Penguins provide Sabres’ blueprint

The Buffalo Sabres are off to the league’s worst 2014-15 season start – ranking eighth in the Atlantic Division while sporting a 3-12-2 record – which comes as no surprise given the team is enduring a rebuilding phase.

I realized how far the Sabres are away from being a premier team in the National Hockey League when I watched the Pittsburgh Penguins dismantle Buffalo, 6-1 from section 314 at the First Niagara Center Saturday.

I have grown to loathe Pittsburgh over my past 3 1/2 years residing in Erie, due to its overbearing and snobby fan base. Despite my distaste for the organization, I have grown accustomed to following and talking about the Penguins. And I have actually grown to love a few of the flightless ice birds.

Kris Letang has become my favorite blue-liner in the NHL because of his immense talent and his ability to make difficult plays appear effortless. Letang’s dominance was on display early in the 6-1 rout of Buffalo Saturday. He buried two goals and added an assist on Patric Hörnqvist’s tip-in goal in the first 15 minutes of the game.

I’m thrilled that Letang is back to his dominant style of play after recovering from a stroke last season. It was painful to watch him perform as a shell of his normal self throughout the 2013-14 NHL playoffs.

My archnemesis, Sidney Crosby, also displayed his excellence Saturday when he dished out assists on five of the six Penguins scoring plays. Crosby’s game-winning goal for Team Canada in the 2010 Winter Olympics against the United States and his shootout goal to beat Buffalo in the inaugural 2008 Winter Classic are my main sources of aversion toward the league’s most talented player. I may not look forward to the outcome when Crosby faces my favorite teams, but it has been a pleasure to watch his impressive vision and ability to make the players around him better.

Even though the Sabres were trounced by the Penguins there were a few bright spots, surprisingly, for Buffalo.

The Sabres put two 19-year-old defense-men, Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov, together as the second defensive pair. The Sabres understand that this is going to be a rough season, but they are starting to build chemistry between promising young defensemen.

In Saturday’s game Zadorov struggled with Pittsburgh’s fast-paced attack, but he remains Buffalo’s only player with a positive plus/minus. Ristolainen, on the other hand, played with confidence and showed that he will blossom into a top defenseman in Western New York.

He almost sniped his first NHL goal from the point in the third period, but it rang off the crossbar. It was reassuring to see that the moment wasn’t too big for him.

The other positive takeaway was the play of Zemgus Girgensons. You know what you’re going to get out of the Latvian forward every night he hits the ice. Girgensons should be named a captain by constantly leading by example.

It was disappointing that the Sabres seemed to give up at the end of the first period and well into the second. Girgensons added a spark as he battled in front of the net and chipped in Buffalo’s lone goal in the second period to erase Marc-André Fleury’s shutout opportunity. To add some entertainment for Buffalo fans and a spark to the team, Mike Weber squared up with Steve Downie for a quality tilt to cap the second period.

I looked at Saturday’s matchup as the passing of the torch to adopting the Penguins mentality in the early 2000s. Before Evgeni Malkin and Crosby were selected as top picks in 2004 and 2005 the Penguins were hurting for superstar talent on their roster. The Sabres drafted Samson Reinhart second overall in 2014, and will be eyeing Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid at the top of their selection board in 2015.

When you look at Reinhart, Ristolainen, Zadorov, Myers and the possibility of another potential superstar, the future looks bright.  But it’s going to get worse before things get better.

CONNOR SONDEL

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