Over time, there have been lots of teams more talented than the Buffalo Sabres. While we're at it, more elegant, more explosive, more precise, more almost-anything-you-can-think-of.
Except for one thing.
Don't think I've ever seen a team that has the will, collectively, to play like its hair is on fire from the opening faceoff to the last whistle the way this outfit does, night after night.
We are talking about October and November here. This is not a bunch of guys jacked up for the Stanley Cup playoffs, though they expect to be when the time comes. Can't imagine any team in history has delivered its fans more pure, adrenalin-laced entertainment value than the Sabres have already this season.
And doesn't it just figure that the Maple Leafs, for whom the HSBC Arena has been one large, black hole lo these many years, are one of the few teams to have made the Sabres look vulnerable there this season. They whipped up on the Sabres 4-1 last time in, on Nov. 4.
It's a safe bet coach Lindy Ruff will have something to say about that messy little bit of business in the Buffalo locker room in the moments before tonight's game. As if the Sabres need more pumping up.
Under Ruff, the Sabres have always been a hard-working outfit, a collection of grinders who won the only way they could: With attention to detail on defence.
Now, blessed with speed and firepower, they play with sheer abandon, attacking at every opportunity. And if that costs them a few goals along the way, well, so be it. They build leads, blow leads, fight back and, 17 times out of 21 this year, they have found a way to win. Seventy-eight percent of their goals have been scored after the first period.
"We want teams to have to try to defend us," said Ruff, now in his 10th year behind the Buffalo bench.
"In the past, we were a team that had to worry about defending. We want to work hard at our game so that the other team has to say 'Hey, listen. We've got to do this and this, or these guys are going to pick us apart.' "
That kind of attitude invites some wild rides. Of their 17 wins, only five have been accomplished by scoring first and holding the lead the rest of the way. They have proven that no lead is safe and that includes some of their own.
The Sabres got a reality check last week when they were beaten in a home-and-home series against Ottawa. Last Wednesday, the Sens came to Buffalo in disarray, with the axe poised over either coach Bryan Murray's or GM John Muckler's (or perhaps both) necks. The team responded with a 4-2 win. Then, back in Ottawa last Saturday, they won again, 4-1, handing Buffalo its first road defeat of the year.
As they reflected this past weekend at the quarter pole, the Sabres, who remain a humble bunch, were coming to a few realizations about getting back to playing fundamentally sound hockey.
"If someone said you were going to have 33 points after the first 20 games, we'd be very happy with that," Sabres star Daniel Briere said. "It's definitely a good start, the way we wanted to start. But we've got to be careful."
They also have to get healthy. The Sabres have been able to sustain their hot start, despite losing their best defence pairing to injury. Henrik Tallinder has missed 10 games and Buffalo has given up four goals in eight of those games. His partner Tony Lydman also is recovering from a neck injury that has cost him six games.
No. 1 goalie Ryan Miller has just returned from a slight groin/abdomen pull.
That they continue to win is a testament to Buffalo's depth, but they recognize this swashbuckling style might only take them so far. After losing in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup semi-final last spring, they have big expectations this time around.
NEVER USED EXCUSES
"We're (21) games into it, but we want to get 100 games into it," defenceman Brian Campbell said. "We have to make sure we stay on top of each other. Last year we were never complacent. It was a team that kept on battling and defied odds and never used excuses."
Complacent? This bunch? That's a good one. they have all the complacency of guys walking through hell in gasoline suits.