curtain have come to America and earned millions playing for NHL teams, and Team USA is no longer the hockey underdog it was in 1980.

So, what are the chances this incarnation of the U.S. Olympic Men's Hockey Team can bring home the gold medal?

Well, given the format of this Olympic tournament, the draw shouldn't be much of a factor. Every team in the Olympic hockey tournament will survive the preliminary round-robin.

Other than to allow teams that have never previously played together a chance to iron out kinks, the main purpose of the round robin is to establish seedings for the playoff rounds.

Whether a team, for example, ends up seeded first versus third, or fourth versus sixth will come down to a number of tiebreakers. So, it's impossible to predict who will face who in the playoff rounds. No one has an obvious advantage.

Likewise, there isn't much time for coaches to practice their players together in a system and mold a team into a cohesive unit.

All of the U.S. coaching candidates have proven themselves as motivators and communicators of pro players.

If Team USA falters, it's doubtful that Peter Laviolette, John Tortorella, or anyone else will have been able to do significantly better than Ron Wilson.

The real key to Team USA's fortunes must inescapably be found in its players.

Up front, the United States has a strong group. 

The mix includes proven leaders Chris Drury and Jamie Langenbrunner. The team includes talented playmakers like Zach Parise, Paul Stastny, and Patrick Kane and goal scorers  Phil Kessel and Ryan Malone.

Also included are players who can get under opponents' skin like David Backes, Ryan Kesler, and Ryan Callahan.

The U.S. can't match the talent level of Team Canada's forwards, but because of greater depth and versatility, this group is probably on par overall with the other main contenders, the Russians, Swedes, Czechs, and Finns.

Unfortunately, the defense is Team USA's weakest link.

Jack and Erik Johnson, Tim Gleason, Ryan Whitney, Ryan Suter, Brian Rafalski, and Brooks Orpik make up the American blueline corps. That's not a bad lineup for an NHL team, but not one of those players would have made the cut for rival Team Canada.

Last but not least comes the goaltender position—this is the real strength of Team USA.

With Ryan Miller, one of the hottest goaltenders in the NHL this season manning the pipes, the U.S squad is in great hands.

Miller is a leader, a competitor, and a winner. One can only wonder how Team USA might have done with Miller instead of Rick DiPietro in net in Torino in 2006.

If Miller gets hurt or slumps, Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins is waiting in the wings. A late bloomer, Thomas has been one of the NHL's leaders in save percentage and other key stats for the last three years. He is capable of heating up like few other goaltenders in the world.

I believe Team USA has the hottest and strongest goaltending in the tournament.

What does all this add up to? Well, the fun of sports is watching to see what happens.

But with a deep crop of forwards and the best goaltending in the tournament, make no mistake, Team USA is a definite contender.

The single-game elimination format of the Olympics' playoff rounds should work to the advantage of the American squad. 

Boasting two goaltenders capable of stealing a win even if the team is badly outplayed, Team USA as an underdog would be more like a shark in the water.

If Team USA does not medal, fans will have a right to question the lack of experience among GM Brian Burke's selections.

Only two players on the roster have prior Olympic experience.

Veteran U.S. stars Keith Tkachuk, Bill Guerin, Mike Modano, and Scott Gomez were all left home.

The average age of Team USA is just 26.5-years-old.

Perhaps the plan was to lower expectations and pressure by leaving them home.

Meanwhile, the reality as any Buffalo Sabres or Boston Bruins fan knows, is that with its unquestionable goaltending prowess in Miller and Thomas, Team USA has a strong shot at gold.

Because of its weakness on defense and its scarcity of veteran leadership, expect Team USA to be outplayed at times by other top teams, particularly Canada. 

But, don't count this American team out.

Impeccable goaltending and opportunistic scoring might well deliver the United States its first men's hockey Olympic gold medal since the Miracle On Ice.

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The Buffalo Sabres picked a good time to snap their six-game losing skid. The Sabres, behind a strong effort from goalie Ryan Miller, defeated the Western Conference-leading San Jose Sharks—of all teams—3-1 Saturday night in Buffalo.

Miller out-dueled fellow Olympian and Vezina Trophy-contender Evgeni Nabakov, stopping 27 of the 28 shots he faced.

“Rest is a good thing in this league,” Miller said following the victory.

Unfortunately for Miller, rest is something he will not see much of over the course of the next two weeks.

Up until Saturday night’s win, Miller had been going through a bit of a rough stretch in February. In his five games this month, the starting goaltender for team U.S.A. was 0-3-2 and had allowed four or more goals in three of those games.

Miller is going to have his hands full in the Olympics and will be more than likely playing at least four games—assuming things go according to schedule.

The goaltender’s focus has been called into question as of late. Miller has let in some unusually soft goals over the course of the last six games, including one Saturday night.

San Jose’s Kent Huskins ruined the shutout bid five minutes into the third period when he ripped a wrist shot that trickled under Miller’s arm. Although Miller made some fantastic saves against the high-scoring Sharks’ offense and played his best game in a couple of weeks, the goal was another soft one that he normally stops.

While Miller is not completely to blame for Buffalo’s recent stretch, he knows he has to be better.

“For a while, it didn’t seem like a lot was going quite my way after pretty much nothing went wrong in the first 40 games,” Miller said. “The teams I’ve been with that have performed at the highest levels have always had something to overcome. I’d rather have it now than later.”

While Miller had declined to comment on the Olympics in the past couple of weeks, he opened up after Saturday’s game.

