Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Out of gas and steamrolled by the Hawks. Sabres now on their bye week

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 2-20-2017


The Buffalo Sabres were able to hang with the Chicago Blackhawks for at least one period last night. Actually we should say that goalie Robin Lehner was instrumental in keeping things from getting out of hand in the first period as he allowed only one goal on 17 Chicago shots in the first 16 minutes of the game. The only thing that stemmed the flow of Hawks buzzing around in the Buffalo end was a series of penalties by Chicago that put Buffalo on the powerplay later in the first.

After Buffalo's Dmitry Kulikov went off for hooking at the 14:28 mark, the Blackhawks took consecutive high sticking penalties that had Buffalo on a 4-on-3 then a 5-on-3 for the nearly a full two minutes. That could have been the elixir for the Sabres' ailments but they came up short. All was not lost for Buffalo in the first period as Evander Kane scored his 21st goal of the season with :05 seconds left in the period, however, that 5-on-3 could have turned the tide.

"I thought our opportunity was that 5-on-3, to get not just one goal, maybe two," said coach Dan Bylsma to the gathered media post game. "We gave them too much. That's a good team."

Sure is.

The Blackhawks came on a like a storm in the second period and added two more goals to push the lead to 3-1 as two talented vets worked hard and worked a little bit of magic to put the choke-hold on the Sabres. Marian Hossa schooled rookie Evan Rodrigues on the half-wall and sent a precision shot through a small crack in Lehner's pads to put Chicago ahead then Johnathan Toews broke free of Jack Eichel along the goal line and caught the 20 yr. old off guard as he went to the net to bury a rebound to put the Hawks up by two goals late in the second period.

Early in the third period the Sabres were out of gas and were steamrolled as Buffalo-native Patrick Kane set up goal No. 4 for Chicago early in the third then scored the final tally a few minutes later as the Hawks left Buffalo with a 5-1 win.

Despite the lone fan that was booing near the end of the game, the Sabres had a massive challenge ahead of them heading into the contest and just didn't have nearly enough in the tank. It was their seventh game in the last 11 days the second game of a back-to-back, and their second set of back-to-backs during that stretch. Although Chicago was playing a back-to-back as well, theirs came after their bye week and they used a 3-1 loss vs. Edmonton to get their hockey legs back.

Chicago also has pure talent in their core but unlike the Sabres, they're deep and have good talent up and down the lineup. Every line scored a goal last night for Chicago while Bylsma, once again was forced to double shift centers to give the fourth line some ice-time. Winger Nicolas Deslauriers, who was forced into the fourth-line center role, had 3:41 of ice-time last night and was a minus-1 after four shifts covering 2:02 in the first half of the game. He was on the ice for 54 seconds in the second period and 45 seconds of the third.

His linemates Tyler Ennis and Matt Moulson didn't fare much better as the line was exploited on Chicago's first goal. Ennis didn't have the speed or the defensive acumen to keep up with Chicago fourth-liner Ryan Hartman as he circled the zone and sent a laser past Lehner while Deslauriers looked lead-footed and lost. Ennis and Moulson were a combined minus-2 in 15:36 total even-strength ice-time and had one shot on goal which came from Moulson on the 5-on-3 powerplay. Who covered most of their even strength ice-time with Deslauriers on the bench? Eichel, and he's been doing that for the a lot lately.

Bylsma has been double shifting Eichel because he has no choice. Third line center Zemgus Girgensons has been out the last seven games with a mid-body injury while fourth-line center Derek Grant has missed the last two games because of a shoulder injury and probably shouldn't even be there in the first place. Rodrigues has performed admirably on the third line replacing Girgensons but the team was stuck with Deslauriers on the fourth line.

Eichel has averaged nearly 22 minutes of ice time over the last five games and anyone who's watched him play knows that his shifts are full of quick sprints and lots of skating covering much of the ice. And last night he had a very difficult task battling with Toews who's compete-level is amongst the best the NHL has to offer. It didn't turn out well as Toews eventually beat him and by the third period Eichel was gassed as Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane put the nails in the coffin with him on the ice.

In the end, the Hawks looked like a three-time Stanley Cup Champion as they were rested and hitting on all cylinders while the Sabres looked the part of a team with too many holes and not enough gas in the tank.

So it goes.


*****

To the guy who was booing late in the third. Really?

Of all the things to boo, last night's game was not one of them and it was proven as his lone voice was largely ignored by the remaining fans in the building.


*****

A lot of attention was paid to a compressed schedule because of the bye week and the Sabres having it in the shortest month of the year made it even worse. Reactions from players and the coach varied somewhat when WGR550's Paul Hamilton asked about the compressed schedule and the upcoming bye week. The Sabres will be away from the ice for five days beginning today after playing 11 games in 18 days (6-4-1 record) and will play three games in four nights to end the month, beginning with a back-to-back on the road.

"Having played the amount of games we've played, I think you need a break," said Bylsma to the media. "At the same time, five games is an eternity in the hockey season. It's a long time and it's a break you don't want at this point [with] the way we're playing and the wins we've put together.

