Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Game 44--Buffalo at Toronto. Can't ask for much more right now

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 1-17-2017


You couldn't ask for much more at this point in the season as two would-be rivals with young cores and differing levels of confidence face off tonight in a divisional battle. On the one side, the Buffalo Sabres have struggled mightily with consistency and in turn have struggled to rise from the bottom of the division with an 17-17-9 record. On the other, the 20-13-8 Toronto Maple Leafs are brimming with confidence having reached a playoff position at the half-way point of their season, which was much quicker than almost anyone anticipated.

This will be the third time in three weeks that the Sabres will be facing a team they're chasing in the division. The first was a home-and-home with the Boston Bruins to close the 2016 portion of the schedule. After two regulation losses versus the B's Buffalo found themselves 10 points behind them. Last week they had the opportunity to jump the Tampa Bay Lightning in the standings, but proceeded to lay an egg and in the process fell three points behind them. The Sabres laid another egg in a loss against the Hurricanes in Carolina the following night, but started off this week with an impressive win against the Dallas Stars in yesterday's matinee.

The 4-1 win at home vs. the Stars marked the return of Tyler Ennis who wasted no time in his first game back as he scored a mere :19 seconds in. Ennis had been out of the lineup for 30 games after undergoing groin/hernia surgery but yesterday he corralled a loose puck and ripped it home.

Much to the dismay of head coach Dan Bylsma, the Sabres got into a game of shinny in the first period but they skated themselves to a 2-0 lead, courtesy of Jake McCabe's first goal of the season before the Stars scored with five minute left in the period. A disallowed goal for a Dallas offside early in the second period kept the score at 2-1 until Jack Eichel restored Buffalo's two-goal lead at the 7:07 mark of the period. The Sabres would hang on and Eichel would add the empty netter with nine seconds left.

Bylsma has been preaching defense first all season especially against fast teams like Dallas and his club will face another fast and highly skilled team in the Toronto Maple Leafs who are brimming with confidence. The very young Leafs are hot having catapulted into a playoff spot by going 8-1-1 in their last 10 games. It's a run that has head coach Mike Babcock raising expectations and fans in Toronto once again falling for their beloved Leafs.

Mark Zeisberger of the National Post notes with wonderment that although this very young Leafs team doesn't have enough physical maturity to even grow discernable stubble, much less a playoff beard, their rapid development and "phoenix-like ascension" from the beginning of the season through Game-41 is a complete "transformation" leading to different expectations than in the past. He quotes Babcock as saying of his team right now, “I think a big thing is you’re expecting to win and that’s a big difference.”

A quote like that leads Zeisberger to surmise, "There’s a big distinction between 'wanting' and 'expecting' to win," he wrote. "For too long — dating back to the end of the late Pat Quinn’s reign a decade ago — this franchise settled for the former. Now, they are focused on the latter, with Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment chairman Larry Tanenbaum in a recent interview with Postmedia suggesting a Stanley Cup in the not-so-distant future isn’t such a farfetched concept anymore."

And there you have it. The inconsistent Buffalo Sabres head into Toronto tonight to take on a very confident Maple Leafs team. It's a four-point divisional game and the Sabres are 0-3 in situations like that as of late. It's Buffalo/Toronto. Bylsma/Babcock. Jack Eichel/Auston Matthews and it's a four point game that will have possible playoff implications down the road.

Really, for Game-44 on Buffalo's 82-game schedule, this is about as good as it gets.





Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Today's matinee: Sybil, or which Sabres team will show up today?

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 1-16-2017


For those unfamiliar with the movie Sybil, it's the story of a woman with 16 different personalities, which is pretty much the way the Sabres have played all season and we're not sure which one will show up today vs. the Dallas Stars. Game to game, period to period, shift to shift, Buffalo's inconsistencies on the ice are frustrating and it's left a fairly talented group of players looking at the playoffs from a great distance. About the only things we can count on is Rasmus Ristolainen carrying the load on defense and head coach Dan Bylsma juggling his lines.

But Bylsma will have an reason to do some line juggling today as Tyler Ennis will return to the lineup after early November from groin/hernia surgery. Ennis played in 12 games but was insignificant to the point where I had to back-track and edit a previous blog because I had him as being out all season. I was wrong. He had a goal and an assist and was a minus-6 in 12 games this season.

