Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The New Guys

Long time no hockey. I haven't seen a Sabres game in over a week, a combination of working on Saturday, and spending last Wednesday evening in the clutches of IKEA, trying to spice up my apartment with some horizontal surfaces that aren't my floor. In my defense, the Sabres could have helped out a bit by, I don't know, maybe playing more than two games in more than a week. For such a "fast start" it sure seems exruciatingly slow.

Well, Sabres, I regret to inform you that in your long absence, I've found somebody else. That's right, there's a new team in my heart these days. That team? The Harlem Globetrotters of The Amazing Race.


Before this Sunday, I had never seen an episode of The Amazing Race in my life, and I can't recall ever feeling like I missing out on something. Well, if contestants are routinely as charming and loveable as Flight Time and Big Easy, I have been most definitely missing out. After accidentally watching ten minutes of the latest episode at a friend's house, I was hooked enough to not only finish out the episode, but also head over to CBS.com and catch up on the season from the beginning. That's right! I'm sacrificing some precious, precious internet time, here! It's clearly love.

And really, what's not to love? They not only have the best attitude about the competition, and the sweetest team dynamic, but also: they're two goofy BFGs named Flight Time and Big Easy. Who are willing to use their hands in place of oars, if necessary. Nuff Said. Sure, they might be the one team in the race who needs $1,000,000 the least, but I'm still rooting for them to go all the way. And given the fact that their legs are about ten feet long, I can't see how they don't have this in the bag.

Let's go, Globetrotters!

(Oh, and Buffalo, too, I suppose. If they ever play again.)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Too Soon

Well, it's clearly too soon to be throwing the M-word around with these guys, but it was worth a shot. Still, if this is what the new Sabres look like while playing down to their competition, I'll have a hard time complaining about it. They may have looked sloppy, timid, and flustered for most of the game, but they did also manage to score twice as many goals as their opponent. It wasn't pretty or particularly satisfying, but it got the job done.

With that said, let's move on to the really important part of last night's game: Clearly it was all about Jochen Hecht. He scored his first goal of the season (and only missed about 11 other golden chances), showed off the new red (hot pink?!) mouth guard that replaced his neon green standby (pictured above), and gave his first interview. After the long radio silence of the offseason and who knows how many months before that, that lispy German voice was like music to my ears. All in all he did his part to ensure that, even though the hockey was ugly as sin, there was still a lot of love happening in my heart.

I won't be able to watch tonight, but here's hoping the Sabres prove they actually can dominate a bad team. The Thrashers are still bad, right?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Point of Reference

If I was somehow wrong, and the Red Wings are no longer one of the best teams in the league, I don't want to know about it.

I've been trying to write about Tuesday night's game for a couple of days now, but all attempts have so far ended in a long trip to the backspace key. I have something very distinct that I want to say, but I want to be very careful about how I say it, for fear of jinxes or ending up looking like a feel-good fool--I'm not sure which. I suspect I'm one of many Sabres fans with this strangely immutable and yet inexpressible feeling, but I think I'm going to be one of the few to throw caution to the wind and let the expressing win out over the muting. Here goes:

I think the Sabres have changed.

And here comes the urge to backpedal. Four games is not a lot of games. At this point last season, the Sabres were 4-0 and we all know how that turned out. Still, if I ignore the murky future which may sweep in and ruin this new high, my gut tells me that something is different about this team. Something that has nothing to do with talent.

Talent has never been this team's problem. Even in the lowest times it was there, albeit invisible, dormant, flickering just below the surface of jerseys marked Vanek, Pominville, Tallinder. The Sabres have developed, over the past two seasons (and really more if we're being honest) a maddening peek-a-boo balancing act of revealing just enough of their talent to be sensed, but never enough to be realized. Who can say if they're done playing that game yet, but they certainly weren't playing it against Detroit.