"You maybe want to forgo the five games and keep playing."

Evander Kane, who's been on a tear since December 3 with 21 goals in 36 games is welcoming the break. "Hopefully we can get some good rest, get some relaxation, get our minds away from hockey, kind of refocus and regroup," said Kane rather surprisingly considering how hot he is right now. But he seemed to look at it as a way to get revitalized for the final stretch of 21 post-break games. He called it "a much needed break" and followed it up by saying that "a little rest can go a long way."

"Stepping away for a couple of days can help individual and a group and hopefully it will be positive," he concluded.

Sabres captain Brian Gionta, a veteran of 984 regular season games told Hamilton post-game, via WGR550 radio, that the six-game pre-break stretch "seems like a lot" and that it was "a tough push" up to the bye. He also said he wished it was more spread out.

Regardless of what anyone thinks of the bye week and the schedule, which was compressed even more because the World Cup of Hockey lopped off a week at the beginning of the season, it's here and the Sabres, like every other team, need to deal with it.

With five days off GM Tim Murray will have plenty of time to examine where his team is and which direction he intends to take it for the stretch run as the March 1 NHL Trade Deadline is coming fast.




Monday, February 20, 2017

Sabres have one more before their bye week. Blackhawks are in town

Published by hockeybuzz.com 2-19-2017


After a blog that had "Friggen bye-week" as a part of the title, it didn't take long for a Western Canadian hockey fan to jump in and lambaste the premise that the bye week stinks and that it put an undo burden on the Sabres as there's will come in the shortest month of the calendar year. Simply put, the Sabres will play 14 games in 23 days which includes four sets of back-to-backs and their present four-game in six-day pre-bye stretch that concludes this evening with the second game of a back-to-back against the visiting Chicago Blackhawks.

Vancouver Canucks follower Itsjustarash began a mini rant with this, "A team from the east complaining about the schedule?" before laying out some of the travel difficulties of Western Conference teams. That person concluded with, "About five years ago my boys (the Canucks, I assume) went on a 6 game trip that went from Edm-Nash-Det-NJ-Dal-Phoe. Thats 4 different time zones in 10 days. So to hear any team out east crying about the schedule is a joke among itself."

Regardless of that rant, the bye-week is bogus and puts undo stress on every team in the league and as Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News points out, coaches aren't very happy with it either. "We’ve had fewer practices than any time I’ve ever been a coach in this league,” Harrington quotes Minnesota boss Bruce Boudreau as saying during the All-Star Game in Los Angeles. “We finished nine games in 15 days and we never practiced the other six days because you can’t kill the guys, especially your better players."

Buffalo coach Dan Bylsma concurred. "It feels like even less practice, fewer days than an Olympic year," Bylsma said last week. "It is a little bit tougher to get a feel for where you're at, how you're feeling. "

And Toronto's Mike Babcock also chimed in, "I think it's 100 percent wrong for player safety. You've got so many games in such a short period of time and you're jamming in more. To me, the more days rest you can have by not playing back-to-backs and jamming it in, the healthier you have a chance to be."

West or East, it doesn't matter. The bye-week is not a good idea.


*****

Buffalo welcomes the Chicago Blackhawks today for the second of two meetings between the two clubs. Back in January Chicago's Artem Anisimov tied the game at 3-3 with just over two minutes remaining in regulation and Patrick Kane won it 45 seconds into overtime to complete the Hawks' come from behind victory.

The Hawks have dominated the series as of late with Buffalo winless in their last 10 overall vs. the Hawks (0-8-2) while also leaving the ice winless in their last four games at home. Chris Ryndak of sabres.com also points out that the Sabres last beat Chicago 2-1 on December 11, 2009 and haven't garnered points in consecutive games against the Hawks since they went unbeaten in four games from December 13, 2002 to December 15, 2007.

The Sabres are coming off of a 3-2 victory over the St. Louis Blues yesterday afternoon. Buffalo hadn't beaten St. Louis in their previous nine meetings and the last time they won was a 5-3 decision on December 27, 2009.

Interestingly enough, the wins against both the Blues and the Hawks came back in 2009 when Ryan Miller was in the first half of his 2010 Vezina Trophy winning season. It was also the last time the Sabres won the division.


*****

Winning the division is merely a pipe dream at this stage of the season, although the division-leading  Montreal Canadiens are making things interesting while in the midst of a 2-7-1 slump that cost their head coach his job.

Buffalo's on a three-game winning streak for the third time this season and have climbed up the standings points-wise. However they've played more games than any of the teams surrounding them in the standings so teams will have plenty of opportunities to snare points with Buffalo on their bye week. Only six points separates seven teams in the wild card race and all seven teams have at least one game in hand on Buffalo as of right now.

The Sabres have been looking to get on a run all season but something always seems to get in the way. Buffalo has had points in four consecutive twice this season but have never won four in a row. The last time they got points in consecutive games was back in January when they started out the 2017 portion of the schedule with a win, the Chicago overtime loss and two more wins. Consecutive road losses brought them back down before winning four of the next five games.