The 5'9, 180 lb. Ennis has had injury problems dating back to last season when he only appeared in 23 games registering 11 points (3g+8a) and was a minus-9. As one of three holdovers from the tank years who lead the team in scoring, Ennis was expected to at least continue contributing to the Sabres offense but he's been struggling with injuries and the propensity to play an east/west game instead of going north/south. Granted, he's one greazy son-of-a-gun, but too much dipsy-doodling leads too many turnovers and too many odd-man rushes the other way.

Regardless of his struggles the Sabres are welcoming the top-six help as a reinforcement for the left side. Ennis is slated to be on the top line with center Ryan O'Reilly and right wing Kyle Okposo while Marcus Foligno and Evander move to the next two lines. Rookie Will Carrier, who at one time was playing up top, is on the fourth line bumping Nicolas Deslauriers to center or to the press box.

Reports have Cal O'Reilly being recalled from Rochester but the projected lineup from Jourdan LaBarber doesn't have him in the lineup.

The Sabres defense should remain the same with Ristolainen/Jake McCabe, Zach Bogosian/Cody Franson and Taylor Fedun/Justin Falk.

Robin Lehner gets the start vs. the Stars.

Yesterday's blog had some eastern vs. western conference comparisons and despite being in the West, the Stars play an extremely fast Eastern-style game so it will be interesting to see how the Sabres fare. Buffalo is 7-3-2 vs. the West but only 9-14-7 vs. the East which creates a problem since they reside in the Eastern Conference.

That said, we'll see which personality presents itself today. “Consistency is the answer. Consistently doing the small things, consistently doing the simple plays because that opens things up," said Lehner to the gathered media yesterday after watching the team on TV while recovering from an illness. “It’s easier for the team to get better and see where pieces are missing and what we need to do to go forward if we do what we’re supposed to. Right now some games when it goes wrong, everyone is kind of all over the place and it’s kind of hard to pinpoint.”

Tell us about it. We've been watching a schizophrenic Sabres team all season.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Sabres GM Tim Murray's in a bit of a conundrum

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 1-15-2017


The excuses aren't there anymore. Maybe one could point out that defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen has been playing the last few games looking as if he's been run into the ground in the first half of the season while his top-pairing d-partner, Jake McCabe is looking as if he's still feeling the affects of his bone-jarring hit on Winnipeg Jets forward Patrick Laine. The duo of Ristolainen and McCabe have been a train wreck lately leaving head coach Dan Bylsma with a huge kink in an already weak defense-corps.

Up front you could say that Jack Eichel hasn't recovered fully from his high ankle sprain, or that Ryan O'Reilly wasn't fully healthy prior to undergoing an emergency appendectomy on Christmas Day. It was probably the best thing that could've happened to O'Reilly as he was finally sidelined long enough for his spasmatic back to recover.

You could also maybe point to bottom-six players like Zemgus Girgensons, Nicolas Deslauriers as adversely affecting the team or even say that  Derek Grant was a real drag  until he was waived (and claimed.) You could look at man-games lost with Eichel (21 games,) Evander Kane (11 games,)  Zach Bogosian (20 games,) Dmitry Kulikov (22 games total) or any number of players from Josh Gorges to Robin Lehner who's bumps and bruises have kept them out for a few games at a time. And you could even add in Tyler Ennis who's season-long absence has kept the Sabres from having a complete lineup this season.

But we're one game into the second half of the season, and those excuses really don't hold water anymore. Although injuries have contributed mightily to an extremely inconsistent season for Buffalo thus far, maybe a lack of chemistry and/or even a lack of identity has contributed more to their struggles than anything else.

When GM Tim Murray took the reigns of the Sabres in January, 2014 he seemed to be laying a foundation that leaned towards a Western Conference style of play featuring big, skilled players who could skate and were hard on the puck. As director of player development for the Anaheim Ducks from 2002-07, he was part of a group that drafted and developed two players who fit that mold to a 'T'--Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Both played big roles in helping the Ducks capture their first-ever Stanley Cup in 2007.

