It only took one minute and 54 seconds, and one swipe of Daniel Paille's stick, for the Buffalo Sabres to get their fans cheering, a sound they've rarely heard over a winless stretch that spanned nearly an entire month.
By midway through the first period, after Derek Roy scored the second of his three goals to make it 4-0, the sell-out crowd at HSBC Arena brought out the old "One, two, three ..." chant. For the first time in recent memory, they did so free of sarcasm or rancor.
And the Sabres were more than willing to comply. For one night, at least, they were a reasonable facsimile of the quick, skilled, hustling team that reached the Eastern Conference finals the last two years and won the President's Trophy a season ago. Yes, they got breaks, but more important, they produced them.
The Sabres eventually hung 10 on the Atlanta Thrashers, purging themselves of a 10-game skid that, depending on how you interpret the National Hockey League's goofiest rule, may or may not have been the longest losing streak in franchise history.
As part of the makeover the sport received during the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season, league officials decided to boost the self-esteem of crummy teams by creating the concept of the overtime loss.
Once upon a time, when a team scored fewer goals than the other, whatever the circumstances, it received zero points in the standings, while the winner got two. If both teams scored the same number of goals, they each earned one point.
The introduction of the shootout following a scoreless overtime period did away with ties. Rather than keep things simple by giving the shootout victor two points and the loser none, though, someone thought it was a good idea to offer a consolation point so that nobody was made to feel bad after all that extra skating.
That led to this bit of semantics from the league office:
"It's not a losing streak," NHL statistician Benny Ercolani told the Canadian Press last week. "It's a winless streak because some of those games didn't go in the loss column. Once they go into overtime, they get a point and it doesn't go into the loss column."
As a result, a quick look at the standings showed that, as of Saturday morning, only four of the league's 30 teams had more losses than wins -- if you don't consider failure in overtime or a shootout to be as important as one sustained during regulation, which the NHL clearly does not.
Losing streak, winless streak -- whatever you called it, the period between Buffalo's 6-5 win over Philadelphia on Dec. 22 and the torching of Atlanta last Friday was the most dismal span in the Sabres' post-lockout history.
Though they did receive a point for trying hard and playing longer in five of the 10 contests, there's not much of a case to be made that they deserved to win any of them.
An offense that had sputtered for more than two months ground to a near-complete halt, failing to score more than three goals during the skein, and managing that meager total only twice.
The Sabres weren't much better on the other end of the ice -- on the two occasions they put up three goals, they surrendered five.
Still, those cheapest of points have also helped Buffalo stay within a couple of old-fashioned wins of the conference's eighth and final playoff position.
As if all the losing and non-winning weren't frustrating enough for both players and fans, the thoroughly unsurprising news that Buffalo's front office has once again thoroughly botched negotiations with its top player broke during the middle of it.
After the travesty of last summer, Campbell's decision to stop talking about a contract extension shouldn't really have surprised anyone.
The organization masterminded by Larry Quinn allowed both Chris Drury and Daniel Briere to walk away and lost Dainius Zubrus -- the only player on the roster who had both size and skill -- without making a competitive bid. The gross miscalculation of the value of Drury and Briere on the open market forced Quinn and Regier to match Edmonton's offer to Thomas Vanek, forcing the Sabres to pay far more than they would have if they had extended his deal during last season.
You'd think Regier, at least, would have known better. During Quinn's well-earned exile, Regier saw what happened when he refused to pay the going rate for a team captain who was popular with both fans and his teammates.
Michael Peca did not turn into a superstar after sitting out the 2000-01 season and forcing a trade to the New York Islanders. But while injuries helped turn him into a role-playing journeyman, the team he left suffered a much more precipitous decline.
Peca's departure sent a clear message to the rest of the Sabres: Buy into Lindy Ruff's system, play hard, put the good of the team ahead of your own statistics and, when the time comes, we're not going to pay you.
Regier somehow survived the collapse of the Rigas empire, an ownership change and the longest playoff drought in franchise history without learning much about keeping a successful team together. Or, if he has, he hasn't been able to impart such wisdom to Quinn.
That Quinn is allowed into HSBC Arena without a ticket rests with Tom Golisano, whose status with fans has plummeted along with his team's place in the standings.
No one should expect Golisano, a wildly successful businessman, to know much about hockey. The problem is that the guy he put in charge of the team doesn't, either.
During Quinn's first tenure, he bollixed things up so badly that the league's coach of the year and its top executive for 1996-97 were both former employees within a month of the end of the season. As a result, the Rigases canned him when they assumed full control less than a year later.
As everyone in the free world knows, the Rigas family was something less than they appeared. So perhaps Golisano figured that, having been wrong about so much else, his predecessors must have made a mistake by firing Quinn. Or maybe he was the only guy Golisano could find in Buffalo with both political and hockey connections.
Whatever the case, the move seemed justified during Buffalo's two remarkable seasons after the lockout, even if the roster that produced them was largely built during the seasons that Quinn was banished.
Quinn's front office negotiated -- to use the word very, very loosely -- with Drury and Briere out of arrogance, clearly believing that they could simply plug two guys from Rochester into the lineup, keep the wins coming and keep Golisano happy.
It hasn't worked so far. The dithering regarding Campbell reinforces the notion that management thinks the sell-outs will keep coming, regardless of how many stars leave and how high the losses and non-wins pile up.
Last summer you could argue that Philadelphia offered Briere too much money for too long and that Drury might be approaching the end of his prime. But if you won't pay up to keep a 28-year-old two-time All-Star who is only getting better, who will you shell out for?
Maybe the blowout against Atlanta was a sign that Quinn and Regier do know what they're doing and that the last four months have been nothing more than a series of really bad days, a period of adjustment that's to be expected when a team loses its two undisputed on- and off-ice leaders.
Or maybe it was a singularly freaky occurrence, a confluence of frustrated Sabres, road-weary Thrashers and remarkably helpful bounces, especially on the first two goals.
Any uncertainty about that should be gone by the time they return from the seven-game road trip that started on Saturday in Toronto. If the win over Atlanta really was nothing more than a one-night stand, Buffalo's playoff hopes will have become much more delusional, as well.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||Jan. 22 2008|