After a three-game winless streak surrounding the All-Star break, Buffalo alternated wins and losses until last week with wins at Ottawa and consecutive home wins against the Colorado Avalanche and Blues.

Buffalo is tough at home this calendar year going 8-2-1 in 2017.


*****

Player notes:

--Defenseman Taylor Fedun went unclaimed and was sent to Rochester. In a hockey world where defensemen seem to be a scarce commodity, Fedun went unclaimed while forward Derek Grant, who was waived in January was claimed. *scratches head*  I don't get it. Despite defensive shortcomings Fedun was a plus-3 in 25 games for Buffalo this season while contributing seven assists. Grant had four assists in 46 games and was a minus-5.

--Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen collected his 100th career point yesterday while assisting on Ryan O'Reilly's goal. The 22 yr. old Ristolainen is averaging over 27 minutes a game for the Sabres this season.

--Goalie Robin Lehner has been hot as of late with a February goals-against average of 1.89 and a .950 save percentage during a 5-3-1 month. In his last three games, which came after calling out the team after a 4-2 loss in Buffalo against Vancouver, he's been down-right stingy. Buffalo is 3-0-0 since and Lehner has a 1.33 GAA and a .961 Sv%. It should be noted that he includes the team in his successes. He gets the start this evening.

--In addition to saying Lehner will be in net vs. the Hawks this evening, Bylsma also said that Sam Reinhart will miss his second consecutive game with an illness. That means Nick Baptiste will remain in the lineup and on would think that there will be no changes in the lineup tonight:

Justin Bailey-Ryan O'Reilly-Kyle Okposo
Evander Kane-Jack Eichel-Nick Baptiste
Marcus Foligno-Evan Rodrigues-Brian Gionta
Matt Moulson-Nicolas Deslauriers-Tyler Ennis

Jake McCabe-Rasmus Ristolainen
Josh Gorges-Dmitry Kulikov
Zack Bogosian-Cody Franson


*****

Finally, there was a time when Buffalo choked regularly in front of a national TV audience  but this season, however, is a bit different.

The Sabres have yet to lose in regulation so far this season having gone 2-0-3 in their five nationally televised games. They blew a third period lead to Philadelphia and lost in the shootout back on October 25, beat the NY Rangers handily January 3 and two days later lost that overtime game to Chicago. They kicked off February with a 2-1 OT loss against the Rangers when they threw everything at Rags goalie Henrik Lundqvist but could only get one by him and this past Thursday they shutout the Colorado Avalanche 2-0.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sabres win a thriller, creep up the standings

Published by hockeybuzz.com 2-18-2017


Allowing a short-handed goal while trying to increase their 3-1 lead late in the third period wasn't exactly what the Buffalo Sabres had in mind while trying to finish off St. Louis Blues. Nor did a Robin Lehner tripping penalty make things easy on the 18,000 plus fans in attendance at KeyBank Center. However, the Sabres eeked out a victory with some clutch penalty killing and walked out with the "W."

As has been par for the course lately, when one player returns from injury, another one goes down. Today we saw the return of defenseman Cody Franson but the Sabres were without the services of forward Sam Reinhart was ruled out due to an illness. With Franson returning the Sabres had eight d-men on the roster so they waived Taylor Fedun. However, if you watched the Blues' shortie in the third, perhaps you were hoping it was Franson who was waived.

With the puck in the St. Louis zone, Scottie Upshall jumped on a puck heading towards Franson then blew by him for the breakaway goal. Lehner, as we've been finding out throughout the year, soulcn't come up with the save on the breakaway and the Blues cut Buffalo's lead to 3-2 with just under five minutes to play in the third period.

Things remained hairy for Buffalo as a couple of icing calls, both somewhat questionable, kept a group of Sabres on the ice for a extended length forcing head coach Dan Bylsma to use their time out. Buffalo controlled the draw and got a desperately needed change in, but the Blues would not go away putting pressure on the Sabres to the point where Lehner eventually took a penalty with 1:12 remaining. It was another questionable call as Lehner was smack-dab in the middle of his crease when he was called for tripping.

The Blues ended up getting their goalie pulled for the extra attacker and despite some pressure, just could not get the equalizer.

The 3-2 win gives the Sabres their third three-game winning streak of the season and their second such streak in the last four weeks. Buffalo has yet to go on a four game winning streak this season, but they'll have an opportunity to do so tomorrow evening when the Chicago Blackhawks visit KeyBank center for a nationally televised 6 pm game on NBCSN.

With the win the Sabres now have 62 points on the season and as they left the ice they're only one point behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for the second wild card spot in the east. Granted, they've played more games than all three teams ahead of them and are looking at their mandated bye week beginning Monday, but for a team that's been trying to dig out of a deep hole all season, it doesn't matter. Just looking at that one-point difference should give them at least a semblance of satisfaction.