Tuesday night's game wasn't a game decided by chances or bounces. It was a game in which everything went right for the Sabres because they made sure everything went right. They took control, dominated, embarrassed. The speed of play, especially in the second period, tells you most of what you need to know. The pace was slow without being lazy or sluggish. It was patient, comfortable, fearless. Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't those trademarks of the team we were playing? The Sabres beat the Red Wings at their own game and made it look easy. There's a sentence I didn't expect to be typing this season.

Call me crazy or rash, but I think there's a mentality shift happening on this team. They seem (and of all the words in this post, this is the one I'm finding the most trouble getting out) mature. Only time will tell, of course, but I'm not going to let fear of what's to come keep me from embracing the thrill of right now.

I was hesitant about posting this, wavering between wanting to retain plausible deniability should I turn out to be wrong, and wanting to be able to say "I knew it all along" should I turn out to be right. Eventually, I decided that those weren't really relevant parameters. If this blog is about recording moments of fandom then I would be remiss to let this one pass by unnoticed, regardless of whether it pans out. It's my prerogative as a fan to say whatever I want. I don't have to be right; I get to believe. (And right now I believe in feel-good optimism. Maybe later I'll believe in cynicism again.)

In any case, tonight should give us another opportunity to gauge the 2009-2010 Sabres. Not only is Vanek out, but they're playing a winless team. Every Sabres fan is familiar with their tendency to play up or down to their opponent's level accordingly, and if the Red Wings helped us plot the new upper bound for this teams level of play, then the Islanders--of all teams-- should give an indication of the new lower bound. Here's a hint, Sabres: the strategy is the same. Take initiative.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


As I prepare my ritual sacrifices to the Internet Gods in the hopes that they will bless me with uninterrupted access to tonight's game, I have a few thoughts running through my head:

--Am I the only one who sees Sekera's fortuitous injury as suspicious? He just happens to get injured pretty much the moment Lydman seems ready to come back, so that no one has to make tough decisions about what to do with Myers or anybody else? I'm not buying it. I might be mistaken, but wasn't he not even hit? He just came out after intermission and "felt pain in his side"? I suspect foul play. Either he took one for the team, or someone discreetly pummeled him in the ribs while he was napping between periods. Someone's lying, and consider it being looked into.

--Yowza, I knew the Sabres were having trouble scoring even though they were getting plenty of chances, but I didn't know they were literally first in the league in shots and last in the league in goals. Maybe they should do something about that, huh? And before you say anything, Sabres, the something you should do is not taking fewer shots. So don't even try it.

--I'm not sure what to make of Lindy's reaction to the Sabres' lack of finish. On the one hand, I think he should be more concerned, but on the other hand, we're still winning. So, I guess if it's not broke yet, don't fix it. Yet. One thing he said stuck out to me, though: "We've missed empty nets, had pucks go off feet by empty nets, pucks slide through sets of legs going through creases that the goalie isn't there." Wow, I was so busy rejoicing about Hecht returning to old Yo-Yo form that I didn't notice that apparently everyone has returned to old Yo-Yo form. A team full of Yo-Yos is... not so great, as it turns out.

--Speaking of Yo-Yo, though, I'm going to be paying extra attention to his line tonight. I'm inclined to be outraged that Lindy broke up what seemed to be a pretty fantastic (not to mention attractive) line, but I'm going to restrain my outrage until I actually see what they can do. Kennedy might not be a Goose in the looks department (he's made me realize that the phrase "less attractive version of Soupy" can actually be uttered truthfully), but I guess he deserves to be given half a chance.

--Tonight will be, for me, the first real measuring pole of the season. The Habs have made so many roster changes since I last saw them that they were a bit of an unknown quantity, and I have vague conceptions but no hard evidence of the Coyotes and Predators being weak teams, but the Red Wings I do know a thing or two about. I could list a lot of things about them that everyone already knows, but long story short I know they're good. I know watching them play in the Winter Classic last season made me want to curl up into a ball and cry. And I suspect the way the Sabres play against them tonight will tell me a lot about where they are and how much they've grown. Here's hoping they can measure up.

--Now, everyone knows I don't write this thing to be read, but four posts in just over a week with nary a comment in sight makes Gambler a self-conscious blogger. Anyone out there? Hello? Echo?

