Wednesday, November 30, 2005
Sabres are the hottest team in hockey
By Barry Melrose
Special to ESPN.com
The separation between the good and bad teams in the NHL is continuing. Something that is clearly illustrated by the Ottawa Senators, who are currently the league's best team.
We are seeing some solid individual efforts and some not-so-hot outings. Here's a look at what stood out for me this week.
So far this season, goaltenders are doing some great things. Maple Leafs goalie Ed Belfour is about to pass Terry Sawchuk for second on the all-time career wins list. Ray Emery, of the Ottawa Senators, won his record ninth straight game to start his career, moving ahead of Bob Froese, who went 8-0 to begin his career with Philadelphia in 1982-83. The Stars' Marty Turco has lost just once in his last seven starts. The Coyotes' Curtis Joseph is a big reason his team is two games over .500.
These are all goaltenders who can move, not the traditional butterfly goaltenders who have dominated the league in the past. I think you have to be an athletic goaltender to be successful in the new style of the NHL. An example of the goalies who are struggling is the Panthers' Roberto Luongo, who is a big butterfly-type goalie. He is used to having big numbers; now he has a 3.15 goals-against average.
At some point, you can't blame the team. All of the great teams have great goaltending.
One of the hottest teams in the NHL is the Buffalo Sabres. The team has won four straight and has just one loss in its last eight games.
One of the big reasons for the Sabres' success is their power play -- they have the fourth-best in the league (21.7 percent). Another reason is their high level of skating, a big plus in the new NHL. Daniel Briere, Chris Drury, Ales Kotalik and Tim Connolly are just some of the great skaters.
The team is also stable. It has a good mix of veterans and youngsters. The Sabres also are winning without a 100-percent lineup (Briere and J.P. Dumont are battling injuries), so there is the potential for them to be even better. Scary thought.
A lot of people are wondering what's wrong with the New Jersey Devils? Honestly, I just don't think that they are that good a team. We want to think that these are the Devils of old, that they'll be able to turn things around quickly. But when a team loses two players like Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens, it is difficult to recover quickly.
The Devils' style of play is not conducive to their lineup. Coach Larry Robinson needs to make his team better on the five-on-five and hope that Martin Brodeur becomes the Martin Brodeur again. They are not going to win consistently unless he is one of the best goalies in the NHL (he is 25th in the league with a 3.20 GAA and 29th with an .889 save percentage).
If the Devils make the playoffs, it will be a major accomplishment.
Pittsburgh also is in a lull again. The Penguins have won just three of their last 10 games and continue to be one of the worst defensive teams in the league. You can have all of the offensive weapons in the world, but when you give up 106 goals -- the worst in the league -- you are not going to win.
I thought they would have recognized their weaknesses by this point, but I don't see that fire to get better. They need to get something going soon.
I really didn't think the Boston Bruins and San Jose Sharks would be where they are right now.
The Bruins are eight points out of a playoff spot and are in a free fall. They got Alexei Zhamnov back, but then put Shawn McEachern on waivers. When a team struggles like the Bruins are now, everything seems to go wrong and every mistake is magnified. An example of this is the two bad penalties the team took in the third period against the Devils on Tuesday.
As for San Jose ... the Sharks had so many great, young players after the 2003-04 season, I think they thought they didn't have to do much this offseason. But instead, the team has not been good since day one. None of its big players such as Marco Sturm or Scott Thornton has stepped up.
Also, the goaltending hasn't been front-and-center. Evgeni Nabokov, who heading into this season was considered one of the league's best, has struggled. He's 3-6, has a 3.30 GAA and .865 save percentage. The team should thank Nolan Schaefer -- the kid has given them a jolt when they needed it and he's 5-1 with a 1.91 GAA and .916 save percentage. Too bad the rest of the team hasn't been able to build on what he's put out there for them.
I've said it before, but on paper, this team has more talent than the Coyotes, yet Phoenix is two games over .500 and five points out of the Pacific Division lead. San Jose is last.
Both Boston and San Jose need to get back to the fundamentals, like shooting and defensive-zone drills. You can't make the playoffs in December, but you can certainly be out of it by December. Both teams need to remember that.
Barry Melrose, a former NHL defenseman and coach, is a hockey analyst for ESPN.