First, in the interest of full disclosure, I am a Buffalo Sabres fan. I cheer for the Thrashers when the two teams meet, but otherwise, I've got my "Let's go Buffalo!" ready at all times. I call myself a "seventy-eighter."
So far this season, it's been the Thrashers who have broken my heart over and over. After a strong start, the Thrashers took a mighty tumble during December. January is looking a bit better, but they've got a lot of catching up to do. The Sabres, on the other hand, have been very good all season. They just lost a game at home in overtime against the Avalanche after a six-game win streak. The last time the Sabres lost in regulation was December 23rd in Washington.
The Sabres and the Thrashers are very different teams. When the Sabres are at their best, they're playing solid defensive hockey. They're not giving up a whole lot of goals. You can see this in their 2nd-in-the-East 102 goals allowed in 44 games. That's solid defensive hockey. The Sabres don't have a highlight-reel goal-scorer: even Thomas Vanek has just 12 goals in 39 games this season, best on the squad. Still, while their top-goal scorer has just 12, there are 7 Sabres with 10 or more goals. (The Thrashers have just five.) And if you look at the top 7 goal-scorers on each team, those 7 Sabres combine for a +12. The top 7 Thrashers are a dreadful -27.
After a strong start on Tuesday night against the Ottawa Senators, Ondrej Pavelec gets the nod against the Sabres. Johan Hedberg has some pretty good career stats against the Sabres, so it says a lot that Coach Anderson decided to ride the hot hand and start Ondrej. Another 1.00 GAA performance could sure boost his confidence, and Buffalo is not exactly an offensive powerhouse.
The Thrashers are going to need to score early if they expect to beat the Sabres. Buffalo is one of just 4 teams in the NHL that hasn't lost a game when leading after 2 periods. They have the fourth (T-San Jose) best winning percentage when scoring first.
And we've all seen what happens when Atlanta gets down early.
Tonight's Three Questions of the Game:
- Can Pavelec play solid games back-to-back? The last time Ondrej allowed three goals or less in consecutive games played (note: this is not the same thing as back-to-back starts, it's a much looser qualification) was Nov 19th, when he let up 3 to the Bruins after shutting out the Kings 6 days earlier. The last time he accomplished this in back-to-back starts was October.
- Can the Thrashers continue their somewhat statistically anomalous play against the Sabres? The Thrashers are really, really good against the Sabres. Better than they should be. It's hard to be confident of the reason behind it. It's the reverse of whatever is happening with the Thrashers and the Flyers. Ben laid it out on the Blueland Blog if you want the details.
- Will Nik Antropov be back? Nik's injury has been poorly timed for the Thrashers. In the 10 games he played before his injury, he was a +6 and had 7 goals and 4 assists. If the Thrashers are going to score on Ryan Miller, they're going to need to get traffic in front of the net and Nik is certainly capable of putting rebounds home.
If you don't already have tickets for the game, you can get some for just $15. It'd be nice to have enough Thrashers fans in the building to drown out the inevitable "Let's Go Buffalo!"
Aaron's Notes on the Sabres
Note: Aaron is not a Sabres fan. Just wanted to point that out.
Record: 28-11-5, 61 points (3rd in East, 1st in NE Div)
Last Five: 4-0-1
Vs. ATL: 1-1-0
Special Teams: PP - 18.0% (17th), PK - 86.0% (4th)
Hot Player: Rookie defenseman Tyler Myers is on a tear, scoring seven points in his last seven games while maintaining a +4. It's not like Lindy Ruff is giving the kid soft minutes, either: Myers is 4th on the Sabres with a Qulaity of Competition rating of .083. He's also getting in some serious debt with Sabres captain Craig Rivet. Oh yea, some kid named Ryan Miller tends goal for these slugs. In his last four, Miller has a .949 save percentage and GAA of 2.00. He's ok, I guess.
Notes: Like Tim said, what's notable about these Sabres is their defense. Their GA/G average is 2.32, second in the East to those stingy Devils. The good news for Thrasher fans is this: Atlanta is second in the East (behind Washington) in GF/G to the tune of 3.18. Atlanta can score when they want to, so it'll be important for them to come out firing. The Sabres are also 1-1-4 versus the Thrashers stretching back to the beginning of last season.
Go visit the gang at Die By The Blade for the Buffalo perspective.