Buffalo's best players were their best players beginning with Lehner who stopped all but two goals on 39 shots against and Evander Kane who continues to score. With his this afternoon Kane now has 20 goals in his last 35 games. His 20 goals match his output from all of last year (65 games) and they lead the team.

Ryan O'Reilly was all over the place scoring a goal and playing a strong end-to-end, two-way game. And then there was Jack Eichel who was a beast. Speed, skill, vision, stick-work, it's all there for Eichel and it was all on display on Buffalo's first goal as he gained the attention of both Blues d-men then sent a sweet little saucer pass to rookie Nick Baptiste who was barreling towards the crease. The 21 yr. old calmly received the puck and sent a back-hand five-hole to tie the score at 1-1.

Baptistse joined rookies Justin Bailey and Evan Rodrigues in Buffalo and the trio have the look as if they're NHL'ers.

Props to the penalty kill which came through in the clutch at the end while holding the Blues scoreless on three opportunities.




Saturday, February 18, 2017

Take it for what it is

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 2-17-2017


With their 2-0 win last night over Colorado, the Buffalo Sabres now have 60 points on the season and moved to within four points of the third place in the division and to within three points of a playoff spot in the conference. Buffalo trails Boston in the Atlantic Division and the Toronto Maple Leafs for the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.

That's the feel good part of the equation and it's something that shouldn't be dismissed. Buffalo has been struggling all season long and headed into last night's contest against Colorado having alternated losses and wins dating back to the beginning of the month (4-3-1.) It was the first time that they've won back-to-back games since January 21/24 and they did so on a Thursday which, for some reason, has been a particularly dreadful day of the week for them to play. Prior to the Avalanche game, Buffalo was 1-10-2 on Thursday's, 0-5-2 in their last seven.

With that in mind, the Sabres .517 points-percentage has them a little farther off the playoff pace than their 60 points would indicate and they did play an Avalanche team that is by and large the worst team in the league this season. As of right now Colorado is second only the Atlanta Thrashers for worst season ever in the three-point game era, according to the Buffalo News. And they looked the part last night.

Sabres fans have seen this before. Merely two years ago we witnessed similar futility as Ted Nolan coached a group that finished last in the league and challenged the modern mark for scoring futility. How Nolan got as many wins as he did with what little talent he was given was actually quite remarkable considering the Avalanche boast the likes of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene and are on a much worse trajectory than the Sabres were.

Goaltending is what kept the Sabres in games from 2013-15 and it's what helped the Avalanche stay in this one last night. Colorado's Calvin Pickard was on his game and although Buffalo didn't throw an insane amount of rubber at him last night, they enjoyed quite a few quality scoring chances on the 32 shots they got to the net. Pickard was both stout and lucky as Buffalo whiffed on a number of scoring chances or the score would've been much worse. Reinhart himself could easily have had a hat trick last night but he just couldn't get the handle on the set-ups.

Players and coaches will tell you that there's no easy game in the NHL any more as parity reigns supreme. Even in the case of Colorado, it was no easy task as the great equalizer is the man in front of the 4x6 and a bounce the wrong way can turn the tide. It's what had Sabres fans on the edge of their seats until Evander Kane scored a goal-scorers goal to put Buffalo up by two late in the third period.

What it comes down to is that the Sabres grinded out back-to-back wins and when we opened the paper today, the Sabres are within striking distance of a playoff spot, something we haven't seen in a while.

Take it for what it is.


*****

Quick notes:

--It's amazing how much of a difference Jack Eichel makes as he creates so much space for his teammates. Sure, it was Colorado and they don't exactly have the greatest team, but he does that against every team. I wouldn't be going that far out on a limb in saying that were he in the lineup for at least half of the games he missed earlier in the year, Buffalo would be where Boston and Toronto are in the standings.

--For some reason I get the feeling that Sabres bench boss Dan Bylsma can't wait to get center Zemgus Girgensons back. Girgensons was playing some of his best hockey under Bylsma while anchoring the third line and it left the coach with only one center position to fill which he did with Derek Grant (and even winger Nicolas Deslauriers) on the fourth line. Bylsma may have found himself another bottom-six center in recent call-up Evan Rodrigues, who's blown away Grant at that position. When Girgensons returns, I wouldn't be surprised to see him and Rodrigues down the middle on the bottom lines.

--At one point last night I said to myself, "Rodrigues has got it." Dude has been playing extremely well since his call-up and though his simple stat line of two assists and a plus-1 rating in four games doesn't look like much, he's buzzing around the ice and looks the part of a full-fledged NHL'er with definite up-side. Not bad for a player who had been playing wing for almost all of his AHL career and was known as "Eichel's winger" when the Sabres signed him out of Boston University in 2015.

--Buffalo's Rasmus Ristolainen is known for laying the body on the opposition's best player while generally trying to make their lives miserable. Last night he ran in to a pretty tough customer in Colorado's Landeskog who was running him. A couple of times last night it was like two rams butting heads which was very cool to see.

