These guys are good, but not yet scary good

November 19, 2018 - 12:46 pm

Remember how cool Jochen Hecht's skates were? They looked like brass knuckles. Remember how fast Afinogenov was? How everyone would stand up as he roared up the ice going 9,000 miles per hour. Remember how everyone had a favorite player on the 2005-06 Sabres? Most of the time it wasn't the best player on the team, but everyone had a favorite. Some loved Kotalik, some loved Kalinin, some loved Dumont, Grier, Briere, and on and on.

That team was the most beloved Buffalo sports team of my lifetime. They weren't expected to be good, let alone great, and they were fast and exciting. Young players that had never let us down like Roy, Vanek, Miller, and Pominville. Veterans that led in the locker room and produced on the ice like Brier, Drury, and McKee.

In the last week, during the Sabres 5-game win streak, many in the Sabres fan base have compared this years' team to that 05-06 team. For a 23-year old, that comparison is the highest of complements. The Sabres are a top five team in the NHL so far this season, but how similar are they to 05-06?

Coming out of the lockout in 2005 the Sabres were projected to be one of the worst teams in the Eastern Conference. They shocked the hockey world by finishing fourth in the regular season, and putting together a playoff run that would have resulted in the team's first Cup if not for injuries. Through 20 games in 2018, the Sabres are fourth in the Eastern Conference. A new playoff format would have them face the second best team in Round 1, but we can complain about that later.

Just like thirteen years ago, this team was not expected to be as good as they've been. Improved? Sure. Meaningful games in February? Sure. Five points into a playoff spot a quarter of the way through? Even the most realistic optimistic fans wouldn't have predicted that.

The comebacks is maybe the number one similarity people have pointed to. The 05-06 team won a ton of games coming from behind. As Max Afinogenov's #1 fan, the game that sticks out to me is a December game vs. the Mighty Ducks. Yes they were the Mighty Ducks still. Ales Kotalik tied the game with little time left on the clock, and Afinogenov blasted a puck past J.S. Giguere in overtime to win it. That was a regular occurrence for that team.

This team has done the same. Whether they're down two to Minnesota, or one to Winnpeg, or two to Vancouver, it doesn't matter. This team is coming back in games.

Differences start to emerge with the roster. The 05-06 team was built with veteran players up top that weren't drafted by the Sabres, and young homegrown talent to support them. This year's team relies heavily on homegrown players like Eichel and Reinhart in their top six.

Maybe they are more similar then I think. Maybe Sheary is the new Afinogenov, Mittelstadt is the new Roy, Ullmark is the new Miller, and Housley is the new Ruff. At the same time, maybe we should brace for regression. Watching the Sabres play the Lightning was a reality check. Despite winning 2-1, the Sabres are not on Tampa's level yet. The same level the 05-06 team was on.

Good news is this Sabres team has the potential to get better. Teenagers Casey Mittelstadt and Rasmus Dahlin haven't produced a ton of offense so far. Both have elite skill that could break through at any time. Perhaps Dahlin's break through has already started with four points in his last five games. It's been a one line show so far this year with not much secondary scoring coming from lines two, three, and four. That's completely different from the 05-06 team.

There hasn't been true electricity in a regular season game at KeyBank Center since the Sabres ran out the clock at Fan Appreciation Night in 2011 to make the playoffs. That was seven years ago. The one thing I and most fans probably miss the most, is the crowd from 05-06. Get the atmosphere anywhere near what it was then, and I'll be a happy Sabres fan.

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