The thrilling, edge-of-your-seat Buffalo Sabres are the poster team for the “new NHL.”
The Buffalo Sabres are doing much more than leading the NHL in jersey sales. Western New York fans are gobbling up tickets to watch what arguably is the most entertaining show in sports today.
I can't think of another team in any professional league that has capitalized more on major rule changes than the Sabres in the last two seasons. The NHL wanted to open up the game to showcase the speed and skills of its athletes, and no other team has more players with both.
The NHL’s other hot team right now, with nine straight wins, is the Detroit Red Wings. Their key to success is a little less glamorous:
It's been a complete team effort. (Goaltender Dominik) Hasek, though not tested a great deal, is playing much better with several games under his belt. The Wings' seven-man defensive unit is arguably as good and as deep as any team's. And their forwards are doing a much better job of back-checking. Together, they're making it difficult for opponents to drive to the net.
They aren't the second coming of the old New Jersey Devils. But many Detroit games are methodical, low-scoring affairs lacking in end-to-end action. The Wings allow fewer than two goals per game, and most of those come on the power play. When it’s five-on-five, the opponents are lucky to get a sniff of the net. Edmonton came to town last week and didn’t manage a shot on goal for the entire first period.
The Detroit captain, Nicklas Lidstrom, is probably the league MVP so far (Though if I had a vote it wouldn't go to him, simply because so much of what he does - breaking up chances; closing off promising rushes - makes the game less exciting.)
The Red Wings winning streak isn't attracting much attention. But what if they step up the grinding style for a big playoff run, pushing aside several high-scoring, Sabre-like opponents in the process? Then we'll see much howling in protest, and the dreaded resurrection of countless schemes designed to increase scoring.