--The Sabres powerplay looked extremely good for the most part last night with some impressive puck movement but ironically they scored their only powerplay goal on a rebound off a blistering shot from the point. Eichel was instrumental on the play as he had his shot blocked but got the puck cross-ice to Kyle Okposo while falling. Okposo whipped it to Rasmus Ristolainen who fired a cannon at Pickard and Reinhart buried the rebound. Buffalo went 1/3 on the night and moved back into the top spot in the league on the powerplay.

--It's been two games since goalie Robin Lehner called out his team. The Sabres are 2-0-0 having beaten Ottawa and Colorado. Lehner was extremely displeased with his teammates "fancy" play, especially in the second period. Going into last night's game the Sabres had a league-worst minus-23 goal differential in the second period. However, the last two games the Sabres have played extremely well in the second, save for that five minute stretch in Ottawa.

--Lehner himself has backed up his words after the Vancouver loss by stopping all but two of the 62 shots against him the last two games (.968 save percentage.) In his last eight games Lehner has faced 302 shots (38/game) but allowed only 15 goals and he's 4-3-1 despite a very healthy goals-against average of around 1.85 and a very stout .950 Sv % . No wonder he was ticked off after the Vancouver game.


Take it for what it is



Friday, February 17, 2017

The Nikita Zadorov story in Buffalo

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 2-16-2017


Some of the first words at 6'5" 230 defenseman Nikita Zadorov's draft presser were, "Yeah, I like to hit." The native of Moscow, Russia delivered that line with a "cat that ate the canary"smile that revealed his pure love for that aspect of the game.

Buffalo had two first round picks in 2013--their own No. 8-overall and the 16th which came from the Minnesota Wild in the Jason Pominville trade. With their first selection the Sabres picked 6'3" 219 lb. Finnish defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, whom then director of scouting Kevin Devine said they keyed upon. As the draft moved on and No. 16 was getting closer, Zadorov kept dropping.

With the Sabres in need of quality forward help in addition to definitive needs on defense, Devine said that the team had no intention of drafting another defenseman in the first round, but Zadorov kept dropping. Devine also said that he and his scouts had Ristolainen and Zadorov "neck in neck" leading up to the draft and as the big Russian kept dropping their eyes got bigger. When Zadorov dropped to No. 16, the Sabres snatched him up.

"We were looking to move up but teams were saying no and he kept sliding and sliding," said Devine at the time. "So, to get those two big guys [without trading up] was pretty nice."

After getting over the shock of the Sabres not drafting a forward with the second of their two first round picks, Sabres fans began to conjure up visions of a "Twin Towers" top-pairing on defense. Ristolainen was a two-way, right-handed defenseman who loved to get up ice while Zadorov loved to hit and was preened in Russia to play defense. At the Traverse City Tournament that year the two got plenty of time as a pairing and looked impressive causing Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch to write, "I'm no scout, but those two looked beastly on the backend."
That was the dream, a big, mobile left/right, top-pairing duo that would anchor the Sabres defense for years to come.

However, that's about as far as it got.

Both were with the Sabres to open the tumultuous 2013-14 season and while Ristolainen, touted as the most NHL ready defenseman at the 2013 draft not named Seth Jones, was thrown right into the fire, Buffalo was 10 games into an awful season before Zadorov hit the ice. Oddly enough, Zadorov's NHL debut came against the Colorado Avalanche. He recorded three hits in 11:01 of ice-time.

Buffalo was 1-8-1 after their loss to Colorado with the downward spiral spinning off the GM and head coach, as they were both fired. With a new regime in town, the many youngins that the team started with were eventually sent to their respective developmental leagues. After 34 games with the Sabres, Ristolainen was sent to Rochester where he played another 34 games while Zadorov was sent to junior, rejoining the London Knights.

It was at the end of that hockey season that their two paths diverged even further.

Ristolainen was very unhappy that he was sent to the Amerks and used that anger back in Finland by taking out his frustrations in the weight room. He hit Buffalo's 2014 Development Camp cut with a look that said, "You're not sending me back to the AHL this year. He never touched AHL ice again.

Zadorov came into development camp that year out of shape and not ready for the pro game. Here's what I wrote back in September, 2014 as the Sabers were looking at more cuts before heading into the regular season:

"D, Nikita Zadorov--Fans are clamoring for the big rear-guard to make the team this season, but he is still a very raw prospect. If (when?) he gets sent back to junior, it will be a big disappointment for Zadorov, but nothing should be given to him. He had the opportunity to dominate at Traverse City but failed to show up against Dallas and was benched for the second half of the game. That pretty much punched his ticket back to London for another season in junior. Zadorov has tons of talent, including untapped offensive potential, but he's still a kid that needs to mature both physically and mentally. Physically he needs to work on his conditioning. Mentally he needs to adopt a more a professional approach to make it to the NHL. There's a wonderful, fun-loving, mischievous child inside of Zadorov that could eventually meld with his skills, size and aggressiveness to produce a top-notch player that's a fun teammate to be with, but a pain to play against. That personality could eventually balance out the somewhat stiff, very professional Rasmus Ristolainen on a "Twin-Towers" defensive pairing (like they did at the 2013 Traverse City tournament) of the future. But Zadorov needs to pay his dues first. It's as simple as that."