Monday, October 12, 2009

A Family- and Sports-Filled Weekend

This was a big weekend of celebration for the extended Gambler clan that included my grandmother's birthday and an early Thanksgiving. (There's always room for another Thanksgiving in the year, is what I always say.) As is always the way with my family--which charts a vast map of sport- and team-allegiances--sports was the backdrop against which our family gathering was held. We went from college football (Go Cocks!), to hockey, to football, to baseball, ensuring that no one had to miss out on the game that they wanted just because they loved their family.

Unless you were a Sabres fan, of course. The Sabres game had the distinct misfortune of not only playing in fuzzy standard definition opposite the invitingly crisp HD of the Florida/LSU game, but also of playing on the evening of my grandmother's birthday celebration, when the TV eventually became occupied by a family portrait tribute slideshow, which watched like a Titanic-length presentation of Awkward Family Photos: The Movie. I'm not saying that it wasn't more interesting than watching the game would have been, but it was just about as long, and we tuned back in just in time to see the Grier goal and the mad scramble to the finish. I can't say I was encouraged by the raw panic I saw, or the apparent lack of scoring that I didn't get to see, but I'm not in a place to analyse the game any more than that. I'm going to accept the win as a win and move on.

The next afternoon was fully occupied by the NFL. As is tradition, my family had a football pool, but the day's real competition seemed to be a quest to prove whose favorite team was sucking the hardest, with the grand prize being a perverse kind of bragging rights that we all know so well. In a group that includes fans of the Redskins, Raiders, and Titans, there seemed to be room for argument, but after the Bills showed up the Browns in what looked like a 60-minute head-to-head Keystone Kops audition, no one else really had a leg to stand on. For my part, I was entertained by the antics. I feel a great amount of sympathy for die-hard Bills fans, but it was hard for me not to laugh like an idiot while watching the Bills fight to gain the line of scrimmage the way most teams fight to gain the first down line. I had no idea it was possible to be so pathetic at football. My advice to Bills fans is to laugh, a) because it's better than crying, and b) because, come on, it's funny.

All in all, it was a fun weekend packed with family and other, less awesome sports. It was a faint reminder that hockey might end up being a gateway sport after all, and that my potential to turn into a football fan is present. If the Bills ever get a bandwagon again--if their bandwagon ever stops being a wheel-less pile of two-by-fours perpetually parked in the dump--I expect I will be there to jump on it.

Tomorrow night, finally, hopefully, back to hockey.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Let's Try This Again, Shall We?

That'll show me for getting excited about watching hockey. Instead of getting in to Buffalo at 6:55 on Thursday, just in time to catch up to the game on DVR, I got in at midnight after being stranded in Chicago for 5 hours. I suppose I should have known better; the trip between Saint Paul and Buffalo has always been cursed.

As it was, I did get to see the game on a big screen, in its entirety, and in HD (thanks to my parents finally abandoning their TiFaux for a real DVR), just like I wanted, but it just wasn't the same. Call me crazy, but I think it's kind of anti-climactic to watch a game that's already ended, even if I don't know how it ends. It's markedly unsatisfying to yell at Miller to get the hell back in his net when I know that, even if he could hear me, he can't go back in time and obey me. It didn't keep me from yelling, anyway, but still. Moreover, I didn't get to watch the game with my family, which is what I'd been most looking forward to. In my humble opinion, watching hockey with the Gamblers is the absolute funnest way to watch hockey ever. My brother was sweet enough (or just lazy enough, I'm not sure) to watch the game again so I didn't have to be yelling at the screen all by myself. It was a refreshing change of pace.

All things considered, I'm glad I watched and didn't just take the easy way out of checking the score. It was a fun game that avoided being a repeat of one of the most maddening types of games from last season, where the Sabres dominated but still lost. It's way too soon to start declaring bad habits broken, but it was encouraging to see the Sabres neither scramble nor deflate after being scored on early in the third period. I don't know about anybody else, but I've been conditioned to react to this team getting a lot of chances and not scoring with panic, but somehow this game was different. Maybe it's just because my brother had told me it was a game worth watching, but I had faith in them coming back. And maybe I'm just projecting, but it seemed like the Sabres, for the first time in what seems like a long time, had faith in themselves, too. Instead of panicking or giving up, they just kept playing the way they had been playing, trusting in the fact that chances would turn to goals. And, lo and behold, they did. And once again, I find myself excited to see what the next game holds.