Furthereing that notion was how Murray acquired and described the two Los Angeles Kings prospects he received in a trade very early in his tenure. When called Hudson Fasching and Nicolas Deslauriers, as well as William Carrier (acquired from St. Louis) as "heavies," as in they play a hard, heavy game. One would think that the recent Cup wins for the Kings in 2012, as well as the Boston Bruins in 2011, had something to do with how he viewed winning in the NHL and the Kings winning their second Stanley Cup in three years at the end of the 2014 season seemed to confirm this notion.

But while Murray was building a team with hard to play against heavies, the already fast NHL was getting faster and quicker, especially in the east. Teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning flew to the Cup Finals in 2015 and a retooled, lightning-quick Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the big, heavies of San Jose' last season. This year you can add the Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes into the mix as they're both filled with fast and highly-skilled players who have puck-possession and shooting on their minds. The Leafs are in a playoff spot right now with eight rookies playing, while the Hurricanes seem to be on the rise.

The Sabres have had trouble keeping up with the east as shown by their 9-14-7 record in the conference. Against the west, however, the Sabres are 7-3-2. Conversely, Tampa is 18-12-3 vs. the east, 2-8-1 vs. the west; Pittsburgh is 19-8-2 vs. the east, 7-3-3 vs. the west, Toronto is 14-7-3 vs. the east, 6-6-5 vs. the west and Carolina is 13-11-4 vs. the east, 8-4-3 vs. the west.

So while the Sabres have been faring well with a heavier style against the heavies of the Western Conference, they're regularly getting outskated and flustered by the quicker, faster teams in the Eastern Conference. Versus the aforementioned teams--Tampa, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Carolina--the Sabres are a combined 1-5-1 and have been outscored by a 21-10 margin.

This is not to say that the Sabres don't have speed, they do, but managing what the opposition throws at them seems to be far more difficult against foes from the eastern conference.

Nor is this to say that injuries haven't played a role in how the season has unfolded thus far, because they have. Eichel especially. Without him they weren't scoring and tried to win 2-1 games while with him they were scoring but are allowing more goals. In both portions they're near the bottom. It's been like a comedic skit where someone punches you in the gut when you're covering your face, then when you protect your belly you get smacked in the face. And so on and so on. But for Sabres fans, and one would assume everyone under the Pegula Sports and Entertainment umbrella, it's not that funny being on the receiving end.

There are disconnects all over the place with this team right now. Murray looks to be behind the team-building curve, Bylsma seems to be having trouble finding chemistry or he's quick to change things when said chemistry briefly evaporates and there are stretches where his players look either uninterested or overwhelmed or worse yet, both.

WGR's Paul Hamilton had a piece on what goalie Robin Lehner saw on TV recovering in Buffalo while the Sabres played the last two games on the road. "I think controlling momentum is the biggest thing for me sitting watching on the couch," Lehner told Hamilton and the rest of the media today.

“If we score a goal maybe we need to play a little simple, not take any risks for a little bit and it’s the same when we get scored on, maybe we just chip it in a little bit and play real simple because it feels like when we score goals, we score in bunches, but when they start scoring on us, we’re scrambling.” he added, “We have a couple of good games and then we get away from it. It’s one step forward and two steps back. It’s not going to come from one guy, it’s not going to come from 10 guys, every single guy has got to get on the same page and we’ve got to totally buy-in to the system.”

And when buying into the system it helps to have some familiarity with your linemates. Bylsma, who's notorious for juggling his lines will probably do so again after the Sabres dropped two in a row. From today's practice Hamilton had these lines:

Ennis-O'Reilly-Okposo
Foligno -Eichel -Reinhart
Kane -Girgensons -Gionta
Carrier -Deslauriers -Moulson

Hamilton also stated that Ennis isn't a 100% go and that the team hasn't ruled out bringing up a center for tomorrow's matinee against Dallas.

Unfortunately for us Sabres fans, it looks as if we'll be on a roller coaster for the rest of this season with the team alternating between good and bad stretches. Case in point. Since Eichel's return Buffalo went 5-2-3 then 1-4 followed by 3-0-1 and now 0-2-0. Could they end up going on a prolonged win streak? Sure, plenty of teams do. Could they go on a prolonged winless streak as well? You betcha. Will either happen? Hopefully the former for a much longer stretch than any of the latter.

