Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Third line Jack, Plus, in absence of Risto.

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 11-20-2017


He's the team's second-leading score a soon-to-be $10 million man and the face of the Buffalo Sabres franchise, yet Jack Eichel found himself in an unfamiliar spot at the morning skate today. According to reports from the KeyBank ice this morning Sabres bench boss Phil Housley sent Eichel to the third line at practice. His wingers were Zemgus Girgensons and Jason Pominville, two players who had been on his wing before, but only in a top-six role.

Center Ryan O'Reilly moved between Evander Kane and Sam Reinhart while third line center Johan Larsson was in the top-six between Benoit Pouliot and Kyle Okposo.

The Sabres are in a terrible slide right now having gone winless in their last 5 (0-3-2) and are coming off of a listless effort at home vs. the Carolina Hurricanes with Eichel being called out by the media for his lollygagging through the first two periods which included the game's first goal.

On the play, the Sabres were on the powerplay and with :45 seconds left in the penalty, Eichel stayed on the ice after a Carolina turnover in their own zone. The Hurricanes gathered the puck as their penalty expired and Justin Williams lead a two-on-one into the Buffalo zone. Williams got in close and dipsy-doodled before potting a wrister past Buffalo goalie Chad Johnson. At the end of the play Eichel was on camera gliding into the zone with his stick on his knees doing his best Alexander Ovechkin impersonation.

"How concerned are you about the body language?" asked a reporter post-game. "He lollygags off the ice with the shifts, the way he floats back on the (Justin) Williams goal tonight.

"You're seeing a lot of these plays from your key guy who everyone is expecting to carry this team."

Apparently Housley was concerned enough to drop Eichel down to the third line.

Credit to the coach, he didn't call out Eichel in public in response to the question. Housley had been in those shoes before. Housley was highly-skilled player drafted by, and playing for, legendary Scotty Bowman as an 18 yr. old, and he had his fair share of failures as a young player. The Sabres are 5-11-4 under the first year coach and he's had plenty of opportunities to call out individual players and the team as a whole and only once has he done it thus far. That was after a lackluster performance at Detroit the night before the Carolina loss.

"We've got to be smarter," he told the gathered media after the Detroit game. "We just got outbattled, outworked and outcompeted tonight. At times we even looked slow and I don't know why that is. We played one game in six nights. It's disappointing."

It doesn't get any easier tonight as the Columbus Blue Jackets come to town on a three-game winning streak. During that streak they've allowed a total of two goals against and that doesn't bode well for a Sabres team that's last in the league in goals scored (2.30 goals/game) and has scored only one goal in five of their last seven games.

Like the rest of the team, Eichel has been cold in the points department lately with only one goal and one assist in his last five games with both of those points coming against the Pittsburgh Penguins. What seems to be more problematic at this juncture is his plus/minus which is a minus-5 over that five-game span and his performance in the first two periods against the 'Canes didn't help much.

Eichel will be between two wingers he's played with before in Girgensons and Pominville. Both wingers bring something different to the table and both have had varying degrees of success on Eichel's wing. Girgensons is a hard-working battler in the corner who has enough speed to get up and down the ice. Although Pominville doesn't quite have the same speed he uses his veteran savvy to get find open ice and is a good finisher. Unfortunately for the 34 yr. old, he's cooled considerably and is an 0'fer in his last five with a minus-6 rating.

Sabres.com had this to say about the changes via their twitter feed:  "Coach Housley on new lines: "Haven’t been scoring, need to make some changes. Looked at some guys who have had success together in the past. Like the balance.'" They also listed the Eichel line as second in the lineup behind the Kane-O'Reilly-Reinhart line.

Very crafty moves by the Sabres PR department but one gets the sense that behind the curtain a message is being sent and that the team is dressing it up the best they can.


*****

Good news for those of us who think that the bottom-six must start contributing more. No, we're not talking about the team's second leading scorer anchoring that line, but fourth-line center Jacob Josefson was back on the ice skating according to reports.

Josefson has been out since October 17 with a lower-body injury and it's not that he'll single-handedly turn the fourth line around, but he was beginning to play well before his injury against the Anaheim Ducks.

The 26 yr. old former first round pick (NJD, 2009) is now listed as day-to-day.


*****

Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen has missed the last seven Buffalo Sabres games and despite calls that he was largely ineffective, the numbers say otherwise.

It's not that Ristolainen is the second coming of Denis Potvin, but his absence on an already thin blue line created a huge hole in the d-corps that is not being filled even close to adequately. Prior to Ristolainen's injury, the Sabres had begun to right the ship by going 4-3-1 after a debilitating 0-4-1 start. In those eight games prior to his injury the Sabres had only one clunker, a 5-1 loss at Columbus. They had two lackluster efforts that resulted in identical 3-2 losses at home against Vancouver and San Jose' but other than that they played some pretty good hockey which included a 5-4 overtime win at Boston against the Bruins.