It didn't get better for Zadorov either as he soon found himself in hockey no-man's land. He clearly wasn't ready for the NHL but was too good for junior, something that also happened to fellow first-rounder, Mikhail Girgorenko (2012, 12th-overall,) and there was soon a tug-of-war between three leagues. According to Bill Hoppe of the Olean Times Herald, his KHL team would not release his rights to the CHL, thus forcing Buffalo to keep him in a league he wasn't ready for or lose him to the KHL.

And it didn't get any better after that.

Zadorov had respectable numbers (3g, 12 assists, -10) for a 19 yr. old playing sheltered minutes that season, but he clearly wasn't ready physically or mentally for the game itself or the professionalism that was expected of him.

The Sabres worked on the conditioning part in-season and Zadorov responded, with the coach saying that the big Russian was working his butt off. It began to show on the ice but they were still unsure of his mental approach to the game going so far as to keep him with the Sabres instead of allowing him to go back to Russia to train for the 2015 World Junior Championships.

Those reservations ended up being well founded as Zadorov was bumped from a flight post All-Star break after he and his girlfriend spent the break in the Dominican Republic. He missed practice and the team flight to Calgary and was suspended by the team but would get back into the lineup in Vancouver after being out for two games.

GM Tim Murray could not have been pleased with the chain of events that occurred with Zadorov, nor that Zadorov, according to Murray, asked if his suspension was "part of the rules, part of the Collective Bargaining Agreement."

At the 2015 NHL Draft Zadorov was part of a package sent to the Avalanche for forwards Ryan O'Reilly and Jamie McGinn.

Of all the players Murray traded away, Zadorov was one of the toughest to see go. And with all the trouble Murray has had finding a d-partner for Ristolainen, having a maturing Zadorov in that spot would've saved everyone a lot of headaches. Would he have done so in Buffalo? Who knows?

The Sabres traded away a good one with plenty of upside in Zadorov but it's the old adage, "you have to give in order to get." O'Reilly is a consummate pro and has been better than expected in the eyes of many while helping transform the forward group. With Zadorov, you just never know. All the physical tools are there but how much progress can and will he make in the mental/professional aspects of the game is to be determined and it's something Murray probably wasn't interested in finding out. He knew what he was getting with O'Reilly.

Colorado visits Buffalo tonight with the worst record in the league. It will be the second team in Zadorov's career that's plummeting to the bottom. From what I've seen, he's still got that child-like demeanor and as Mark Scheiffle of the Winnipeg Jets found out a couple of weeks ago, he still likes to hit.

We'll see what he has in store for his former team tonight.



Thursday, February 16, 2017

Thx, Ottawa. Another win for Sabres vs. Sens

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 2-15-2017


The Buffalo Sabres came out of Canadian Tire Center in Ottawa with their third win over the Senators this season. In all Buffalo came away with nine of a possible 10 points (4-0-1) in the five-game season-series with their Atlantic Division rival. The Sabres only blemish against Ottawa came on November 9, in Buffalo as the Sabres lost 2-1 in the shootout.

The Sabres are having a weird year in some respects as their success against Ottawa was countered by their ineptitude against Boston as they went 0-4 against the Bruins this season. Buffalo also has had trouble with the Washington Capitals (0-2-1,) Carolina Hurricanes (0-2-1,) New Jersey Devils (0-2-1) and Vancouver Canucks (0-2-0.) Yet they're 2-0-1 so far against Detroit, went 2-0-1 against the NY Rangers and swept the Edmonton Oilers (2-0-0.)

After last night's win, Buffalo now has a 24-23-10 record good for 58 points.

It's been an up and down ride since the All-Star break. After losing to Montreal in the final game of January, the Sabres have alternated losses and wins beginning with the OT loss vs. the Rangers. In doing so they've caught up to, or surpassed, games played by other teams in the conference but are pretty much in the same place they've been all season--near the bottom of the conference and division.

Regardless of what's transpired over the course of the last two-plus weeks the Sabres seemed to be taking a business-like approach to the next series of games. Word out of the locker room last night after a solid win was that there was no celebration just a get-ready-for-the-next-game approach. "All-in-all we're not satisfied," said Ryan O'Reilly (via WGR550,) "it's just one game. We have to string a bunch together here. Our consistency has been terrible and we're not happy by any means here.

"We have to prove to each other every night that we can be a team that can contend.

Make no mistake, it was a good win for Buffalo last night. They got two points and did so within the division where they're 5-1-0 since blowing a two-goal lead in Toronto back on January 17. Prior to, and including, that Toronto game, the Sabres had a 4-9-3 record against the Atlantic. They also took a step in the right direction concerning their second period woes. Granted the final five minutes of the period was hair-raising, but the Sabres controlled the first 15 minutes of the period. For a team that gets crushed on a regular basis in the second period, getting 3/4 of the way there is a good step.

