By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Friday was supposed to be one of those nights when the Buffalo Sabres figured to have a very good chance of winning.
They were at home, and must have felt some disappointment at an opening night loss on Thursday to the Washington Capitals. In the rematch, the opposing goalie was Vitek Vanecek. It was his first NHL game after some years in the minors after coming over from the Czech Republic. The major reason why he is even on the roster is that free-agent acquisition Henrik Lundqvist was sidelined with a heart ailment that ended his season before it started.
His first moment on the big stage couldn’t have gone better. He had 30 saves as the Capitals downed the Sabres, 2-1.
“The dream came true,” Vanecek said to reporters after the game. His reward during the postgame interview was a shaving cream pie to the face from teammate Tom Wilson. No doubt he was good with that.
Vanecek’s path to win No. 1 was a long one. He entered the North American game with the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL in 2015-2016, and then essentially spent the next four years with the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League. Now he’s in the NHL record book forever with a goaltending victory.
What’s more, it was well-earned. On most nights, the Sabres would have won this game. But not on this night. He never crumbled, when others might have done so. It’s tough to believe that he wasn’t one of the game’s three stars – not that anyone was in the building to notice, of course.
“Vanecek played the game of his life. Congratulations to him,” Buffalo coach Ralph Krueger said. “We were bringing pucks to the net, traffic to the net. But we hit posts, we hit feet.”
An unusual contest
It was an interesting game in that nothing completely went according to plan, especially for the Capitals. Perhaps Washington was too conscious at times of protecting Vanecek, particularly early in the game. Perhaps it was just a case of the Sabres correcting some mistakes from the night before. In any event, Buffalo made good things happen through the first 20 minutes.
As a result, the Sabres had three power plays in that opening period – but couldn’t score on any of them. To use an analogy that might come up during the Bills’ game on Saturday night, you have to put something up on the scoreboard when you are in the red zone.
“I think they executed their game plan better than we did on (Buffalo’s) power plays,” Sam Reinhart of the Sabres said. “They were winning the battles, getting to the pucks. We weren’t able to turn it around.”
When that happens, the other team often capitalizes. Sure enough, Jakub Vrana took a nifty pass from Wilson in empty space and scored the game’s first goal early in the second period. But the Capitals couldn’t do anything more on offense for the rest of the period, as the Sabres didn’t seem to get rattled.
Still, they needed an early goal in the third period to generate some momentum, and they got one at the 31-second mark. Rasmus Ristolainen’s shot from the point found the net to tie the contest. But the Sabres couldn’t follow up, and the Capitals received a huge break about seven minutes later. Colin Miller fell down while turning in his own zone, and Washington converted the error into a Wilson goal a few seconds later. That was the difference. Buffalo did have a power play in the final five minutes, and some six-on-five time at the end, but couldn’t score a second goal.
A Skinner sighting
Need something to feel good about, Sabre fans? Jeff Skinner came to life on Friday, impressing many with his all-around play. It’s been a slow start for the veteran, if training camp is included, but he thinks the rust is coming off.
“I haven’t played in 10 months,” said Skinner, who sounded a little defiant in his remarks after the game. “I’m pretty confident on what I can do in this league. I thought our line played well. We hunted pucks down, and we were able to generate some zone time. We drew some penalties.”
Ristolainen had a strong game back on defense, and Reinhart moved up to play with Jack Eichel and Taylor Hall for portions of the second part of the game.
“I think our line and everyone else was aggressive to the pucks,” Reinhart said about his play. “Those are two world-class players. You try to get it into their hands.”
Even with the bright spots, it’s a case of two games and two losses in the infant season. In the big picture, that should be meaningless. But a little attention must be paid to the fact that Buffalo has a pair of games coming up in both Philadelphia and Washington next week. On one hand, you don’t want to start a shortened season badly and have to start climbing up a hill right away. On the other hand, if the Sabres play games like they did on Friday, better results should follow.
“The one thing about this lineup is that I didn’t feel uncomfortable about anyone playing against (Washington’s star center, Nicklas) Backstrom,” Krueger said. “That’s a comfort we never had last year. We have a defensive understanding in our offensively lethal players that we didn’t have before. I feel we have enough trust in everyone playing without the puck, and we showed that today. These are high skilled players buying into it. The game without the puck will be the foundation. No points yet, but as a head coach, I’m excited about the potential of this group.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)