During that span, Buffalo scored 23 goals-for (2.875 g/gm) and allowed 25 against (3.125 ga/gm) for a minus-2 goal differential in those games. Since then the Sabres have scored a total of 12 goals in their last seven games and have given up 23 goals against for a minus-11 goal differential.

Ristolainen still leads the league in average time on ice at 27:09/game with most of it coming 5v5 as he's 44th in the league with and average of 3:44/game in powerplay time and 49th with 3:00/game on the penalty kill.

With him out of the lineup the team has a 1-4-2 record.

Just sayin'.

Monday, November 20, 2017

With Sabres in a deep rut and out of answers, what will Botterill do (or not do?)

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 11-19-2017


The Buffalo Sabres are in a rut that they just can seem to get out of. Last night's 3-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes puts their losing streak at five in a row (0-3-2) and their lone tally against Carolina means that they've only managed one goal in four of their last six games.

The litany of excuses and/or reasons for their demise are many and varied but the loss to the 'Canes added another wrinkle. After the game Buffalo head coach Phil Housley was asked this about franchise center, Jack Eichel, who was invisible up until about the last 10 minutes of the game, "How concerned are you about the body language?" asked a reporter. "He lollygags off the ice with the shifts, the way he floats back on the (Justin) Williams goal tonight.

"You're seeing a lot of these plays from your key guy who everyone is expecting to carry this team."

Housley's response to those gathered for the post-game presser was to defend Eichel's play as of late. He pointed out some positives noting that Eichel's play in his own end was better and that he liked the speed he brought through the neutral zone. The reporter then followed up with, "did you like his play through the first two periods?" Once again Housley came to his defense noting his special teams play before with "I think there's an improvement in that area."

We're not seeing the Eichel we saw during his first two seasons on a consistent basis nor are we seeing anywhere near the "Jack Flash" we were genuinely excited about through his first 142 games in the Blue and Gold. It would appear that the 21 year old has a huge weight on his shoulders that may be the product of a number of things which probably includes the struggles of this team. We might also add to the equation that he was put in a position of leadership this year and just signed a max-term contract that will pay him $10 million per season for the next eight years.

Although leadership isn't the main culprit in the Sabres tailspin, one would think that not having a genuine leader on this team isn't helping matters. Both Eichel and Ryan O'Reilly are looked to for that leadership but they've been faltering in that area. Sabres GM Jason Botterill once (famously or infamously) said that "the days of Mark Messier and one guy leading the team doesn't exist anymore," in reference to perhaps the greatest team captain of all time. It may be a small piece to a complex puzzle, but many in Sabreland might love having a player like Messier help guide this team through their early perils.

But that doesn't seem to be the way Botterill wants to do things and it would seem as if right now he's leaving his rookie head coach and 5-11-4 team to their own devices. Botterill seems supremely focused on the Rochester Americans and building a winning culture down there. It's something he set out to do in from the beginning as he and Amerks GM Randy Sexton built a veteran team, with a proven leader in captain Kevin Porter, that would produce a winner in Rochester while also serving as an incubator for their young talent.

Last night the Amerks lost for only the second time in their last nine games. That streak that put them in second place in the AHL's North Division.

Despite the Sabres woes, Botterill has kept the organization's top d-prospect in Rochester to continue his development. Buffalo's problems on defense include a rash of injuries and the ignominy of having zero goals from their defense through 20 games. It's a non-move that should really be lauded, however, as it keeps the focus on proper development of their prospects, something Botterill said he'd do from the get-go. "What we're trying to accomplish with our young players isn't just survive in the NHL," he told WGR550 Radio back in October. "For the long term projection it might be better to be in the AHL, playing 20 minutes a night, instead of in the NHL playing five minutes."

Fair enough, and what few prospects they do have in Rochester should be given the opportunity to develop at their own pace. It's good for the player, good for the team long-term and it's great for the local community as they have a winner right now after two very down years.

Good for Rochester but for those in Buffalo, it looks like it's going to be a long season. Many (myself included) felt that the Sabres could take a step forward, albeit not without early struggles while adjusting to a new coach and system. Very few thought that the team would be this bad and it's making for a very trying season with many exasperating and displeasurable subplots which include, but are not limited to:

--the aforementioned franchise player getting called out by the media
--a leading scorer who's in the final year of his contract and whose success may price him right out of Buffalo
--bad contracts in the form of a forward whom the league left in the dust and injured defenseman  who hasn't played yet this year
--underachieving players in the top six one of whom who has a contract that might be classified as bad in the not to distant future
--an inconsistent top-six center whom the Sabres paid a premium for to acquire and to keep
--a secondary overhaul of the defense after doing one this off season

There are more. The list should include a dud trade by Botterill for a defenseman and lineups from Housley that included forcing a young forward to play center when it's not his cup of tea and a heavy top-four reliance on defensemen more suited to a bottom-pair/reserve role.

