Friday, February 23, 2018

Trades beginning to rain all around as Sabres visit Detroit

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 2-22-2018


Who'd have thought Boston Bruins Frank Vatrano was on the block? Vatrano was a bit of a wunderkind as he pumped in 36 goals 36 games for the Providence Bruins, Boston's AHL affiliate, in 2015-16 after signing a free agent contract out of UMass. In two separate stints with the Bruins he did raise some eyebrows with 18 goals in 83 games while in a support role from 2015-17.

This season, however, Vatrano has struggled scoring only two goals in 25 games and suffering from a lower-body injury. According to Steve Conroy of the Boston Herald, as Vatrano took a step back, two young forwards, Danton Heinen and Jake DeBrusk, took advantage of their opportunity placing Vatrano down the depth chart. Rather than risk losing him to waivers, Boston GM Don Sweeney traded him to the Florida Panthers today for a third round pick.

Of note, the Panthers and Bruins meet four more times.

Things are starting to pick up on the trade front as seven trades have been made in the past four days. This was the second trade in three days for Boston. On Tuesday they strengthened their defense-corps by adding Nick Holden from the NY Rangers for a third round pick. The third they got for Vatrano recoups the pick they sent the Rangers and also, according to Conroy, "gives the B's a little more trade capital with which to work before Monday's trade deadline."

At one point in time the Sabres were said to have the most coveted free agent forward in Evander Kane and while that may still be true, as of this writing he's still donning the Blue and Gold. After Kane there's really not much the Sabres have to offer playoff-bound teams outside of depth. Forwards Benoit Pouliot, Jordan Nolan and Jacob Josefson, along with defensemen Josh Gorges and Justin Falk all, like Kane are pending unrestricted free agents, but all are considered depth players. Backup goalie Chad Johnson is also a pending UFA.

The most intriguing Buffalo player other than Kane is goalie Robin Lehner who is a restricted free agent with arbitration rights, according to CapFriendly.com. Lehner's name has been mentioned in a couple of scenarios which at one point included the Chicago Blackhawks and NY Islanders. With Chicago's playoff hopes fading and the Islanders probably focusing on shoring up their defense, the market for a starting goalie is drying up.

Two backup goalies have already been traded as the Philadelphia Flyers picked up Petr Mrazek from the Detroit Red Wings and the Arizona Coyotes traded forward Tobias Reider to the Los Angeles Kings for backup Darcy Kuemper and promptly signed him to a 2yr./$3.7 million contract extension. Two other backup goalies were traded in January as the Columbus Blue Jackets picked up Jeff Zatkoff from the Kings and the Edmonton Oilers traded for Al Montoya from the Montreal Canadiens.

So the Sabres will hit the ice in Detroit tonight with the same lineup they've had for most of the season. The report from this mornings skate has Lehner starting in net with the following lineup (barring anyone being pulled because of a pending trade):

Kane-O'Reilly-Reinhart
Girgensons-Rodrigues-Okposo
Wilson-Larsson-Pominville
Pouliot-Josefson-Baptiste

Scandella-Nelson
Beaulieu-Ristolainen
Gorges-Antipin

Nolan and Falk are the scratches for tonight.


*****

Some quick notes:

--This is the third of four meetings between the Wings and the Sabres. Buffalo won the first one in October as Lehner pitched the shutout in a 1-0 victory (with Pouliot scoring the lone goal and Antipin earning his first ever NHL points,) and the Red Wings took the last one 3-1 in November.

--According to Sabres PR, the Sabres are 5-4-1 in their last 10 games vs. the Red Wings; 3-6-1 on the road

--Forward Scott Wilson, who is a restricted free agent with arbitration rights, is headed back to Detroit for his first game as a Sabre against his former team. Wilson was acquired by Buffalo on December 4th for a 2019 fifth-round pick and he's been heating up as of late with five points (3+2) in his last six games.

