Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Game Important. Me Watch.

Here we go, one of those "how far have we really come" games. The Penguins stay at home tonight to take on the Buffalo Sabres, the best team in the Eastern Conference. You may think this will be a very difficult game, with only a glimmer of hope (from having beaten Buffalo last time we played them).

However, at a closer look, there are many things going for the Penguins headed into this match up. Much like the game against Ottawa, both Pittsburgh and Buffalo are completely different teams from the last time they played. Consider the following:

  1. When the calendar turned over to 2007, the Sabres were 28-7-3, and had scored at least four goals in 23 of 38 games. Since then, they are 16-12-2, and have only scored 4+ goals 10 times in 30 games.
  2. Buffalo's four leading scorers are Daniel Briere, Thomas Vanek, Maxim Afinogenov, and Chris Drury. Briere has three points in his last six games; Vanek has one point in his last four games; Drury has four points in his last nine games (including none, and a -3, in three games since The Hit); and in the most telling statistic of all, Afinogenov has missed Buffalo's last 10 games, but is still third on the team with 57 points.
  3. The previously high-powered Buffalo offense managed 36 shots, but only one goal, against Minnesota's backup goalie (some kid named Harding) two games ago.
  4. Buffalo has been slowing down month by month:
  • in October, they were 10-0-1, outscoring their opponents 53-29
  • in November, the Sabres posted a 9-3-1 record while outscoring the other team 52-42
  • in December, a 9-4-1 record by a margin of 47-37 (mostly on the strength of winning their last three December games by a combined 14-5 score)
  • in January, a 6-7-1 record while outscoring their opponents 45-44 (thanks to a 7-1 end of month win)
  • in February, an improvement back to an 8-2-1 record and a 43-31 goal scoring edge (again helped by a 6-1 win in the last game of the month)

So there's another interesting trend. In each of the last three months, Buffalo has won the last game of the month, by a combined score of 17-3. Remove those three games, and Buffalo's goal differential goes from 135-112 to 118-109 (which points to a team that has been far more lucky than good, especially lately).

All this points to a team that was hot early, but has not been significantly better than the Pens over the last few months. Add to that the possible energy surge that the home fans (and, subsequently, the Pens) might get from a pregame announcement of a new arena deal, and the boys in black and gold could run rampant over the Sabres, picking up a little ground in the standings while they're at it.

Other games to worry about: Florida heads to Carolina to keep the 'Canes off our backs and themselves in the hunt...Ottawa takes on a Rangers team that hasn't lost to anyone but the Pens in two weeks...the Islanders head north to Montreal, where Montreal hopes to stop the bleeding...also heading north are the Lightning, looking to reclaim the division lead from Atlanta with a win in Toronto...Detroit and Nashville duke it out once again for breathing room atop the Western Conference...Vancouver attempts to keep their division lead at home against Minnesota...and San Jose an Dallas get a chance to beat up on Philly and Chicago to gain points in the standings.

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