Lest we forget goaltending, Buffalo's starter boldly proclaimed he had nothing left to prove prior to the season then promptly laid an egg, and their backup was shaky at best through his first few games of the season.

Any way you slice it, Botterill has a mess on his hands right now in Buffalo and it doesn't look like he's even cares about what happens with the Sabres, preferring to continue laying a foundation in Rochester. Case in point.

Forward Evan Rodrigues looked like he'd be a good addition to the Sabres bottom-six out of camp but suffered a hand injury. Very little was said about his recovery and most simply forgot about him until he showed up in the lineup card for Rochester on Friday. There was no press release that he came off of injured reserve, no release that he was sent down, and no announcement that he would be playing that night for the Amerks. Why it was kept hush-hush is a head-scratcher and why he was sent to Rochester instead of filling a need in the bottom-six for the Sabres was a curious move as well.

Only 20 games into the season, Housley seems out of answers and so do his players. Perhaps Botterill has some answers should he talk to the media this week, although Sabres fans shouldn't expect much besides lauding the Amerks and his insistence upon the youngins incubating properly.

However, there are a ton of questions concerning his Sabres that stretch from personnel to coaching to players and contracts. It would also be interesting to see if he has the same philosophy today as he did in October concerning leadership and what, if anything, the first time GM will do to help his NHL team out of their rut.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sabres carrying a four-game losing streak to start a four-game home-stand

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 11-18-2017


Although it wasn't on the scale of the back-to-back shellackings this edition of the Buffalo Sabres were handed back in October, last night's 3-1 loss in Detroit at the hands of the Red Wings turned out to be a real dud none-the-less. Buffalo had five shots on goal mid-way through the first period but managed only 15 shots the rest of the way and as Phil Housley pointed out, when they don't shoot, they don't win. The Sabres are now 0-8-0 when they have less than 30 shots on goal.

Regardless of the generally mundane play from the team overall, Buffalo was still very much in it as Ryan O'Reilly scored 5:50 into the third period to tie the score at 1-1. However, lack of true compete hurt them later as three Sabres were outworked in the Buffalo zone and a Detroit shot from the point sailed past a screened Robin Lehner to give the Wings the lead for good. Detroit's Dylan Larkin scored through a listless group of Sabres with just over four minutes to play to seal Buffalo's fate.

It would be hard for anyone to find positives in a game like this, save for the goaltending, and if anyone could find one it would be Housley. But even he couldn't. "We've got to be smarter," he told the gathered media post-game. "We just got outbattled, outworked and outcompeted tonight. At times we even looked slow and I don't know why that is. We played one game in six nights. It's disappointing."

That one game they did play was on Tuesday against the Pittsburgh Penguins when they went into the third period with a one-goal lead only to see the Pens win it in overtime.

It's been well over a week since the Sabres managed a win. Since beating the Washington Capitals on November 7, Buffalo is 0-2-2 with 10 goals for and 14 goals against. Both of those numbers are right in line with what this team has done to this point in the season. The Sabres have scored a league-low 2.37 goals/game while allowing a third-worst 3.53 goals-against/game. Numbers like that lead to a 5-10-4 record and a points percentage of .368 ranking them second-last in the league (ARI.)

Buffalo fans at KeyBank Center tonight will see a reeling Sabres squad that hasn't given the hometown crowd much to cheer about this season as they're only 2-4-1 at home. And for those who've either been in attendance or have watched the broadcast, it's like a morgue in there most of the time. In saying that, attendance is starting to dwindle as this is not what the fans bargained for while watching the team spend two years in the tank. Capacity at KeyBank Center is 19,070 and only once did they hit that mark, which was on opening night against the Montreal Canadiens. Their low attendance mark this season is 16,882 for a game vs. Detroit last month.

Regardless of what has transpired, this is the team that we Sabres fans have. It consists of a first line that can skate with pretty much anybody in the league, a second line that's slower than many in the NHL but still has two-way acumen and scoring ability. And the Sabres have a bottom-six consists of a mishmash of misfits that are having trouble keeping pace with the way the game is played.

It's even worse on defense although injuries can be blamed for many of their woes. Housley has a top-three d-man playing in the top pair with a player more suited to a bottom-pairing role as his d-partner. After that, the other four slots are being held down by a rookie and three other players more suited to a bottom-pairing or reserve roles.

