Sabres are really good ... who knew?

Updated: January 18, 2006, 1:23 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

BUFFALO -- The Buffalo Sabres share this much in common with quantum physics: You can get a headache trying to figure out how they work, but darned if they don't work.

The Sabres, once synonymous with economic depression and instability, are one of the hottest teams in the NHL. They have been for weeks, going 20-7 since Nov. 15.

Heading into Thursday's home date with Wayne Gretzky and the Phoenix Coyotes, the Sabres' 56 points had them in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, five points back of Northeast Division leader Ottawa and six back of conference-leading Philadelphia.

Lindy Ruff
AP Photo/Don HeupelCoach Lindy Ruff's faith in the Sabres has set the tone for the entire season.

Impressive stuff, and it's all there in the daily NHL standings. Not that any of it makes a lick of sense.

Take Tim Connolly. The Syracuse, N.Y., native didn't even have a roster spot when training camp opened. Now, he's the team's leading scorer.

And not to diminish what Connolly has accomplished, but he ranks 71st in NHL scoring -- 71st.

The Sabres, cruising towards their first playoff berth since 2001 and creating havoc at the top of the Eastern Conference standings, have scored only 12 more goals than they've allowed. That's the kind of differential more familiar to nonplayoff teams. Ottawa, for instance, has a goal differential of plus-70. The Sabres' team plus/minus ranks 21st in the league.

Two of the team's top scorers, Daniel Briere and J.P. Dumont, have combined to play in just 43 games, sidelined long-term with sports hernias. Last week, co-captain Chris Drury went down with a minor groin pull. Doesn't matter. Head coach Lindy Ruff, who has dressed 30 different players this season, simply pencils in guys with names like Daniel Paille and Paul Gaustad, and of course, Connolly.

Try to pick out the Sabres' first line. Go ahead. Or their fourth.

They're all the same. Tenacious. Committed. Anonymous.

Don't believe us? The team has the second-ranked power play in the NHL. They're deadly even if you have no idea who they are.

That's not all.

The Sabres have three goaltenders on their roster. They have since camp opened. No NHL team keeps three goaltenders around because it's too expensive and GMs are generally afraid they'll come to work someday and find out they've torn each other's legs off. But these guys -- Ryan Miller, Martin Biron and Mika Noronen -- like each other.

They really do.

This is a team devoid of stars, unless you count rookie goaltender Miller, who looks like the front man from a Seattle grunge band that ended up at the rink on the wrong day. Still, if you're looking for surprise, don't look to Ruff.

I sure didn't expect all the pieces to come together this soon. Everybody's attitude right from training camp was just excitement, so much energy every day. It pulls an old fart like me along.
Teppo Numminen on the Sabres

"I said from Day One, even before camp started, that I liked our team," Ruff said.

The Sabres had finished the 2003-04 season on a high note, falling just short of the playoffs after a disastrous start. The team's offense had started to come together, with the acquisition of Drury and Briere and the emergence of Dumont as a scorer. The defense had taken a step back. But this season, with Miller emerging and a resurgent Jay McKee on the back end, joined by free-agent acquisitions Toni Lydman and Teppo Numminen, the Sabres have re-established themselves as a top-10 defensive club in the new NHL.

Numminen, a new father, admits that even though the Sabres sold him on their future, he didn't expect it would arrive so quickly.

"With such a young team, I felt there would be ups and downs, high highs, low lows. I sure didn't expect all the pieces to come together this soon," he said. "Everybody's attitude right from training camp was just excitement, so much energy every day. It pulls an old fart like me along."

Youthful exuberance is one thing. But the Sabres have managed to become a force in the hard-as-nails Eastern Conference with discipline and a strong commitment to team play, qualities that are often difficult to instill in a young team.

Those qualities are present in Buffalo because the team didn't just bolt the doors and eat chicken wings during the lockout.

Ruff wore a rut in the pavement between Buffalo and the team's AHL affiliate in Rochester. While former NHLer Randy Cunneyworth coached the Amerks, Ruff taught, working with young players like Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek and others who have become part of the big club's fabric this season.

It wasn't just Ruff. The Sabres sent their strength and conditioning coach, video co-coordinator and goaltending instructor. They taught the players the Sabre way.

