By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
A look at the Pacific Division standings of the National Hockey League these days may cause people to clean their glasses.
That’s really the Vancouver Canucks leading the way as the team’s approach the quarter mark of the season.
The Canucks were finished with only 73 points last season. That wasn’t at the very bottom of the overall standings, but they weren’t in the playoff race either. But entering Saturday’s game with the Buffalo Sabres (last season’s cellar-dweller) at the KeyBank Center, Vancouver had 21 points to lead the Pacific. Meanwhile, Vegas (last season’s finalist) and Los Angeles were bringing up the rear.
Yes, it is early. But there is a larger observation to be made about the state of the NHL. It looks as if there’s more balance this season.
At this time last season, Tampa Bay led the league with 28 points. That was 21 points ahead of the worst team in the league, Arizona (7 points). This year, Tampa Bay is at 25 points, while Florida and Los Angeles bring up the rear with 11 points.
OK, the games played may not completely match up, even if the dates do. But even so, the margin from top to bottom isn’t as big as it was. This may mean this is a good year for last season’s have-nots to move up the standings.
And two of the exhibits of that were on the ice Saturday afternoon. Both of them showed some signs that better days are coming.
Back and forth
The Sabres and Canucks combined to play an entertaining game before 17,541. There were some swings in momentum to make it interesting, with the last one going to Buffalo and resulting in the 4-3 win. The Sabres moved above the .500 mark with the triumph.
Let’s break the game into segments. Buffalo wasn’t particularly sharp in the early going, with goalie Carter Hutton stopping everything in sight to give his team a chance.
“We didn’t have a great start,” Jeff Skinner said. “Huts kept us in there big time.”
The goalie’s best save may have come early in the second period. Bo Horvat had a lot of net in front of him when he ripped one from the right side. Somehow, the puck only found Hutton’s glove – drawing cheers of disbelief from the Sabre faithful.
Instead of inspiring the Sabres, though, the save seemed to make the Canucks work harder. Vancouver needed some time, but scored two goals late in the second period to take the lead. The Canucks have added some speed to the lineup, and it showed. They had the better of the play during that stretch.
“We got away from our identity a little bit, which is hard work and checking detail,” coach Phil Housley said. “We slipped a little bit.”
Staying on the attack
Buffalo came out better at the start of the third period, but the Canucks’ Erik Gudbranson found the net with a shot through traffic at 3:44. That made it 3-1. As time went by, a Sabre loss seemed rather certain. Housley has been aggressive at pulling his goaltender in favor of an extra attacker throughout his head coaching career, but it was still a long shot to get the game back to even in the final three minutes.
But that’s exactly what happened. Skinner got one back with 2:27 to go, and Reinhart capitalized on a juicy rebound left by Jacob Markstrom to tie it with 1:47 left. That loud sound you may have heard across Erie County around 3:30 p.m. was not thundersnow; it was the cheer sent up by those in attendance.
“In the third, we had a mindset to attack,” Reinhart said. “We didn’t change anything.”
“When we play from behind, I really like our resistance,” said Nathan Beaulieu, who scored Buffalo’s first goal. “We showed a lot of heart, a lot of grit. … We don’t get rattled now. Last year we got rattled easily. We’d get down early, and sat on our heels. We have enough skill and talent to come back.”
The Sabres had to kill a couple of minor penalties the rest of the way, but they figured out a way to get the game to a shootout. Jack Eichel and Casey Mittelstadt did the rest, and Buffalo had two points more than anyone had expected a few minutes earlier in the afternoon.
“If I’m being honest, I wasn’t nervous,” Mittelstadt said about his shootout goal. “I liked doing that. I think when you touch the puck, you settle in. It’s like a breakaway. I think that’s how you approach it.”
The Canucks are playing like they are nobody’s patsies this year, and they have a chance to make some noise in a topsy-turvy year for the West. Meanwhile, it’s been an exciting week for the Sabres, what with the rout over the Senators and the overtime scorefest in Montreal. After a game like Saturday’s, a little dreaming by the Sabres was quite permissible.
“It’s a nice feeling,” Skinner said about the victory. “You can’t expect to win every game. You’re going to have games when you just don’t have it. But you have to find a way to win.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)