Although goaltending has been stout as of late, early woes helped put the team in a hole and despite solid play the past few games, the weight of a season that began rough and is slipping away fast is making things extremely difficult on all involved.

Tonight the Sabres face off against the Carolina Hurricanes who have been playing very well as of late. The 'Canes are 3-0-2 in their last five games and have started to climb their way up the Eastern Conference standings. Buffalo and Carolina have been fairly even in their matchups with the Sabres going 5-4-1 in their last 10 against the 'Canes.

As we head into tonight's game, O'Reilly continues to put his poor start to the season further in the rearview mirror with four goals and three assists in his last eight games. However, he's minus-7 in those games. Buffalo's leading scorer, Evander Kane, continues to see his off-season price tag go up as he has three goals and two assists in his last five games.

After tonight's matchup the Sabres host the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday, the Minnesota Wild on Wednesday and the Edmonton Oilers on Black Friday to complete the home stand and if they don't do anything in these four games, black will be the color of the armband we'll be wearing in Sabreland as we say goodbye to the season.

Tonight is Buffalo's fifth set of 16 back-to-back games. They're 1-4-0 in the first game and 2-1-1 in the second game.

Puck drop is at 7:00 PM with tonight being Hockey Fights Cancer Night.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Sabres in Detriot tonight at the new Little Caesar's Arena

Published by hockeybuzz, 11-17-2017


The Buffalo Sabres said goodbye to Joe Louis Arena in Detroit last season with a 2-1 victory over the Red Wings. "The Joe" had been the Red Wings home since 1979, three years before owner Mike Ilitch took over the franchise. The arena was home to the last vestiges of "The Dead Wings Era" and welcomed a new era under Ilitch that would see the Red Wings make the playoffs for 25 consecutive seasons from 1990-91 to 2015-16, capturing four Stanley Cups in the process.

Illitch founded the Little Caesars pizza franchise and bought the Red Wings in 1982 and saw the team go from NHL laughingstock to the preeminent hockey franchise in league. In an ode to both his entrepreneurial roots and his love of hockey, Ilitch began building Little Caesars Arena with a ground breaking ceremony in September, 2014 with a completion date set for Fall, 2017. Unfortunately he wouldn't see the finished product, nor would he see the Red Wings out of the playoffs for the first time in 25 year as he passed away on February 10, 2017.

Detroit wears a 'Mr I' patch on their jersey in honor of him, an owner considered one of the best in the business.

All respect and sympathy aside, the Sabres have a job to do tonight, and that's getting back in the win column. Buffalo is beginning a stretch of six games in nine nights, bookended by back-to-backs, and are coming off of an overtime loss at Pittsburgh on Tuesday.

The Sabres played a strong game vs. the Penguins despite having a defense that's been decimated by injuries this season. Buffalo struck first and added a second before Pittsburgh scored and the Sabres went into the third period with a 4-3 lead. But the Penguins' pressure became too much and Buffalo ended up losing on a goal only :16 seconds into the overtime session.

Players bemoaned not playing "their game" in the third period as visions of former head coach Dan Bylsma and his infamous "parking the bus" strategy came to the fore. But new Sabres head coach Phil Housley said he favored a lock-down strategy even though it eventually bit them. The reasoning behind his approach probably comes from a number of things, but one thing we did find out yesterday is that defenseman Taylor Fedun suffered an injury during the Pittsburgh game and will be out 6-8 weeks.

Housley used the typical vernacular to describe Fedun's injury--"lower body"--and the team did announce that the defenseman will be out 6-8 weeks. He also praised Fedun for being a trooper, "He was trying to work through it," Housley said. "He wanted to be a part of the team and it's good to see him try to gut it out for a little bit but it just didn't happen for him." Housley didn't say what or when the injury happened but it appears Fedun took a Kris Letang shot off of his ankle very early in the second period and managed to make it through the rest of the period and for one shift in the third before they he was shut down.

In light of that, perhaps Housley had apprehensions about playing an up-tempo, run-and-gun game with only five defensemen.

Regardless of that, the Sabres are starting to really take to what the coaching staff is teaching. Their top line continues to skate and is becoming a nightmare for many an opponent while the second line is starting to sustain more pressure while producing. After that, depth is an issue up-front as the third and fourth lines are in a state of flux due to injuries, inconsistencies and/or incompetence.

The injuries on defense are well chronicled but they're managing to hold their own despite missing two top-four defensemen. It should be noted that after 18 games, no Buffalo defenseman has scored a goal. And finally goaltending has been inconsistent from game to game and even from period to period but both goalies seem to be playing better as of late.

Buffalo heads into Detroit tonight in need of a win not only for the standings but for a confidence boost as well. Nothing will try a team's patience more than playing good games but continually coming out on the losing end. The Sabres last two games have both ended in overtime after they gave up a one-goal lead in the third period.