Buffalo has six games left before the All-Star break and 20 games before the February 28 NHL trade deadline. Although some would wish to blow things up and tank again, it's hard to imagine because a.) ownership and management probably aren't on board with that and b.) they have a little too much talent to finish at or near the bottom.

Right now we're not even sure whether Murray will be a buyer or seller at the deadline. One would think that even if he were in the position to become a buyer, it's highly doubtful he could acquire anything more than a plug-in rental for his lineup as it would seem as if his team-building will continue moreso in the off season. On the seller side, save for defenseman Cody Franson and Dmitry Kulikov, and maybe forward Girgensons, the Sabres are probably intent upon keeping players other teams may want. So what we see is, for the most part, what we'll be getting for the rest of the season.

Murray is in a bit of a pickle unless this team as constructed can right itself. He's been trying to build on the premise of bigger, faster and harder to play against but the eastern conference has been akin to bees swarming a large intruder and they haven't been able to overcome that. Murray could do any number of things, including firing Bylsma, and he could also make a trade for a desperately needed top-four defenseman, but it would cost scoring up front which will probably end up being counter productive.

Or he could just stick to his plan and let Bylsma and the players work through this.

Murray has the players and although team-building isn't without flaws, it's never a bad idea to build a team with size, speed and skill coupled with intangibles like hard work and leadership. The team may be behind the curve a bit in a quick, fast-paced eastern conference but defenses always catch up to offenses and we'll probably see that happen relatively soon, perhaps as early as this season. Staying the course for this season might be painful for us to watch at times however it might be best for him to let this season play out as it will.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Another missed opportunity. Sabres at the half-way mark.

Published by hockeybuzz.com 1-13-2017


For the third time in two weeks the Buffalo Sabres had an opportunity to make up some ground in the division. In late December they lost two games to the Boston Bruins and saw their deficit go from six points to 10. Last night Buffalo went into Tampa behind by one point in the standings and now find themselves three points behind as the Lightning beat them 4-2 and in the process the Sabres four-game points streak came to an end.

Overall Buffalo didn't play a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, but a number of little things added up, as they usually do, leading to their demise.

First off--Penalties.

Buffalo is 41 games into the season and if they haven't it out yet, they need to keep their butts out of the penalty box. All they need to do is look at the team stats page to be reminded that they're last in the league on the penalty kill. And had they gone to the powerplay side they'd have found out that coming into last night's game, the Lightning had the second best powerplay in the league. Guess what? Tampa Bay went 2/5 with the man advantage.

There are a couple of qualifiers to that stat, however. First off, it looked like Evgeny Romakso got wind of the rumor that Sabres GM Tim Murray had an aversion to Russians as he called a very questionable penalty in the first period to give Tampa a 5-on-3. With Kyle Okposo in the box for a fairly reasonable slashing call, Romasko got Evander Kane for a phantom hooking call :44 seconds later. Tampa converted and tied the game at 1-1.

Late in the third period with the Sabres down 3-2 and charging hard, Romasko nailed Buffalo Kane with a high-sticking call against Lightning goalie Ben Bishop who gave an Oscar-worthy performance on the play. Kane got two minutes for high-sticking and after throwing some expletives Romasko's way got two for unsportsmanlike conduct and a 10-minute misconduct. The Sabres pulled the goalie while short-handed and Tampa added an empty-netter for the final score.

Speaking of Bishop, as outlined yesterday, the Sabres have had trouble winning against top goalies and outside of Tuukka Rask, who has a spell cast over them, Bishop has been a major problem for Buffalo. Bishop is 10-0-1 against the Sabres with a 1.57 goals-against average and a .942 save-percentage. Two goals against him last night wasn't good enough and Buffalo's best players didn't help in the matter.

Sam Reinhart was on a good run with 12 points in his last 10 games, but he was held without a shot last night. Ryan O'Reilly had six points (1g+5a) in three games since returning from his appendectomy. He had three shots on goal last night, was a minus-1 and was on the ice for three of Tampa's goals last night (including both pp goals.) Defensemen Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe, the Sabres top defense pairing, were on the ice for both of Tampa's 5v5 goals and finished the game at minus-2 each. It wasn't just the numbers for those to, but they looked a little off and have been for a couple of games now.