The plan paid immediate dividends this season when frontline players began dropping like flies. Through the first week of January, the Sabres had dressed 30 different players while losing 119 man-games to injury.

"The depth has allowed us to keep moving along," Ruff said. "It's been a very rewarding, but at the same time stressful, 40 games. We've had our share of adversity."

In recent years, the Sabres were a team that just held on. They held on economically. They held on just hoping to make the playoffs.

Captain Chris Drury came to Buffalo in the summer of 2003 from Calgary knowing only two things about the city and the team.

"It snowed a lot and they'd gone into bankruptcy. When I got the phone call, that's all I knew," Drury said.

Since then, the U.S. Olympian has fallen in love with the community. His daughter was born here. He has emerged as a quiet leader whose understated style suits the Sabres lineup and vise versa.

Drury recalled a meeting in the team's small suburban Buffalo hotel during training camp before the start of this season.

Ruff and GM Darcy Regier addressed the group and told them this season wasn't going to be about hanging on, just hoping to make the playoffs. They told them that the stakes had gone up for the franchise.

Drury said players embraced that from one end of the lineup to the other. And the team has received important contributions from every part of the lineup.

"We don't have a line or guys that play two or six minutes a night," Drury said. "The good thing about this team is that it's always the next game or the next week."

"We get the feeling we are able to come back and we're going to come back. There's never any panic," added Jochen Hecht, who is among a handful of veteran Sabres identified by Ruff as providing crucial leadership to a young team exceeding expectations.

"We came to training camp thinking we had a good team. We just had to prove it," Hecht said.

Mike Grier, who has seen the other side of the chemistry equation in a dysfunctional Washington dressing room, said a unique closeness off the ice has translated to on-ice success.

"You don't want to let the other guys down," said Grier. "It was like that my first years in Edmonton."

That kind of bond manifests itself in different ways. The Sabres appear to have learned the new NHL more quickly than many teams, ranking fourth in fewest penalty minutes. They also rank sixth in penalty killing.

With a half a season under Buffalo's belt, there is a temptation to heap praise on Regier for his insight, for having avoided the pitfalls that other GMs have encountered in this new NHL.

And there is no doubt Regier has done a fine job of assembling a quick, disciplined team. But the reality is that if other teams hadn't started pricing free agents out of whack, this team might have looked dramatically different

"Our temptation [to bring in free agents] got shut down very quickly," Regier said.

With teams like Chicago, Pittsburgh and Boston driving the price beyond what many had expected, owner Tom Golisano told Regier and Ruff they weren't going to follow suit.

"Tom [Golisano] and Larry Quinn [managing partner] made a decision that we weren't going to do what got us into trouble in the past," Regier said. "We weren't going to buy something the organization couldn't afford. And we weren't going to pay more than what we thought the value of the player was."

Although Regier was criticized at the time for being conservative (or cheap, depending on your viewpoint) that criticism has morphed into high praise.

"If you know you can't have some things, then the things that you do have, have got to be all about team," Regier said. "It's about players who've gotten over themselves and their focus is on winning and team, and less on 'how did I do tonight?'"

Sounds pretty simple, no? But look around the NHL, and many teams have trouble finding those players.

"It's a big deal," Regier said.

It's why the Sabres are where they are and the Islanders, for instance, are where they are, falling apart in spite of stars like Alexei Yashin and Miroslav Satan, who used to toil for the Sabres. Players quietly talk of addition by subtraction when it comes to Satan, and the comparative record is hard to ignore.

So, now what?

From a coaching perspective, Ruff has told his players that if they had a tendency to sneak up on teams in the first half, that will disappear in the back stretch.

"No more surprises," Ruff said.

From a management perspective, the coming weeks will be crucial ones for Regier. He knows he has great commodities in goaltenders Biron and Noronen, and he knows he can't realistically keep three goalies for the balance of the season.

But he won't deal for the sake of dealing, and he is extremely cognizant of the ripple effect any moves might have in what is a tightly knit dressing room.

"If we make changes, they will really have to make sense. It wouldn't be because it's a leap of faith or a stretch. It's going to have to be highly reasoned out," Regier said.

"The first half has been good, but there's so much work to do," he added. "This is not the time to stand around and reflect. There'll be plenty of time for that. None of us can afford to entertain those sorts of things."

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.

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