The Sabres are 5-3-2 in their last 10 games against the Red Wings, 3-6-1 in Detroit. Last season, the Wings' first under coach Jeff Blashill, and Buffalo went 3-0-1 with the only loss coming in the shootout. When adding in this year's 1-0 victory over Detroit, the Sabres are now 4-0-1 in their last five games with none of those games decided by more than one goal.


*****

Buffalo Sabres forward Kyle Criscuolo was called up from Rochester the other day and it looks as if he'll be playing in his first NHL game tonight.

The 5'9" 172 lb. Harvard graduate had spent the prior two seasons playing for the Red Wings AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids and helped the Griffins lift the Calder Cup last season. Criscuolo had 41 points (17+24) in 80 regular season games for the Griffins while adding none points (5+4) in 19 playoff games.

Criscuolo is tied for the Amerks lead with 11 points this season and got the call to add some speed to Buffalo's bottom-six something he showed Housley, among other things, during two preseason games this year. "It's just his competitive nature, jis willingness to get in the tough areas, go down low and win puck battles against bigger guys and using his speed and the energy he brought," said Housley of Criscuolo to the media yesterday. "I thought it really rubbed off well on our bench and our coaching staff."

With Criscuolo in the lineup, it looks as if a struggling Matt Moulson will take a seat. Moulson has zero points in 12 games and worse yet is a minus-8. His best attribute was contributing on the powerplay last season, but this year he was taken off after being ineffective.

Here are the probable lines for tonight:

Kane-Eichel-Reinhart
Pouliot-O'Reilly-Okposo
Griffith-Larsson-Pominville
Girgensons-Criscuolo-Nolan

Defenseman Casey Nelson also got the call from Rochester, but it looks as if he'll sit this one out, according to reports from Detroit, in favor of rookie Victor Antipin who returns to the lineup after a two-game stint in the press box. Antipin has two assists and is a minus-4 in 12 games so far this year. Tonight's d-pairings look like this:

Scandella-Falk
McCabe-Beaulieu
Gorges-Antipin

Robin Lehner looks to get the call in net for Buffalo tonight. He was behind a 1-0 shutout win vs. Detroit last month stopping all 32 shots he faced including 12 in the third period.


*****

After tonight's game the Sabres head home to take on Carolina tomorrow, which is the start of a four-game home stand. On Monday the Columbus Blue Jackets are in town and the Minnesota Wild visit on Wednesday.

On Black Friday Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers visit KeyBank Center and afterwards the Sabres travel to Montreal to take on the Canadiens the following night.


Friday, November 17, 2017

Injuries on defense continue to mount for Sabres. Two Amerks recalled

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 11-16-2017


Although the news isn't quite as earth-shattering as the Buffalo Bills going to their backup quarterback while still in a playoff spot, for Western New York hockey fans, the injuries hitting the Buffalo Sabres is becoming more of an issue. The Sabres announced today that defenseman Taylor Fedun was placed on injured reserve (out 6-8 weeks, according to reports from today's practice) and that defenseman Matt Tennyson was moved to IR from the injured list.

The Sabres have been getting hit hard by injuries on defense and have already dressed 10 defensemen just 18 games into this season. Zach Bogosian, who has yet to play this season, remains on IR while their top defender, Rasmus Ristolainen, suffered an upper body injury on November 2 and was also placed on IR. Justin Falk missed the first the first 12 games of the season while Nathan Beaulieu and Josh Gorges both suffered injuries that placed them on the injured list.

To help fill the holes in the defense-corps this season, Buffalo brought up Zach Redmond on recall, appearing in three games, while Fedun skated in seven games. Today the Sabres announced that they recalled defenseman Casey Nelson from Rochester. Nelson was a 2016 free agent signing out of Minnesota State and played seven games for Buffalo late that season. He started out his NHL career with a three-game point-streak (4 assists.)

Nelson began last season with the Sabres and played in eight forgetful games through November 15 registering zero points and a minus-4 rating while averaging around 12 minutes of ice-time per game. He came back for two more stints for a total of three games and showed improvement. He began this season in Rochester doing yeoman's work with four points (1+3) and a plus-2 rating in 14 games for the Amerks.

Where Nelson fits in will be determined tomorrow as Falk, according to reports, had a maintenance day at today's practice. According to the Sabres these were the pairings for practice:

Scandella-Nelson
McCabe-Beaulieu
Gorges-Antipin


*****

The Sabres also recalled forward Kyle Criscuolo who was signed by the Sabres to a two-year, two-way contract on July 1 by GM Jason Botterill.

Criscuolo came over from the Detroit organization after helping their Grand Rapids Griffins to the 2017 Calder Cup Championship. The 25 yr. old graduate of Harvard is tied for Amerks lead in scoring with 11 points (5+6) in 14 games while his plus-4 rating also leads the team.