To those whom the most is given, the most is expected and Jack Eichel hasn't lived up to his billing in the last three divisional games. Last night he had the primary assist on Kane's goal but Zemgus Girgensons also had a primary assist his was more worthy of acknowledgement than Eichel's. In Buffalo's last three divisional games (vs Boston twice and vs. Tampa) Eichel has three assists. Not good enough.

Eichel had his moments, he always has his moments, and he has moxie, which is a good thing. He has all the markings of an elite player but if he wants to reach that level, and stay there, he won't get there dangling the puck until he turns it over or throwing blind, backhand passes like we saw last night. I don't know about the rest of Sabreland, but speaking for myself, I saw enough of that type of play from 2007 to 2013 to last a lifetime.

Sometimes it seems as if Eichel is too focused upon living up to Connor McDavid and his style of play, but they're two totally different players. Hell, even their names--Jack and Connor--conjure up different images. So why should a player like Eichel with a long reach, incredible bursts of speed and a fiercely wicked shot try to be a smoove operator like McDavid?

Exactly. He shouldn't.

The loss last night shouldn't totally be pinned on the players, or the refs for that matter, as head coach Dan Bylsma made some curious decisions. Why Eichel started the game with Marcus Foligno and Brian Gionta on his wings was a head-scratcher as was having Eichel moved from the left half-wall to the right point on the powerplay (0/3 with that set-up.) "Disco" Dan was also juggling his lines again and at one point had fourth-line/reserve forward on the ice with O'Reilly and Okposo. Situational line juggling is one thing but it seemed to go well beyond that last night, as it often does in a loss

The Sabres have yet another opportunity tonight as they face a Carolina Hurricanes team that is four points ahead of them in the Eastern Conference. It's another four point game against a team they're chasing. Buffalo's already blown three opportunities and they can't afford to miss too many more.


*****

We're at the half-way point of the season and the Sabres are 16-16-9 for a nice, tidy, 41 points. If they keep that pace they'll have a nice, tidy 82 points in 82 games which isn't good enough.

Last year the Sabres were 15-22-4 at this juncture of the season, good for 34 points. They finished on a 20-14-7 run which was good for 81 points and if they finish the season at the same pace, Buffalo will come up with 88 points. That's an improvement over last season, and some would say that it's about where they expected them to finish, but if their intention was to make the playoffs, 88 points won't be good enough.

They'll need to find a way to add five points to last year's second half finish.

Last season the Sabres had a rough month of January going 5-7-0 but finished with a win which lead to the first of three, four-game point streaks which was their longest such streak all season. After January they never had more than two regulation losses in a row.







Friday, January 13, 2017

Tampa represents a rung for the Sabres, plus a look at Buffalo vs. top goalies

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 1-12-2017


The Buffalo Sabres have a shot at redemption tonight with an chance to leap-frog a team that's directly ahead of them in the division standings. The Tampa Bay Lightning are one point ahead of the Sabres in the Atlantic Division having played two more games so any win by Buffalo will move them up a rung and into sixth place.

It marks the second time in two weeks the Sabres will have had the opportunity to make their mark in the division. Buffalo closed out 2016 with a home-and-home versus the Boston Bruins and the opportunity to slice a six-point deficit down to only two with regulation wins, but fell flat on their face. Boston took both games and increased their lead over Buffalo to 10 points leaving Jack Eichel and many of his teammates steaming over that missed opportunity.

The good news is that those two losses against the Bruins seemed to wake them up, save for the first two periods against the Winnipeg Jets where head coach Dan Bylsma's eruption during a TV timeout snapped them out of a matinee siesta. In all the Sabres are 3-0-1 in 2017 and could have been 4-0-0 were it not for a blown lead late in the third period against the Chicago Blackhawks. That was another loss that left Eichel, and presumably his teammates, unhappy.