Also from Sabres PR, here's a few players who have picked up the pace lately:

--Ryan O’Reilly has recorded 19 points (9+10) in his last 19 games.
--Sam Reinhart has totaled 17 points (6+11) in his last 16 games.
--Rasmus Ristolainen has 18 points (5+13) in his last 23 games dating back to Dec. 29. Ristolainen’s 18 points during that span tied for eighth among NHL defensemen entering play Wednesday.
--Kyle Okposo has recorded 17 points (4+13) in his last 18 games.
--Evan Rodrigues has totaled six points (2+4) in his last seven games


*****

Of note on the Kane front, according to TSN's Pierre LeBrun, [NY Rangers winger Michael] "Grabner expected to be pulled from Rangers lineup tonight given trade talks happening... Rangers might potentially do same with [winger] Rick Nash." That's a lot of competition for Kane's services and if GM Jason Botterill doesn't hammer out something soon, the return will lessen by the day.


*****

And finally, congratulations to the U.S. Women's Olympic Hockey Team for bringing home the gold. The Americans outdueled archrival Team Canada in a game that went to the shootout. For as much as everybody hates the shootout in games like this, me included, it was still a very entertaining, yet nerve-wracking skills competition.

It was the ladies first Olympic gold in the sport since 1998.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

On the Winter Olympics and Team USA hockey. Amerks/Crunch in Buffalo tonight.

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 2-21-2018


There probably was a contingent of USA hockey fans who checked their phones this morning and found out the that Team USA was ousted from the Winter Olympic Men's Hockey Tournament last night. Those fans may have been aware that the U.S. was in the quarterfinals with an opportunity to advance to the medal rounds and perhaps they knew that the game was just after 10 pm EST last night, which equated to a Wednesday, 12-noon start in South Korea.

Had they been watching NBC prior to that 10 O'Clock hour they'd have seen a variety of events which included figure skating and alpine skiing while their sister station, NBSCN, was broadcasting the ladies short program in figure skating. Which is all well and good, except that I can't remember so much attention given to the short program. Perhaps I'm old, but I don't remember watching Dorothy Hamill, Tara Lipinski,, Kristi Yamaguchi, Nancy Kerrigan or Oksana Baiul and their opponents skate their full short program as usually television coverage started with the freestyle portion of the event.

That said, there's a lot of air time to fill and figure skating is much more popular than men's ice hockey. At least when it comes to the Olympics.

However, Team USA was in a do-or-die situation last night in men's hockey and if you were locked into either of those two NBC channels, the quarterfinal match wasn't on. It was only after NBC showed a live look-in about seven minutes into the game did we find out that, yes the game was being played and that it was on yet another channel, CNBC, their financial channel.

For those who did miss the game, it was a good one. Ryan Donato opened the scoring for the Americans before the Czech's scored two unanswered goals. Thirty-five year old Jim Slater, a 2002 first-round draft pick (30th overall) of the defunct Atlanta Thrashers scored the game-tying goal with Team USA shorthanded. The U.S. almost ended it late in regulation as Brian O'Neill rang one off the crossbar (nothing like that sound) with under three minutes to go, but after a 10-minute overtime session, the Czech's scored one goal in the shootout while the Americans were shutout sending the U.S. home without a medal since their 2010 silver medal at Vancouver.

The NHL did not allow it's players to participate in this year's Olympics which really threw a monkey-wrench into the tournament, making a team like the Olympic Athletes of Russia (a stupid title for a Russian team that had mass doping problems, even in curling, which should have banned a large number of it's athletes,) a prohibitive favorite. And it didn't make the NHL's flagship network, NBC, all that happy either as they just plunked down a huge chunk of change for broadcasting rights and the league did nothing to help their Olympic viewing audience by keeping NHL'ers home.

Personally, I have no problems with the NHL not sending their athletes half-way around the world to essentially disrupt a condensed season. As a product of a time when professional athletes were barred from participating in the Olympics, perhaps the "Miracle" in me likes The Games to be about the spirit of competition, which is what it was meant to be in the first place. Soviet/Russian cheating not withstanding.

The Americans lost night and Team Canada just got by a pesky Team Finland 1-0 earlier this morning without NHL'ers. An argument can be made that those two North American rosters were compromised the most by not having those players, but Canada will probably medal and the U.S. went home early, which was how it usually played out prior to NHL players being allowed to participate in 1998.

I get that, and am OK with that. But how Team USA is really what irks me as they went heavy on the elder statesmen of US hockey and short on youth and skill. They were beaten by Slovenia in their opening game, overwhelmed by the Russians and eventually taken out by the Czech Republic. They looked slow on many occasions using what looked like only their will to get as far as they did.