At the time of the signing, Botterill said that Criscuolo "can play center...plays with a high compete [level] and can play the type of pace that (coach) Phil (Housley) wants to play." The Sabres could use some pace in the bottom-six as that group has struggled mightily thus far. The forward lines at today's practice were:

Pouliot-O'Reilly-Okposo
Kane-Eichel-Reinhart
Griffith-Larsson-Pominville
Nolan-Criscuolo-Girgensons

Head coach Phil Housley told the gathered media today that Criscuolo will be a game-time decision for tomorrow night's game at Detroit.

*****

Nelson and Criscuolo were called up from an Amerks team that's really starting to gel. After a rough start where they went 2-3-0 the Amerks have gotten points in eight of their last nine games while posting a 6-1-2 record. Rochester has outscored their opponents 33-25 during that stretch and the Amerks now find themselves second in the AHL's North Division.

Botterill got the ball moving in Rochester by making some July 1 moves strictly related to fortifying a franchise that had been neglected the past few years. He brought in center Kevin Porter from the Pittsburgh Penguins organization as captain to anchor the revival in Rochester. Once the Penguins AGM, Botterill ran their AHL affiliate, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and saw what Porter had to offer."He's a player I'm very familiar with," said Botterill of Porter. "[He] was a strong leader for Wilkes-Barre over the past couple of years, but also was a player, especially two years ago, that (Penguins head coach) Mike Sullivan really trusted at the National Hockey League level."

With Porter and Criscuolo in the fold, Rochester was eventually handed over to Botterill's AGM, Randy Sexton, who is the general manager of the Amerks. Sexton began adding more players and more depth with signings like defenseman Stuart Percy and forward Sahir Gill (both from Wilkes-Barre) along with right wing Steve Moses (KHL) to help anchor the club. The goal was to build a winning culture and simultaneously provide an atmosphere where their young players can develop properly.

Only a handful of Sabres draft picks are in Rochester right now and that includes Brendan Guhle. With all the injuries on defense, many believe the Sabres top blueline prospect could be with the big club right now, at least on a temporary basis. But word out of Rochester is that the team is intent upon developing him the right way.

From a Let's Go Amerks tweet, Rochester head coach Chris Taylor had this to say about Guhle:

"He understands the process of it. Does he want to be a guy that goes up for one or two games or does he want to be a guy when he goes up, he's going to be there forever? He's got to understand that and that's what the best interest here is for him. That's what we have for every player (their best interest) and him especially. He's still learning. He's still making a lot of mistakes. We don't want to ruin his confidence. One of those mistakes up in the NHL is in the back of the net. We're being patient with him and he's understanding that. That's why he's still playing well right now with us."

That thought process should come as no surprise to any hockey fan in Western New York as Botterill is following through with what he said he'd do. All along he's been saying that he wants, needs, Rochester to be a winning environment that will allow the youngins to develop properly. It's what he saw in Pittsburgh during his 10 years with the organization and what he wants in the Buffalo organization.

The short-term pain in Buffalo will hopefully be a long-term gain for the entire Sabres organization.

















Thursday, November 16, 2017

Game night--Pittsburgh. News and notes

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 11-14-2017


“That’s my job, my job is to produce and I haven’t produced in the fashion I would’ve liked in the beginning of the year.”--Sabres center, Jack Eichel after practice yesterday.


Such is the case for the soon to be $10 million a year franchise center. In fact not only has he been in a scoring slump, the entire team has, to the tune of six goals (including on empty net) in the last four games. Were it not for some pretty stout goaltending, this team would be on a losing streak instead of being 1-2-1 in their last four.

What's so exasperating with this club right now is that they're playing well. Sabres coach Phil Housley has pulled things back in an effort to try and move the team forward. The Sabres started out with a fine game against the Montreal Canadiens to open the season, but lost 3-2 in overtime. They followed that up with two disasters as they tried to run before learning how to walk. Although Buffalo did suffer a few lopsided defeats game-to-game, and even within games, they've been playing the kind of aggressive hockey that leads to good things.

Unfortunately for this team good things have been happening, but not enough good things to get them more goals and more victories.

The Sabres have learned to defend better, albeit with some serious deficiencies at times, and they're beginning to get that puck moving with more accuracy more frequently. That leads to a better transition game, more possession, more shots and quality chances. In an interview with the gathered media, Housley said this about his teams shot totals. “I read a stat that if we had 30 shots or more, we’re 5-2-3 and when we don’t get 30 shots, we’re 0-7-0, so what does that tell you?"

Even with the shot totals up, they're still having difficulty scoring and thus the debate right now--is it the players? Or are they victims of circumstance?