"They were moving, just skating around us," said O'Reilly of that span in the second period where Ottawa had 15 shots on goal in the final 5:52 of the period and took the lead 2-1 just 25 seconds after the barrage began. It's something we've witnessed often where Buffalo is caught in their zone for long periods of time when they're on the long change in the middle stanza. But they managed to regroup.

"We were disappointed with it," continued O'Reilly. "We didn't bread. We stuck with it and we knew if we [could] just get out of the period we'd regroup and that's what we did. We came back with a fresh mind-set. It [was] good for us."

That "fresh mind-set" O'Reilly talked about was on display very early in the third period as Matt Moulson got the final tip on a Sam Reinhart shot from in tight that went over Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson and landed near the goal-line. Moulson managed to out duel a Senators defenseman to nick it over the goal line. Jack Eichel, who was at the center of a whirlwind the last couple of days, started the play by using his speed and reach to get the puck to the side of the net.

Eichel admittedly didn't have his best game the previous night vs. the Vancouver Canucks. He fumbled the puck in his own zone late on a penalty kill that the 'Nucks converted on to take the lead. Buffalo lost 4-2. Head coach Dan Bylsma cleared up any controversy concerning how he wanted Eichel to play and the 20 yr. old franchise center did just that.

I'm still of the opinion that the main reason the Sabres fell to the Canucks was fatigue. Even on the second goal where Eichel's weak shot was corralled by Vancouver and was in the back of the net seconds later, was a result of fatigue. Buffalo was in the midst of playing five games in seven nights and was on the second game of their second consecutive back-to-back. When a player is tired, he makes mistakes and there were plenty being made throughout that Vancouver game.

O'Reilly also bounced back as he opened the scoring only 24 seconds into the game last night. He was also on the ice for Justin Bailey's game-winning goal and finished with a plus-1 rating, but the real star of the show may have been Robin Lehner.

Lehner faced 41 shots last night and allowed only two goals against while making timely saves all the way to the end when Ottawa was pressing hard with the extra attacker. Although he still has his troubles with rebound control, Lehner has been getting the save when the team needs him to. Although he didn't have his best game against Vancouver, he was back in net vs. his former team and held the Sens to two goals.

Lehner is 4-0-2 all-time vs. Ottawa. This season he is 3-0-1 and was named one of the game's stars in every one of those games. Overall he has a 1.30 goals-against average against the Sens and a .959 save percentage.

As for Buffalo, thanks to their play against Ottawa, they're still "in the hunt."


*****

Quick notes:

--Moulson's goal came 5v5, it was only his second goal at even strength all season. His 12 goals on the season rank him in a tie for fourth on the team with O'Reilly, Reinhart and Brian Gionta.
--Evander Kane missed last night's game with the flu
--Bailey's goal was his second of the season. The speedy winger is beginning to impress on a more consistent basis and his goal last night should help keep him on a line with O'Reilly and Kyle Okposo
--Defenseman Zach Bogosian returned to the lineup and finished with an even rating in 16:49 of ice-time.
--The Sabres are finished playing the Eastern Conference this month and begin a three game home-stand tomorrow vs. the Colorado Avalanche. They'll have a matinee on Saturday against the St. Louis Blues before welcoming the Chicago Blackhawks to KeyBank Center for a 6 pm start.
--After that the Sabres go on their mandated five-day bye week before travelling to Colorado and Arizona for a back-to-back beginning the 25th. Buffalo finishes the month with a home game against the Nashville Predators.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Jack Eichel isn't ready for a leadership role just yet

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 2-13-2017


Before we get into the nuts and bolts of player discontent with themselves and how they laid an egg last night it needs to be said that the whole concept of a bye-week in the NHL was a ridiculous proposition by the NHL Players Association and I'm pretty sure every team will have a beef. Here's Buffalo's.

The only thing worse than a condensed schedule in a particular month to accommodate a bye week is having it in February, the shortest month of the year. Buffalo's got it this season and in order for the Sabres to accommodate the hiatus while still keeping pace with the other teams, the schedule maker has Buffalo playing 14 games in a 28-day month, which is an every other day pace even without the bye. Having a mandated five-day bye week means that the Sabres are playing 14 games in 23 days.

Buffalo had to pack in seven games in the first 12 days of February which included last week where they played five games in seven days with two sets of back-to-backs. After a day off today they'll play four games in six days which includes a matinee on Saturday in the first game of another back-to-back. Buffalo comes out of their bye-week with a back-to-back roadie before coming home on the 28th for the last game before the NHL Trade Deadline.

No one at KeyBank Center will make any excuses and you won't hear any formal complaints, but jiminy christmas, what the hell kind of schedule is that?

With that beef out of the way, simply put, the bad Sabres were on display last night as they dropped a winnable game against the Vancouver Canucks. Sure, they looked as if they were finishing up a five game in seven night stretch, but that's not the reason why they lost, according to the players afterwards.

