Tuesday, November 28, 2006 Updated: November 29, 6:53 PM ET
Who's better? Anaheim or Buffalo? We can only guess
By Damien Cox Special to ESPN.com
What we have here is a need for some good, old-fashioned computerized rankings.
You know, like the ones that have NCAA football fans locked in constant debate and have others screaming for a playoff system to stop the madness.
But at least those folks have something relatively concrete to argue about.
Between Anaheim and Buffalo, Cox believes the Sabres have the best goalie in Ryan Miller.
They can argue about whether Michigan should have lost its No. 2 ranking to USC over the weekend and, for weeks leading up to the Wolverines' collision in Columbus with Ohio State, they had the chance to argue which team deserved to hold the top ranking until they were maize-and-blue in the face.
No such luck for followers of Gary Bettman's NHL.
Right now, there are two teams, Anaheim and Buffalo, with a legitimate belief that they should be considered the NHL's top squad.
(Before the cards and letters start pouring in from Buffalo, I only put them second for alphabetical reasons. Honest. No slight intended. And I know Brett Hull's toe was in the crease.)
The NHL, of course, would much prefer if it were, say, Chicago and Los Angeles vying for the top spot, or New York and Detroit. Nice, big, juicy markets. Even a Toronto or Vancouver would be acceptable.
Instead, these are the plucky, formerly bankrupt Sabres and the Ducks, a franchise even Disney couldn't love that is still fighting for fan acceptance in Orange County.
But that's the league's problem, not ours. These are two very good teams that are interesting in a variety of ways.
• Both the No-Longer-Mighty Ducks and Sabres have 40 points, although Anaheim has played one fewer game.
• The Sabres have two more wins but one more regulation loss. Anaheim, meanwhile, has lost six games in overtime or in a shootout; Buffalo has lost two that way.
• Buffalo has lost twice at home, Anaheim once.
• The Sabres are 11-1-0 on the road, the Ducks 5-1-2 before going north to Edmonton on Tuesday night.
• The Ducks have stylish new uniforms, and the Sabres also are wearing new duds.
But which team is better?
Sadly, we can't wait in anticipation of a delicious head-to-head collision to settle the argument because these two teams don't play each other at all this season under the NHL's scheduling scheme.
If they do meet this season, it'll have to be in June during the Stanley Cup finals. Baseball was looking for a Subway Series; maybe a Ducks-Sabres final would be the Air Miles Special.
Brutus has no problem figuring out that his Buckeyes are No. 1 in football.
The Sabres and Ducks haven't crossed paths at all since Dec. 8, 2005, in Buffalo, where the Sabres won 3-2 in overtime on Maxim Afinogenov's game-winner.
But that's not much of a measuring stick.
Eight Ducks players who dressed in that game are no longer with the team. Chris Pronger was playing for Edmonton. Moreover, Anaheim had won only 12 of 29 games at that point, weeks before a second-half surge would establish coach Randy Carlyle's squad as one of the best in the West.
For Buffalo, meanwhile, Martin Biron stopped 28 shots to get the win in his ninth straight start. Mika Noronen was his backup. Ryan Miller was injured and hadn't established himself as the club's starting goalie, something he would do much later in the season.
The victory left the Sabres unbeaten in 10 against Anaheim, a streak that stretches all the way back to January 1999.
In terms of head-to-head results, that's all we have to go on.
It's a start.
Without a handy computer around capable of spitting out an answer, we'll have to rely on stats, roster analysis and good ol' gut feel to pick a No. 1 team -- which will only provoke more debate.
The good news is these two teams at least have the decency to be different enough that there's a decided contrast.
The Sabres are the run-and-gunners, a team that averages .65 more goals per game than Anaheim. The Ducks are the better defensive club, surrendering .63 fewer goals per game than Buffalo. Which means if they met and the averages held, the Sabres would win by .02 goals, right?
Anaheim, under Carlyle, is more balanced, with the league's second-best offense and fourth-best defense, compared with the Sabres' rankings of first and 15th in those categories, respectively.
But my, oh my, can the Sabres attack with velocity and extreme prejudice. In a league where scoring appears to be overtaking defense gradually -- 15 of the top 17 offensive teams currently hold playoff spots -- the Sabres are clearly ahead of the curve. To beat them, you're probably going to have to be able to put at least four pucks past Miller. No easy task.
Both teams share the load offensively, carrying five players who have scored at least five goals. The distribution does vary a little, however. The Sabres have five shooters in double figures compared with two for Anaheim, and the Ducks have received 16 goals from their blue line compared with 11 from Buffalo's defenders.
Interestingly, Anaheim's power play has performed better this season, a counterintuitive result given Buffalo's snipers. The Ducks are also better at killing penalties and at staying out of the box, as the Sabres have surrendered more power-play opportunities.
Then, there are the blue lines. In Pronger and Scott Niedermayer, the Ducks have star power on the backline the Sabres can't come close to matching. That said, the Sabres have some sneaky good defenders in Henrik Tallinder, Dmitri Kalinin and Brian Campbell, giving Lindy Ruff's team enough balance to counter the loss of Jay McKee to free agency.
In goal, they are close statistically. Miller and Biron are forced to face about four more shots per game than Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Ilya Bryzgalov.
That said, of all these netminders, Miller looks like the gem, the one most capable of lifting a team to the Stanley Cup. Giguere almost did just that in 2003 against New Jersey, but although he captured Conn Smythe Trophy honors, the truth was he didn't deliver the goods on the road in the Meadowlands.
In the playoffs this past spring, the Sabres lost to the Hurricanes basically because they ran out of bodies. Anaheim was upset by Edmonton, however, because the Ducks' goaltending was iffy and the offense sputtered.
So on the Sabres' side of the ledger, you have team offense, sniping quality, team speed and Miller. Anaheim gets the edge in team defense, marquee blueliners, size up front and special teams.
No wonder these teams are close.
The coaches are a dead heat, although Ruff has managed to get his team to the Cup finals and has more experience. Ditto for the general managers, blustery Brian Burke and low-key Darcy Regier. Burke delivered Pronger, and Regier has picked up players such as Daniel Briere, Chris Drury and Jochen Hecht in shrewd moves.
Both teams play in tough divisions, so there's no Detroit-playing-against-weaklings factor here. Although they don't play each other, so far this season they have shared six opponents: the Islanders, Rangers, Penguins, Flyers, Devils and Red Wings. Against those teams, the Sabres are 7-0-0, the Ducks 3-1-2.
Given their team size and history, you have to worry whether the Sabres will be able to keep all their people healthy. The Ducks, on the other hand, likely will look different by March. You can bet Burke will make a move of some significance before the Feb. 27 trading deadline.
But that's down the road. Right now? The Sabres are the better team, if only by the slimmest of margins. It's not just because they've achieved the same number of points in one fewer game, two fewer after the Ducks play the Oilers on Tuesday night. It's not because the Ducks haven't beaten the Sabres this millennium.
It's because the Sabres look willing to play that extra-risky, cojones-to-the-wall style that just might put them over the top if Miller can stand his ground.
That's not a computer talking. That's just intuition. Otherwise known as a guess.
Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.