“I’m looking forward to the tournament and [will] try to have as much fun as possible,” Miller said. “It’s going to be a great experience.”

The Sabres and their fans will keep their fingers crossed that their starting goalie returns to them unscathed and somewhat rested for what will be a very tough March and April.

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Another game, another loss for the Buffalo Sabres. After jumping out to a 2-0 on Thursday night in Carolina, the Sabres surrendered three consecutive goals and dropped their sixth straight game, 4-3 in overtime.

Things looked like they had finally turned around for Buffalo after goals from Derek Roy and Jochen Hecht put the Sabres up 2-0.

But things quickly went south after a bad cross checking penalty by the captain, Craig Rivet, allowed the Hurricanes to cut the deficit in half.

After two consecutive penalties following Rivet’s cross check and several scoring chances, Carolina finally tied the game up with just two seconds left in the first period.

A poor line change in the second period led to a four-on-zero rush for the Hurricanes, which Ryan Miller stopped.

However, after the Sabres charged back up ice and turned the puck over, Carolina countered with a two-on-one and they were not stopped this time. Stephane Yelle ripped a wrist shot past Miller to give the Hurricanes the lead.

Buffalo tied the game up midway through the third when Roy banked a shot off of a defender for his second goal of the game.

The game ended in overtime when Steve Montador fell after he opted to skate the puck behind the Buffalo net. The puck landed on the stick of Brandon Sutter, who found a wide open Sergei Samsonov to ice it for the Canes.

While Buffalo looked great for the first 15 minutes of the game, it quickly turned into the same story it has been over the past six games for the struggling Sabres—poor coaching decisions, bad defense, blown covers, undisciplined penalties, and questionable pinches were all prevalent in the loss.

The newly assembled line of Roy, Drew Stafford, and Clarke MacArthur only played one period together. The tandem combined for one goal and six shots in the first.

Regardless of the success of the line, head coach Lindy Ruff dropped MacArthur off of the line and re-added Thomas Vanek in what seemed to be a “panic” move.

Buffalo was once again plagued by another weak defensive effort from Montador, Rivet, and Toni Lydman. Montador was a minus-2 in his first game back from a small injury.

Rivet seemed to be the cause of the Sabres’ problems after taking a poorly timed cross checking penalty late in the first period.

Lydman blew his coverage on the first Carolina goal and was in the penalty box for the second one.

It was Ruff, however, who began to lose faith in his new defensive pairings and switched them in the beginning of the second period.

The constant switching of lines seems to be hurting the team more than helping it.

Before the losing streak, the Sabres had not lost a game all season when leading by at least two goals. Thursday’s loss marks the second time the Sabres have blown a two-goal lead in the last 11 days.

Miller, who has looked uncharacteristically shaky as of late, stopped 31 shots in the loss. He stopped several odd-man rushes and kept Buffalo in the game when Carolina could have ran away with it.

The Sabres have not won in February, and Saturday night’s game against the Western Conference-leading San Jose Sharks is not going to make things easier.

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According to the Buffalo Sabres’ official website, Head Coach Lindy Ruff has decided to shake things up a little before the Olympic break.

The small shakeup comes after the Sabres—who are in the midst of a season-worst five-game skid—lost in a 3-2 shootout to the equally struggling Boston Bruins.

During Wednesday’s practice, Ruff dropped Thomas Vanek to play alongside Mike Grier, with Tim Kennedy centering the two. In addition, Clarke MacArthur will now take Vanek’s spot and play on a line with Derek Roy and Drew Stafford.

The line of Tim Connolly, Jochen Hecht, and Jason Pominville will stay together, as will the line of Adam Mair, Paul Gaustad, and Matt Ellis.

The fact that Ruff has decided to change things up before the Olympic break does not come as a surprise. However, what he decided to do does come as surprise.

“I’m looking for a road lineup that will get us the win,” Ruff told Sabres.com. “We’re trying to spread it out where one team can’t put out their so-called [top] defensive pair against one line or two lines. Now that it’s spread out amongst three, maybe we can get a little more balance.”

It seems more that certain players are not playing well right now, and putting them on different lines is not going to change that—it will more than likely make things worse.

Vanek, who happens to be playing particularly well as of late, will not be able to produce on a line with two guys who cannot get the puck to the net. Grier is known more for his defense than his offense, and Kennedy has struggled on both sides of the puck as of late.

Dropping Vanek to that line also means he is going to be playing more defense then offense because his center has a lot of trouble winning draws. Kennedy currently has the worst faceoff percentage in the league, an abysmal 34 percent (minimum 150 faceoffs).

The whole team is having a great deal of trouble offensively and defensively at the moment.

The best thing to do would be putting the third line of Hecht, Gaustad, and Grier back together—this would give Buffalo the outstanding defensive line that they have been missing for about a month.

Connolly and Pominville seem to be working great together—throw Vanek into that mix and that will be a great first line.

Putting MacArthur with Roy and Stafford will give Buffalo a nice transition between their first and third lines.

The fourth line is the most drastic change that needs to be made. While Ellis and Mair have played hard lately, they provide no offense—something the team needs now more than ever.

A great way to change things up on the fourth line would be to call up Tyler Ennis and have him center fellow AHLers Nathan Gerbe and Mark Mancari. Even if just for the two games before the Olympic Break, it would give the Sabres a new look and if things don’t work out, they really can’t get any worse.

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