It's a little of both, although lack of talent is a big issue for this club, especially in the bottom-six. Matt Moulson, Zemgus Girgensons, Jordan Nolan and Johan Larsson have all been regulars down there and thus far they've contributed a combined two goals and five assists in 57 total games. Seth Griffith, who was a regular on the wing had two goals and an assist in 14 games before heading to the press box and Sam Reinhart has five points (2+3) in 17 games playing third line center almost exclusively. He was bumped up to second-line right wing last game and had his best game of the year.

However, regardless of what the bottom-half does, as Eichel said, it's up to him and the top players to produce.

Ryan O'Reilly has started to bring his game around but remains unhappy with his overall game. He was the lone Buffalo scorer in the Sabres 2-1 overtime loss at Montreal on Saturday. Jason Pominville started out hot, but has slowed considerably scoring only one goal and adding one assist in his last eight games. Kyle Okposo has been playing world's better than how he started the season (2+2 in his last five games,) but still only has six points (2+4) on the season.

Oddly enough, the most consistent scorer on the team is Evander Kane. He started out hot with five goals and five assists in his first seven games then followed it up with four goals and three assists in his last 10. He's on a pace to shatter his previous career highs.

One can say it's lack of talent, at least overall, or one could say that it's puck luck, but a huge factor in scoring goals is confidence, and that's lacking right now. Eichel has had the puck jump all over the place on him and his shots have atypically gone wide. He's on an eight-game goal-scoring drought right now and thinks that if they keep up their play, goals will come. “It’s a long season and the puck luck and the bounces will start coming around," he told the media after practice.

“When you’re playing good and you’re getting your chances, it’s a positive, it’s just those games when you’re feeling it, it’s important to bury your chances.”

It' will probably take a series of positive things and some luck to get the entire team "feeling it," which is another way of saying confidence. They're trying to beat down a door but it's proven to be a rather formidable task and it's up to the leaders on this team--Eichel, O'Reilly, Okposo and even Kane--to continue to "kick at the darkness 'till it bleeds daylight," to use a quote from Canadian artist Bruce Cockburn.

That's where effort and will and a little bit of faith come into play. This team is playing better, and playing more consistently and that's a good thing, but they need to start scoring more and they'll need contributions from everyone. Until then, we'll continue to have this same conversation and the same quotes.


*****

Speaking of effort, and ultimately compete-level, forward Justin Bailey has been sent to Rochester.

The third-year pro, which includes 47 NHL games to his credit, once again had a fast, impressive start for the Sabres only to loose his way. Bailey is a big, fast powerforward who can score but he needs to consistently use his size and speed to create scoring opportunites for himself and his linemates. He'll do that fore a few games and then get a bit complacent. "I thought he started out really well the first couple of games," said Housley to the media today. "[but] I thought his play dipped a little bit from that. That urgency he had on the forecheck, using his speed and even in providing a physical element.

"He's going to go down (to the Rochester Americans) and work on that."

If it hasn't occurred to him yet, someone needs to hammer this point home to him--before him lies a golden opportunity with the Sabres and all he needs to do is bring it every game. Bailey could easily be slotted on the third line and if the Kane rumors are for real, there could be a top-six slot waiting for him.


*****

Sabres.com's Jourdon LaBarber has these probably lines and pairings for tonight:

Kane-Eichel-Reinhart
Pouliot-O'Reilly-Okposo
Moulson-Girgensons-Pominville
Nolan-Larsson-Baptiste

Falk-Scandella
McCabe-Fedun
Gorges-Beaulieu

It also looks as if Robin Lehner will get the nod tonight.


*****

The defending two-time Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins have played a lot of hockey over the last two years and perhaps that has much to do with their slow start this season. And if there ever was a time for Buffalo to grab a win vs. Pittsburgh, tonight would be the night.

The Sabres are 1-8-1 in their last 10 games against the Penguins, 3-6-1 on the road.

Buffalo has lost two in a row to the Penguins with their last win being a minor miracle on November 19, 2016. The Sabres came into that game on a six-game losing streak (0-4-2) and had backup goalie Anders Nilsson in net. The game went to the shootout and Nilsson stopped Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang in the shootout as the Sabres pulled of the victory.

Buffalo's heroes in that game were William Carrier who scored Buffalo's only goal and Cal O'Reilly, who scored the only goal in the shootout. Carrier was lost in the expansion draft and O'Reilly, brother of Ryan O'Reilly, was loaned to the Toronto Marlies last March by the Rochester Americans, and signed with the Minnesota Wild in the off season.

Although it won't take a minor miracle to beat Pittsburgh tonight, methinks that a lot will need to go right for the Sabres to come away with two points.