So maybe tonight I'll get the real season opener that I've been waiting for.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Cliff's Notes

Thanks to my internet connection, I got the severely abridged version of Saturday night's game, which meant off-and-on coverage of the first half of the game, and then just continuously off coverage. Of course, at the moment when the Sabres scored, the coverage happened to be off. Sigh. How am I supposed to try to establish my image as a legitimate hockey blogger, when the fickle finger of fate gives me so little material to work with? One day my prince will come in the form of a Center Ice package, but until then, I'm going to have to make do with what I can get. So here's my in-depth analysis of what I saw of the game:

The Sabres looked good.

Okay, for the sake of filling up this post, I guess I can get a little more specific than that.

I know I should probably take a number by this point, but I think I'm falling in love with Tyler Myers. I'm loving the comparison to Chara, and not just because Chara is a talented player who plays the type of game the Sabres could use right now. I'm also hoping that Myers turns out to be a freak-of-nature BFG like Chara, because I think the Sabres could use one of those, too. In fact, I'm deliberately avoiding any Myers interviews for fear of disillusioning myself, so passionate am I about this idea.

On a slightly more relevant note, I thought he looked remarkably calm and composed for a rookie in his first NHL game. He skated well for his size, moved the puck efficiently, and really worked along the boards. On top of all that, he seemed to grasp the concept of clearing the crease and protecting your goaltender in a way that made my heart sing. The words "calm" and "composed" (along with another c-word, "consistent") haven't been used to describe the Sabres' defensive corps (or really any Sabres' anything) for the last couple of years, so Myers' performance was very encouraging. That's not to say I think he's here to lead us into the light; he's still young, and his greenness is bound to show sometime, either before or after his 9-game deadline. But if this is the way he plays in the biggest game of his career to date, then I think we have every reason to expect plenty of good with the inevitable bad.

There were a few other stand-outs. Yo-Yo looked like his old self again, making a few smart moves to break up an oncoming attack or keep the puck in the zone, and generally not looking just completely useless. I can't deny that it made me a little bit giddy to see him back to his solid ways. I'll admit that the majority of my joy at the Grier signing was caused by the hope that, with the return of the original Stone Hands, Yo-Yo's hands wouldn't look quite so stoney. Not so sure about that yet, but if Grier was the magic ingredient needed to snap Hecht out of his slump, then I consider it a signing well signed. It seems clear already that the Hecht-Gaustad-Grier line is destined to bring me much joy this season, although I confess that my heart broke a little at seeing Pommers and Yo-Yo split up. Still, if my heart's only options are breaking at them being apart or puking at them being together, then I think the choice is clear.

Actually, the only real let down I saw was the Canadiens' new roster:

Click to enlarge, if you dare.

Wha happened?! Man, the Habs used to have a roster full of the awesomest last names in hockey, a roster that read like a rollercoaster for the tongue, a roster on which a name like "Price" stood out as odd. This new roster makes me almost want to cry. A couple of my favorites (Chipchura, Latendresse) are still around, and they added at least one fun one in the off-season (Pacioretty), but Brisebois is gone, the Kostitsyn content has been cut in half, and the list is now packed with names that anybody could spell correctly on the first try. Gionta? Gomez? Gill? I think I'm dozing off. And those are just the Gs! By the time I got down to Stewart, I was convinced that Montreal is letting just any old regular-named Joe play for them these days. Clearly their standards are slipping.

Overall, though, the most positive impression I got out of the half of the game I saw was cohesion. The Sabres just seemed to be working together in a way that we haven't seen from them in a long time, and the result was that they were in complete control. That may have changed as the game went on (the final score would suggest so, though the goal highlights I watched looked pretty flukey), but I'm pretty optimistic after seeing what they're capable of.

