Who knew spending a little money in the NHL could get things done?

All you have to do is ask any Buffalo Sabres fan the difference between this year and last and they’ll tell you how amazing it is to have a confident owner, with deep pockets, who actually loves his team. That’s what Terry Pegula has done for this team. 

Aside from a brief hiccup against the lowly Carolina Hurricanes after returning back to the United States from a two-game European swing to start the season, Buffalo has looked outstanding. This really is a team with a new-found confidence and an owner who’s not afraid to spend a little coin. 

All of the pieces are falling into place in this young season and you can start with the most important players.

Ryan Miller looks to be back to his form of two years ago. Times were a little rough last year, but he now has Jhonas Enroth spelling him and everybody has so much more confidence in him.

That should allow Miller to take more than 10 or so games off without problems. After him you have the team’s superstar forward Thomas Vanek. He has had one season where he has looked like a superstar and seems to have finally gotten back to that level and done it as the centerpiece, rather than a wingman to Drury and Briere.

Jason Pominville is leading admirably AND scoring (five points in five games). Drew Stafford is looking like the goal scorer everybody thought he was. Derek Roy is back and scoring. Christian Ehrhoff is taking the pressure to score off Tyler Myers by scoring at a point-per-game pace.

You know what the best part is? Because Buffalo has multiple highly skilled players, they have the ability to win even when some of those players (Brad Boyes, Ville Leino, Tyler Myers) struggle. 

This really is a different team from what Sabre fans are used to. Even when the team had a post-lockout renaissance, everybody knew during that second year that there were players like Briere and Drury, who would most likely be offered far more money than the past ownership would offer. 

Those days are over.

Pegula has not only elevated the Sabres, but he showed his love for the sport itself by upgrading Penn State’s hockey arena so that they could play at the Division I level with the rest of the Big Ten. Then, he turns around and buys the Sabres, takes off the general manager’s handcuffs, and the team automatically does an about face.

Lets face it, things are looking up in Buffalo and not just for the Bills. 

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Last night, the electrifying Buffalo Sabres stepped into the First Niagara Center for their first true home game of the season. 

It disappointed in every way possible. Sitting in section 108, where my family has held season tickets for almost 10 years now, the entire experience of last night’s game was possibly the most forgettable I’ve ever had as a fan. 

It wasn’t just the players whose energy was lacking either.

To open the night, the new entrance video for the Sabres was extremely boring. There wasn’t any kind of music to get the crowd into it. Then came the first of many awkward silences. Eventually the lineup was announced. Not a single player got as loud an ovation as Ryan Miller did last year for every game I was in attendance for.

Why? What was with the fans last night that so moved them to boredom? I can tell you this, the Sabres may not have helped, but last night was the worst crowd I have ever heard since the Sabres started selling their games out.

Then came the game. With 42 shots, the Sabres mustered only three goals. They looked sloppy, taking numerous stupid penalties including the kill shot of Thomas Vanek’s tripping.

It wasn’t just the Sabres PK that made a lot of appearances, the power play unit had six opportunities to score last night. The Hurricanes converted two of those six to goals, giving them a 33 percent penalty kill scoring percentage to the Sabres’ zero.

And last but not least, Ryan Miller was far from spectacular. Were some of the goals tough to stop? Yes. Did he get as much help as he should have from back checkers? No. However, even on his saves, Miller didn’t look too hot.

I understand every team has bad games, but last night was beyond what is acceptable for a team of the Sabres salary and talent. 

The 2011-2012 home opener was probably one of the worst Sabres games I attended. From top to bottom, last night proved that the Sabres still have a long way to go. And that includes the people on the ice and in the stands.

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For the first time in franchise history, the Buffalo Sabres opened up their season in Europe as they part of the NHL Premiere Series, playing in Helsinki and Berlin.

While it was a truly exciting experience for everyone involved, including myself, who had the opportunity to see the Sabres play in my new home city of Berlin, the games did still count in the standings.

All in all, the Sabres should be very happy coming back home with four points (maybe the team should play all of their games in Europe). 

Other than being first in the standings, there are several other takeaways from these two games that could be telling signs for the rest of the season.

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One of the most exciting things about a new season in any professional sport is the new crop of rookies set to make an impact and potentially change the balance of power.

There are more than just a few players that can do that this season in the NHL. In fact, many of the top picks from both the 2010 and the 2011 NHL Draft will make their debuts with the eyes of many watching their every move. These are the top prospects, the young studs, the future stars, whatever you want to call them. They are the rookies that everyone talks about as the sexy picks for the Calder Trophy.

That’s not what this list is about, though.

This is about the dark horses, the sleepers, the players you may not have even heard of. After all, the Rookie of the Year Award is one of the hardest to pick because you don’t know how a bunch of guys, who have never played at the highest level, will fair until you see them play.

