These guys are good, but not yet scary good

How similar are these Sabres to the beloved 05-06 team?

Joe DiBiase
November 19, 2018 - 12:46 pm

Photo: Timothy T. Ludwig - USA TODAY Sports

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Remember how cool Jochen Hecht's skates were? They looked like brass knuckles. Remember how fast Maxim Afinogenov was? How everyone would stand up as he roared up the ice going 9,000 miles per-hour. Remember how everyone had a favorite player on the 2005-06 Buffalo Sabres? Most of the time it wasn't the best player on the team, but everyone had a favorite. Some loved Ales Kotalik, some loved Dmitri Kalinin, some loved J.P. Dumont, Mike Grier, Daniel Briere, and on and on.

That team was the most beloved Buffalo sports team of my lifetime. They weren't expected to be good, let alone great, and they were fast and exciting. Young players that had never let us down like Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek, Ryan Miller, and Jason Pominville. Veterans that led in the locker room and produced on the ice like Briere, Chris Drury, and Jay McKee.

In the last week, during the Sabres' five-game win streak, many in the Buffalo fan base have compared this year's team to that 05-06 team. For a 23-year-old, that comparison is the highest of complements. The Sabres are a top-five team in the National Hockey League so far this season, but how similar are they to 05-06?

Coming out of the lockout in 2005, the Sabres were projected to be one of the worst teams in the Eastern Conference. They shocked the hockey world by finishing fourth in the regular season, and putting together a playoff run that would have resulted in the team's first Stanley Cup if not for injuries. Through 20 games in 2018, the Sabres are fourth in the Eastern Conference. A new playoff format would have them face the second best team in Round 1, but we can complain about that later.

Just like 13 years ago, this team was not expected to be as good as they've been. Improved? Sure. Meaningful games in February? Sure. Five points into a playoff spot a quarter of the way through? Even the most realistic optimistic fans wouldn't have predicted that.

The comebacks are maybe the No. 1 similarity people have pointed to. The 05-06 team won a ton of games coming from behind. As Afinogenov's No. 1 fan, the game that sticks out to me is a December game against the Anaheim Mighty Ducks - yes, they were the Mighty Ducks then. Ales Kotalik tied the game with little time left on the clock, and Afinogenov blasted a puck past Jean-Sébastien Giguère in overtime to win it. That was a regular occurrence for that team.

This team has done the same. Whether they're down two to the Minnesota Wild, one to the Winnpeg Jets, or two to the Vancouver Canucks, it doesn't matter. This team is coming back in games.

Differences in both teams start to emerge with the composition of the roster. The 05-06 team was built with veteran players up top that weren't drafted by the Sabres, and young homegrown talent to support them. This year's team relies heavily on homegrown players like Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart in their top-six.

Maybe they are more similar than originally thought. Maybe Conor Sheary is the new Afinogenov, Casey Mittelstadt is the new Roy, Linus Ullmark is the new Miller, and Phil Housley is the new Lindy Ruff. At the same time, maybe we should brace for regression. Watching the Sabres play the Tampa Bay Lightning was a reality check. Despite winning 2-1, the Sabres are not on Tampa Bay's level yet, which is the same level the 05-06 team was on.

The good news is that this Sabres team has the potential to get better. Teenagers like Mittelstadt and Rasmus Dahlin haven't produced a ton of offense so far, but both have elite skill that could break through at any time. Perhaps Dahlin's break through has already started with four points in his last five games. It has been a one-line show so far this year with not much secondary scoring coming from lines two, three, and four. That's completely different from the 05-06 team.

There hasn't been true electricity in a regular season game at KeyBank Center since the Sabres ran out the clock at Fan Appreciation Night in 2011 to make the playoffs. That was seven years ago.

The one thing that most fans, including myself, probably miss the most is the crowd from 05-06. Get the atmosphere anywhere near what it was then, and I'll be a happy Sabres fan.

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