Of course, the season is just a newborn, consistency is still a question, and we all know that this team is a big fan of showing us what they can do just to madden us to full capacity when they insist on not doing it.

With that cynical disclaimer in place, I'm really looking forward to Thursday's game. Mostly because I'm going home for a long weekend, and will be able to watch the game a) on a big screen, b) in its entirety and c) in HD. But also because the teaser trailer that was Saturday night gives me reason to expect good things from the game that will feel, to me, like the real season opener.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Tabula Rasa

A new season. Let's start fresh, shall we?

In the interest in starting fresh, I probably shouldn't open by discussing the R-word, but let's just say that it's a good thing I didn't resolve to lose 20 pounds, because I would probably weigh over 500 by now. This new year I will resolve to have more resolve, but that's still a few months off.

I have no excuse for my long, long absence, except: Who knew it was so hard to graduate from college? Finals were practically nothing compared with the organizational hassle that preceded me actually getting my hands on a diploma, and even the all celebrating was draining. It left me with no time for hockey, let alone hockey blogging. And even once all that rigmarole died down, it was hard to get back into the once-a-week rhythm, especially since it was suddenly the off-season. So I decided to take a break when the Sabres did.

But, if I'm being perfectly honest, blogging wasn't the only thing I took a break from this summer. I also took a bit of a break from being a hockey fan. I can't recall watching a single playoff game, though I'm sure I had the opportunity, and off-season roster moves (even those involving the Sabres) passed mostly under my radar. My daily blog rounds slipped to a weekly, and eventually to a monthly rotation. I stayed informed, but only long enough to file the facts of a trade or a signing away without analyzing, judging, or critiquing possible repercussions. After the last two summers spent fairly agonizing over every bit of team and league news, I found this to be a refreshing approach.

That's not to say I shed my fandom completely. It was a bit like having a long-distance boyfriend who texted me from time to time, reminding me that I was interested in him and letting me know that he picked up that Mike Grier that I always liked. The Sabres were the old flame that I kept meaning to call, but never actually got around to calling, because I knew that when the time was right we would just pick up where we left off. As unideally as things ended between us last time, there are no hard feelings. Some distance was just in order so that my heart could grow fond again.

And my heart is so fond right now.

I am so ready for hockey. Sure, the Sabres didn't make all of the improvements that I would have liked, but then who am I to judge? I'm showing up on opening night under-informed, out of practice, and metaphorically 350 pounds overweight, so it's not like I've dedicated the off-season to self-betterment, either. And, as a new season begins, my dissapointment in the things that haven't changed pales in comparison to my joy at the one big thing that has stayed the same: I love hockey. Right now that's all that matters, and the other factors - Will Myers stay? Will Tallinder be traded? Will Hecht get his mojo back? Will we be good enough? - are just little surprises waiting to happen along the way.

So, here's to a new season and a fresh start. Hopefully, now that I've transitioned from the life of an over-scheduled, over-stressed student into the bright, new, post-grad world of semi-employment, I will now have the time and energy to enjoy and blog to my heart's content. I sure have missed it. In fact, so eager am I to get back into this blogging deal, that if I had my way I would be attempting an all-out game diary tonight to celebrate my grand re-openning, but since the bright, new, post-grad world of semi-employment hasn't yet yeilded things like a TV or cable or Center Ice, the machine I would be doing the typing on is unfortunately the same machine I'll be watching the game on, and I just don't think I have that kind of coordination. Maybe another time.

As for the Sabres holding up their end of the deal, they'll be able to win me over easily enough tonight, as my excitement is high and my standards low. After working on my feet for 27 hours in the past two days, the only way the Sabres could ruin my day-off good mood would be by forcing me to stand up. As long as there is hockey and I get to stay sitting I should be happy. (Of course with those words I have undoubtedly sealed my fate of being miserable with the outcome of tonight's game. The Sabres I remember aren't ones to let that sort of challenge lie.)

Let's Go, Buffalo!