So apologies to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Brayden Schenn, Gabriel Landeskog, Adam Larsson, Nino Niederreiter, Mark Scheifele and the rest of the high draft picks that everyone is talking about. You get enough attention from the other writers, so I’m going to focus on the other rookies that you should get to know throughout the 2011-12 season because one of them might just surprise you at this year’s NHL Awards.

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This Buffalo Sabres need to avoid a rough start to their season.

They came out strong and won their opener in Helsinki against the Ducks 4-1. That’s something they didn’t do last year. 

The biggest reason why the Sabres won is Thomas Vanek, who scored two goals and added an assist. Both of those goals were on the power play.

Jason Pominville also notched a goal and two assists. It’s extremely important for him to get on track, especially since he was named Captain two days ago. New addition Ville Leino managed to slip in the Sabres’ other goal. 

Ryan Miller pulled in a solid effort, letting in one goal on 30 shots. The team’s defense as a whole kept the Ducks’ big guns off the scoreboard.

More than anything, this team needs Miller to be strong and stay healthy all year. If he can be effectively spelled by Jhonas Enroth, he should be able to stay off the injury list.

He also has a stronger defense in front of him this season with Robyn Regehr and Christian Erhoff joining the corps. 

Lets hope these two games they play to begin the season in Europe don’t leave them jet-lagged when they have to return to New York. They play the Los Angles Kings tomorrow before heading back for games in Buffalo later next week.

They will open their home schedule against the Carolina Hurricanes before heading out on a four-game road trip. 

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Friday will mark the beginning of a new era of Buffalo Sabres hockey as the Sabres face the Anaheim Ducks in Helsinki, Finland. This will be owner Terry Pegula’s first full season at the helm as he took over ownership from Tom Golisano mid-way through last season.

After an awful start, the Sabres went on a tear to end the 2010-11 season in what essentially coincided with Pegula officially purchasing the team. They were able to slip into the playoffs as the seventh seed, but lost to the Philadelphia Flyers in seven games.

The organization underwent a myriad of changes over the offseason as Pegula has sought to put his mark on the team. Pegula has undertaken projects that are seemingly minuscule, such as constructing a new locker room, but are all part of his plan to make the Sabres a first-class franchise.

The biggest change, however, has been the attitude in which the team is operated. In years past, the Sabres would spend to the salary cap, but that money would be spent solely on signing players in-house and acquiring bargain-bin free agents.

Pegula proved that the Sabres could hang with the big guns in free agency as they traded for rugged defenseman Robyn Regehr as well as the rights to defenseman Christian Ehrhoff before signing him and forward Ville Leino. 

The Sabres now have the third-highest payroll in the NHL and are no longer being operated as a small-market team. With all that in mind, the Sabres seem poised for a Stanley Cup run, and it starts this week.

Although it may not mean much, the Sabres were particularly impressive in exhibition season, going 4-1-1. They also thrashed German DEL team Adler Mannheim 8-3 Tuesday in a friendly contest, which may not seem like much, but the New York Rangers lost to a Swiss team while the Ducks and Los Angeles Kings hardly outlasted their European opponents.

Buffalo has its deepest team in recent memory, and likely its most talented squad since winning the President’s Trophy as the NHL’s best regular season team in 2006-07. Not only do the Sabres have three legitimate scoring lines, but they possess a well-balanced defense corps and one of the league’s best goalies in Ryan Miller.

While it’s difficult to predict how the Sabres will react to beginning the season in Europe, their early-season schedule is pretty favorable. After facing the Ducks and Kings, the Sabres will return home and get a nice five-day respite before hosting the Carolina Hurricanes.

The Sabres will also have two games against the Florida Panthers and one contest with the Columbus Blue Jackets in the season’s first month. Their biggest tests will likely be consecutive games against the Tampa Bay Lightning, a date with the enigmatic Montreal Canadiens and game against the Sidney Crosby-less Pittsburgh Penguins.

It’s impossible to know for sure whether the Sabres will immediately gel as a team until they take the ice in a regular season game, but there were a number of line combinations that seemed to work very well during the preseason. 

Two keys to Buffalo’s success to begin the season and throughout the season for that matter are the power play and managing Miller’s workload.

The power play has been incredibly inconsistent in recent years, but Ehrhoff’s booming shot from the point with Thomas Vanek screening the goaltender could lead to plenty of success with the man advantage.

Also, Miller is notorious for breaking down late in the season, so head coach Lindy Ruff will want to get backup goaltender Jhonas Enroth involved early and often in an attempt to spell Miller and keep him fresh as the season progresses.

There are no guarantees that Buffalo’s re-shaped roster will mesh, but the Sabres have the talent and the favorable early-season schedule to dash out of the gates and stake claim to the Northeast Division crown. 

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