We get why Eichel was particularly stung by those Boston losses. In addition to falling off of a cliff after taking a 2-0 first period lead in the first game as well as losing crucial divisional points to a team they were trying to catch, he was playing against his hometown team. That said, Eichel didn't help the cause all that much as he was only able to garner two assists in those two games.

Simply put, after Buffalo scored those first two goals in Game-1, Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask shut the door for the next four periods while the skaters in front of him scored four unanswered in the first game for the 4-2 win then scored the first three en route to a 3-1 win in the second game as Buffalo didn't score their goal until very late in the second period. Rask was dominant once again and he's been giving the Eichel and the Sabres fits for the last two seasons.

Against Buffalo, Rask is 6-0-0 over the last two seasons allowing only seven goals on 194 Sabres shots for an astounding .964 save percentage. This season he's 4-0-0 allowing four goals on 128 shots for an even better .969 Sv%. And right now Rask epitomizes a struggle the Sabres haven't been able to overcome for a decade--beating a top-notch goalie.

The 2006-07 "Ferrari" Sabres could score on anybody at any time but once they were broken up the remaining "Core" couldn't beat a tough goalie and after that group was blown up the players from 2013-15 had trouble beating any goalie, period. Last year's edition of the Sabres was better than the tank years, but was still struggling against some of the best goalies in the leagues.

Here's how Buffalo fared against the top five goalies in save percentage from 2015-16 who played in 50 or more games:

Ben Bishop, TBL:  0-2-0;  2 goals-47 shots on goal
Corey Crawford, CHI:  0-1-1:  3-56
Cory Schneider, NJD:  1-2-0;  5-71
Brayden Holtby, WSH:  1-2-0;  5-74
Roberto Luongo, FLA:  1-3-0;  10-111

Buffalo went 3-10-1 in those games while scoring 25 goals on 359 shots. Those five goalies had a combined .930 Sv%.

So far in 2016-17 here's what the Sabres have done so far against goalies they've faced who are atop the league in save percentage (25 games or more):

Devan Dubnyk, MIN:  1-1-0;  2 goals-62 shots on goal
Brayden Holtby, WSH:  0-1-0;  2-33
Sergei Bobrovsky, CLB:  N/A (have not played)
Carey Price, MTL:  N/A (have not played)
Tuukka Rask, BOS:  0-4-0;  4-128
Crawford, CHI:  0-0-1;  3-20
Luongo, FLA:  1-0-1;  6-61

This year they've gone 2-6-2 while those goalies have allowed 17 Buffalo goals on 304 shots for a .944 Sv%.

Tonight the Sabres will face Bishop who has been sidelined the last nine games due to an injury. He gave them some problems last season. Only two Sabres were able to beat him in 2015-16--Nicolas Deslauriers in a 4-1 Sabres loss at Buffalo and Sam Reinhart in a 2-1 loss at Tampa. Although he has rather pedestrian stats this season (9-10-2;  2.79 GAA;  .907 Sv%,) the 6'7" 217 lb. Bishop shouldn't be taken lightly. Even though he didn't make the above list this season, Bishop was in net for a 4-1 win against the Sabres back in November, stopping 32 of 33 shots including this save of the year nominee against Buffalo's Kyle Okposo (via Samboke on YouTube):




Some Sabres have been able to score against some of the best goalies in the league, but obviously they and their teammates haven't bee able to do it enough. Here's a list of who has scored for Buffalo against the goalies listed above:

2015-16 (25 goals total):

Ryan O'Reilly-5
Reinhart-4
Cody Franson-2
Tyler Ennis-2
Brian Gionta-2
Evander Kane-2

Deslauriers, Eichel, Johan Larsson, Zemgus Girgensons, Jake McCabe, Phil Varone, Tim Schaller and Mike Weber had one goal each.


2016-17 (17 goals total):

Okposo-4
Larsson-2
Kane-2
Marcus Foligno-2
Matt Moulson-2

O'Reilly, Girgensons, Eichel, Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen had one goal each.

There are outliers to this formula as the Sabres have smoked NY Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist for eight goals in two wins this season, yet they've also made backups look like Vezina winners. But for the most part, if you're going to be a playoff team, as a team you need to beat a top-notch goalie for however many goals it takes to win a game and it begins tonight against Bishop and the Lightning.