"We didn't play good today at all," acknowledged goalie Robin Lehner to the gathered media. "It's not even disappointing any more. [I'm] starting to get angry, you know [it's] all talk. We've got to look ourselves in the mirror. It's disrespectful when we have a game-plan--the coach came up with a good game-plan--and we do the exact opposite."

It's not the first time we've heard something like this. The Sabres have laid an egg (or eggs) in every month this season and often times it reverts to the players on the ice not doing what they're asked to do.

The Sabres scored a late first period goal to tie the game at 2-2 and they should've had some momentum heading into the second period. But the second 20 minutes has been a thorn in the side of the Sabres all season long and last night was no different. Both Lehner and winger Kyle Okposo said that the second period was a particular area of focus for the team heading into the game and that the coaches had a plan but the players strayed away from it. The Sabres gave up the two goals in the second and lost 4-2.

While one could see Lehner's nostrils flaring a bit with anger, Okposo laid out Buffalo's performance in the second period in a more frustrated manner. "It was gross," he said. "We just did not play well. It was something we addressed this morning as a group and as a team and we didn't execute it."

I've been hearing a lot of talk about leadership for the Sabres as captain Brian Gionta isn't getting any younger at the age of 38, and name that comes up often is 20 yr. old Jack Eichel.

Make no mistake, Eichel has everything it takes to be a franchise player and he will be that someday. The former second-overall pick has a lot going for him and has tremendous upside, but one thing he needs to realize is that everything he does influences his team and last night it was a negative influence. Simply put, I haven't seen him look that disinterested and/or looking as mentally and physically tired since the Sabres Development Camp scrimmage in 2015 when over 17,000 fans packed the stands to get their first glimpse of the player Buffalo spent two years "suffering" for.

As was the case at camp, Eichel looked like an every day player last night. Check that. He actually looked worse, like the second coming of Derek Roy who's dipsy-doodle turnovers and general nonchalance defined a core group of players wallowing so deep and so long in mediocrity that it forced ownership into a scorched earth rebuild that eventually lead to the drafting of Eichel.

Eichel was anything but special last night and one would think the general dismay tossed about by Lehner and Okposo last night may have been done with Eichel in mind.

"We've got to go out there and execute," said Okposo. "Good teams go out there an execute the game-plan and they do what they're supposed to do and everything else takes over--your natural creativity and your skill take over. We just didn't do that tonight."

Lehner called the players' failure to follow the game-plan "disrespectful," and when asked whether there was an issue in the locker room concerning "guys not following instructions," Lehner didn't mince words. "Yeah it is," he said bluntly. "Look at the veteran teams, it's not science, you know. The good teams out there do the same things over and over again and when things happen, when things get to be a little too much, they fall back on the structure. The structure bails them out. We have a structure but we don't play it.

"If we're [supposed to] chip it deep, do whatever we're supposed to do, [instead it's] let's do another deke, do another play. Or [when we need to] get it out of our zone, it's 'No, let's do the fancy thing.'"

Where have we heard that before?

Lehner and Okposo mentioned that good teams stick to the game-plan. Regardless of external pressures or internal fatigue or even the stature and talent-level of individual players, if the coach lays it out, it's up to them to follow his lead. How many times after a comeback win did we hear from a sweat-soaked, tired player say that they just stuck to the game-plan? Pretty much every time.

It's not unfair to call out Eichel in situations like this as he's the best player on the team--"from everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded." Such is the quote that dates back to Biblical times so it's nothing new. Methinks Eichel knows this and completely bought into the concept as he's never taken his talent for granted. His work-ethic has either matched or exceeded his talent-level from the get-go. But he's a 20 yr. old still finding out who he is on a maturity-level and still has some learning to do.

Could there have been a different outcome last night, or in any of the other clunkers Buffalo has had this season, if Eichel had been on his game and helping his teammates follow the game-plan more closely? As proven in the many comebacks they've had this season, as well as the blitzkrieg scoring they enjoy when they're on their game, the answer is, absolutely.

This one would have been a tough one, however, as Eichel and every other player not named Evan Rodrigues and Justin Bailey, two recent call-ups, looked fatigued from having to play five games in seven nights. Then again, the great ones overcome that, like Michel Jordan willing his Chicago Bulls to a pivotal Game-5 NBA Finals win over the Utah Jazz while playing with the flu. Or like Mark Messier carrying the NY Rangers on his back during a grueling Stanley Cup run that ended a 54-year Cup drought. Or Eichel can look a little closer at his parents and how many times they were completely exhausted but somehow found a little bit more while managing to get him to the rink.

This isn't the Finals, but it is and has been crunch-time for the Sabres. With every loss the playoffs get farther away and they really can't afford many more. Like Lehner said, they've been talking but we all know that it's cheap if they can't back it up. Buffalo's best players need to be their best players, like in Toronto, and their leaders need to be their leaders, something we didn't see last night. If Eichel wants to be a leader, he'll need to give a little bit more when he and the rest of his teammates have nothing more to give.