As experts and journalists made their predictions prior to the 2009/10 regular season, few gave the Buffalo Sabres a fighting chance to contend or even make the playoffs.
A month into the regular season, the Sabres have proven all naysayers wrong. They have indeed been the biggest surprise in the Eastern Conference. With a remarkable start of 9-4-1, they only trail Pittsburgh and Washington, although they have games in hand on both teams.
The Sabres owe their success to an even distribution of offence. Nine of the Sabres players have more than five points this season, including top forward Tomas Vanek. Vanek missed two games and still has five goals in the ten games he played.
The goaltending for the Sabres this season has been their greatest credit. Ryan Miller is proving himself as a frontrunner to start for Team USA in the Olympics with his stellar play this season. He leads the league in save percentage with an outstanding .941. His GAA — an impressive 1.69 in eleven games — is second only to Andrew Raycroft, who has not played more than ten games this season. If Miller remains uninjured and maintains his superb play, the Sabres could make a run for first in the East, and Team USA is going to be even tougher to beat in the Olympics.
Going the opposite direction of the Buffalo Sabres are the Carolina Hurricanes. Their dismal play has caused their record to drop to 2-11-3 and last place in the Eastern Conference. This is surprising, considering the team made it all the way to the Eastern Conference finals last season, only to be swept four games to none by the eventual Stanley Cup champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Hurricanes defence was shaky at the start of the season and they have not provided any help for goaltender Cam Ward. Ward is trying to secure a spot on the Team Canada roster, but with a save percentage of .899, he does not look like a goaltender ready to backstop for his country.
Carolina has been terrible with goals against statistics. They have allowed 59 goals in just 14 games this season and only scored 32. In a last ditch effort to obtain some scoring, the Hurricanes called up youngster Zach Boychuk from their minor league program. Boychuk was a constant offensive prowess in the World Junior Championships for Team Canada and the Hurricanes hope he can do the same at the NHL level. If he does not produce and Ward continues his inconsistent play, the Hurricanes will continue to get worse until sniper Eric Staal returns. (He is listed as week-to-week due to an upper-body injury.)
The Hurricanes and the Sabres are thus on completely different paths. They show no signs of slowing down. The Sabres could finish first in the East if Miller maintains his stellar play. The Hurricanes could finish last if Ward continues his inconsistent play and his team does not start scoring. Keep a watchful eye on the Sabres as this surprising team could be holding Lord Stanley by the time spring arrives.