Tampa is looking to reverse an 0-4-0 losing streak while Buffalo is trying to extend their four-game point-streak (3-0-1.) This is one of those four-point road markers which will end up affecting how this season plays out for both clubs and you can bet your bottom dollar the Lightning will throw everything they have at Buffalo. Hopefully the Sabres do the same.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Positive trends may make this run a bit different for Buffalo

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 1-11-2017


We know they are an imperfect team that plays an imperfect game, yet the Buffalo Sabres have managed to pick themselves up off the mat to become relevant again. After last night’s 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, the Sabres find themselves on a four-game point-streak taking seven of a possible eight points and in the process they're beginning to erase a dismal stretch in late December that saw them finish 2016 on a 1-4 slide.

However, new year, new attitude and with the victory last night Buffalo is now 3-0-1 in 2017.

Sabres fans will point out that we've seen this movie before. Twice this season it looked as if they were on the verge of kickin' it in gear only to have them struggle. In late October/early November, without Jack Eichel the Sabres put together a solid three-game win-streak and won four of five before stumbling to the bottom while playing some of the most unwatchable hockey we've ever had the displeasure of watching. They went 0-4-2 during that stretch and were outscored 19-6.

A huge 2-1 shootout victory over Pittsburgh snapped them out of it and the return of Eichel four games later helped propel the Buffalo to a 3-1-1 record in late November. After a third period comeback against the Edmonton Oilers on December 6, the Sabres looked to be on the verge of turning the tables on a rather difficult season. Through the first half of December Buffalo added to their surge and went into a crucial stretch against Eastern Conference foes going 4-2-1, but maybe more importantly, scoring 21 goals in the process.

However, once again it was back down to the bottom.

With the wind at their backs and an opportunity to climb right back into the thick of a playoff spot, the Sabres fell apart. Their 1-4-2 finish to the month sent them back to the bottom of the conference and had Eichel openly showing his disgust with himself and his team.

With that in mind, what should make any Sabres fan feel as if this team has finally turned the corner making them a legitimate playoff team? I don't think anyone should be convinced until Buffalo is actually knocking on the door of a playoff spot. However, there are signs that this one might stick.

Last night the Sabres showed off a ton of team speed and a lot of gumption as they worked through a tight first period to get untracked in the second with three unanswered goals. It's a barrage we've seen before as recent as the third period of their previous game against Winnipeg when they scored three unanswered in the third period for the come-from-behind win.

But the cool part of those three goals last night was how they were scored as they featured the execution and patience of a team that seems to have caught up to the speed around them.

The first goal showcased unstoppable puck-movement that ended with a shot-pass in Sam Reinhart's skate at the goal line. The Sabres went star-pattern on the powerplay with three players touching the puck before they found Reinhart all alone. "The Quiet One" calmly moved the puck from his skate to his stick and quickly deposited his fifth powerplay goal of the season.

Just over three minutes later with the Flyers on their heels, rookie Taylor Fedun hit the Philly blueline with space and waited patiently for Ryan O'Reilly to provide a screen. His low, far-side shot was kicked out by Steve Mason right to fellow rookie Will Carrier. With two Flyers converging on him in the slot, Carrier calmly maneuvered the puck to a sweet spot on his stick and buried it top-shelf.

Buffalo's third goal came courtesy of a forced Philly turnover very late in the second period.

Sabres d-man Zach Bogosian blocked an outlet pass at the Flyers blueline and Reinhart gathered the puck heading towards the net. His pass to O'Reilly went off of a Philly skate right to Evander Kane who was crashing the slot. Kane calmly fished the puck from between his skates and snapped one past Mason with 8.9 seconds left in the period to make the score 3-0. It was Kane's 10th of the season.

That late second period goal is indicative of another trend for Buffalo lately.

We know that when the Sabres score they put the opposition on their heels and can quickly add to that, as shown last night. Yet they've also been able to do a certain thing that all good teams seem to do--score early and/or late in a period. In their last four games they've scored a goal with less than two minutes left in a period (three of them with less than a minute to play) and in two of the last four games they've scored goals just over a minute into a period. How many times over the last decade have we witnessed teams doing that to the Sabres? Conversely, when was the last time we saw Buffalo do it on a consistent basis? 2005-07?