A mishmash of problems keeps Buffalo spinning it's wheels

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 11-13-2017


The Sabres are spinning their wheels and just can't seem to get out of the muck. Sure, there are injuries, especially on defense with Rasmus Ristolainen sidelined the last four games, but scoring has been the real problem with this team as of late. Buffalo has scored just one goal in three of their last four games while going 1-3-1 in the process. Prior to that the Sabres had been held to one goal twice all season, and that came in consecutive games late last month..

As mentioned recently here, it's been a schizophrenic season for this addition of the Buffalo Sabres and it's enough to make anyone in Sabreland want to bang their heads against the wall. Head coach Phil Housley has stuck with a mostly positive message for his players thus far and in the process took some heat for it in the press. After Saturday's overtime loss in Montreal it continued with that approach as he told the gathered media that he liked his team's effort and that they created a number of opportunities, but that they just couldn't capitalize on them.

"I can't fault the effort of our guys," said Housley, "we outshot them and out-chanced them. I thought the guys played real hard."

When asked about the difficulties his team has had scoring as of late, Housley went back to what the team was doing right. "I thought tonight was a start," he said, in reference to his team trying to get out of a scoring slump. "I thought it was our best night, we got pucks to the net, we were really gritty and dirty in front of the net. What was intriguing to me is when we delivered shots to the net guys were willing to pay a price in front of the net and get second opportunities.

"If we continue to do that, we'll score more goals, but we have to do it on a consistent basis."

Consistency has been a huge issue for this team thus far, whether it's shift to shift, period to period or game-to-game. But it would seem as if they're beginning to bring it on more consistent basis as they've played three good games in a row and have either won or kept it tight in four of the last five yielding a 2-2-1 record.

The one troubling game of those five was the 5-1 loss at Dallas. It was the fourth time 14 games to that point where the Sabres were beaten by three or more goals. The Stars game was also the one where Housley caught some grief after saying his team got the start they wanted, and played well, but were victims of a couple of bad bounces early in the game.

Housley's 2017-18 Buffalo team is in a similar spot to where former coach Dan Bylsma had the Sabres last year. This year Buffalo is  5-9-3 (13 points) while last season they were 5-8-4 (14 points) through 17 games. When you count the 4-1 loss to the Florida Panthers, albeit with two empty net goals against, Buffalo has lost five games by three or more goals this season while last season they posted the same number of three-goal or more lossess. This year none of Buffalo's five wins were by three or more goals whereas last season the Sabres had two wins by three or more.

Those huge swings under Bylsma last season were also evident in their streakiness at the same 17-game point of the season. After beginning 1-3-2, they won three in a row and four of five before going 0-5-1 in Games 12-17. After a 1-4-1 start this season, with their first win coming in Game-6, Buffalo has been roughly alternating wins and losses while compiling a 4-5-2 record since.

Further comparisons have the Sabres living off the powerplay a bit last season with 11 goals in 53 opportunities (20.8%) which helped contribute to two wins and three other loser-points (1 shootout, 2 overtime.) This season the Sabres are 8/57 (14.0%) with the powerplay contributing to zero wins and three loser points (1 shootout, 2 overtime.)

Goal scoring is also up for Buffalo this season--through 17 games this they've scored 40 (2.35/game) while last season the team scored 31 goals in 17 games (1.82 goals/game.) However, there's a big difference in goals-against as this edition has given up 3.47 ga/gm whereas last season it was only 2.58.

All the above numbers may show improvement, but none of hose are playoff numbers by any means. With goal scoring on the minds of those in Sabreland we're starting to hear about problems that have existed for years, namely, not being able to finish, and with that it would seem as if the narrative has begun to be directed towards the overall talent-level of this team.

"If you want to be Mr. Positive," said WGR550 Radio's Paul Hamilton after the Montreal game, "you could say the glass is half-full [and] it seems like more and more they're starting to catch on to Housley's system. It's not translating to points, it's not translating into wins, it's not translating into goals.

"Maybe they have to be a better team. Maybe they have to get better. Maybe they have to find more talent."

Hamilton went on to say that the team has five or six holes in the forward group to fill and that they're playing games with guys "that if you want to be a playoff team and a good team, probably aren't on the team."

Brutal, but probably true. Hamilton has also said time and again that their best players must be their best players, something that's been lacking on a consistent basis in the top-six.

Buffalo continues their three-game road trip with the next two on the road beginning with a Tuesday game at Pittsburgh against the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins Then it's on to Detroit to face a Red Wings team that's won four of their last seven (4-2-1) on Friday.

Where will the Sabres find some answers to their scoring woes?

Methinks they'll continue to look within. Housley will juggle his lines and make some adjustments to a powerplay that scored a goal in each of it's last two games. Will it be enough?

We'll see.