As mentioned earlier, this is an imperfect Sabres team that plays an imperfect game. They have a lot of young players, are still inconsistent and are still learning how to win. But they seem to be getting it. Remember when they blew a three-goal third period lead in Philadelphia earlier in the season? Not a chance this time. Sure, they also have holes in the lineup, most notably on defense, and no goalie in the Blue and Gold should be confused with Tuuka Rask or Devan Dubnyk, but the team-game they're playing is covering up those weaknesses.

What this group of Sabres has right now is plenty of speed and skill and a comfort-level with who they are and what's expected of them in Bylsma's system. They're gaining confidence in knowing what it takes to win and with each win their confidence grows. Will they slide once again? We're not sure, but I don't expect to see any elongated losing stretch.

The win against Philly was huge in the standings as a once out of reach wild card spot is now at least within sight. The Flyers are presently in the last wild card spot with 48 points. Buffalo is seven points behind with three games in hand. Within the Atlantic Division Buffalo is nine points behind the second place Boston Bruins with four games in hand and their six points behind the third place Ottawa Senators having played one more game. But they've been climbing step by step.

Buffalo's next game is at Tampa Bay on Thursday against a Lightning team represents another rung on the ladder. Tampa is one point ahead of Buffalo having played two more games. The Sabres also have a game at Carolina who are five points ahead of them having played in one more game.

Although we've seen this twice before the upward trends the SArbes are showing makes me think that it might be a little different this time.




Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Disco's line juggling. Grant waived. Okposo = All-Star

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 1-10-2017


"Disco" Dan Bylsma's been doin' the roster soft shoe lately and who know's what he'll come up with tonight as the Buffalo Sabres host the Philadelphia Flyers at KeyBank Center tonight.

Before we delve into that a little bit deeper, forward Derek Grant has been waived. The 6'3" 212 lb. forward can be claimed by any team within the next 24 hrs and should they pass he can be sent to Rochester.

Grant had a great preseason and earned himself a spot on the Sabres roster. Between faceoffs and penalty kills, the former Ottawa pick (119th overall, 2008) earned props early on and looked as if he'd be a solid fourth-line contributor for Buffalo. However the luster soon wore off and Grant's blemishes came to the fore with the biggest one being his inability to score at the NHL level. He's played in 75 NHL games, including 35 with the Sabres, but has yet to light the lamp.

Should Grant clear waivers, which is likely, he'll join the Amerks in a top-nine or even top-six center role for the club. Grant produced back-to-back 20-goal seasons in the AHL before making the Sabres this year and the Amerks could always use more scoring.

As for "Disco," heading into tonight he'll only have one projected line that's played together for the Sabres three-game point streak--Sam Reinhart centering Evander Kane on the left and rookie Justin Bailey on the right. Both wingers on the fourth line--Nicolas Deslauriers and Matt Moulson--will remain, but with Grant being waived they'll have a new center in Zemgus Girgensons.

Girgensons had been playing with Brian Gionta the last three games and the duo had Ryan O'Reilly on their line upon his return from an emergency appendectomy. That line looks as if it will be blown up, despite being an integral part in Saturday's come from behind victory over Winnipeg. O'Reilly will now be centering rookie William Carrier on the left and Kyle Okposo on the right.

Okposo had been center Jack Eichel's right winger for quite some time but he will be replaced by Brian Gionta. Marcus Foligno will be on Eichel's left.

Here's how the projected lineup for tonight's game looks:

Carrier, O'Reilly, Okposo
Foligno, Eichel, Gionta
Kane, Reinhart, Bailey
Deslauriers, Girgensons, Moulson

Good to see Sam Reinhart rediscover his natural center position and good to see Girgensons back in the middle as well. The Sabres are still pretty strong down the middle despite the season-ending injury to Johan Larsson.

Bylsma fooled around with lines at yesterday's practice moving Reinhart from center to wing, but bringing it back home to try and extend their points-streak may be to everyone's benefit.

Game-time is 7:00 tonight.


*****

Congratulations to right wing Kyle Okposo who has been selected to represent the Buffalo Sabres at this year's All-Star break.