As a Buffalo Sabres fan, I'm of the opinion that they could have have used the speed, stick work and craftiness of Casey Mittelstadt in the wide expanses of the Olympic-sized rink. Sure, I might be a homer, but after watching a plodding U.S. team gut buried when it mattered most, with all due respect to Garret Roe, Chad Kolarik, Slater and Brian Gionta, how much worse could it have been with Mittelstadt in one of their places. Although he's not great in the shootout, in addition to his strong two-way 5v5 play, Mittelstadt is a beast on the powerplay. Of note, Team USA went 0-for-5 against the Czechs last night.

At least Sabres had one of their prospects in Pyeong Chang. Defenseman Will Borgen, a 21 yr. old Minnesota native, made the team but never hit the ice for Team USA. Borgen is a 6'2" 187 lb. defensive defenseman who skates extremely well, takes care of his own end and moves the puck up ice. Perhaps he was too young as Team USA insisted on skating aged veterans like 35 yr. old d-man Noah Welch, James Wisneiwski (34,) and Ryan Gunderson (33) on the back end.

Having said that, perhaps it's better for the Sabres that Borgen didn't get to play at the Olympics. Borgen is a junior at St. Cloud State, the top rank NCAA D-1 men's hockey team. Having only watched the level of play on an international scale may really spark his competitive drive to the point where he'll forgo his senior season and sign with the Sabres. God knows he'll have plenty of opportunity in Buffalo as their blueline continues to transition.

Although it was disappointing to see the U.S. lose, it wasn't unexpected. If the NHL once again withholds it's players from the 2022 Winter Olympics in Bejing, China, perhaps those in charge at Team USA will re-calculate how they want to build their team. Being short on overall skill is one thing, but not injecting a good amount of youthful exuberance is something that can be overcome.

The NBC/NHL contract extension ends after the 2020-21 season so it will be interesting to see if the NHL renews with NBC. It will also be intriguing to see what kind of coverage men's hockey receives should the NHL not allow it's players, once again, to travel half-way around the world for the Olympics. And in the midst of all that, the NHL/NHLPA collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2018-19 season and if players are ticked about not being allowed to compete this year, you can bet you bottom dollar that will be a negotiation issue.

Happy Olympics everyone.


*****

The Rochester Americans are going to attempt to do something tonight their parent club, the Buffalo Sabres, haven't done a lot of at KeyBank Center--win. The Sabres, who are last in the Eastern Conference and have the league's worst home record at 8-18-4. In eight February home games the Sabres are 2-5-1 and have been outscored in those games 26-18.

Rochester is in the midst of a playoff run that could take them to the post-season for the first time in three years and they'll be on the KeyBank Center ice tonight to face off against the rival Syracuse Crunch (TBL.) The Amerks (26-13-8-6) are a hundredth of a percentage point ahead of the Crunch (30-18-2-3) in the Eastern Conference.

At one point the Amerks were josting with the Toronto Marlies (TOR) for first place in the division, but a tough 15-game stretch which saw them win only three times (3-5-4-3) has drppped them in the standings. The Crunch come into tonight's contest having won four of five and have gotten points in five of six.

This will be the sixth time the Amerks host a game in Buffalo. Overall they're 4-1-0-0 and are presently on a three-game winning streak on the Sabres ice.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Sabres back at it today for another Kid's Day (uggh).

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 2-19-2018


The Buffalo Sabres are paying four players not to play hockey for them anymore and by the looks of their last game, are paying some of their roster players to skate in the Blue and Gold but not really play for them either.

One player seems to be saving himself for an expected new team via trade and another one's apathy may be construed as pouting. The Sabres may have leader who's probably banged up, but still only seems to lead on occasion, a scorer that isn't scoring (and has the worst plus/minus on the team,) an agitator who's playing like he's been neutered, and a large group of players that fluctuate between playing up to their potential and falling prey to the crap show their caught up in. At times this group puts it all together and shines like in a couple of recent games against top teams. More often than not for this collection of Sabres players, the individual inconsistencies are too many and too broad to come out with a victory on many nights and certainly not in the afternoon where Buffalo is 0-5-1 in day games. At their worst they form a black hole on the ice that sucks in the entire soul of the franchise into it leaving the Knox Brothers looking down and asking themselves, "What the hell has happened to our beloved Sabres?"

I get the inconsistencies of a long season with at team short on talent and a rookie coach that doesn't seem to be NHL-ready quite yet. I get that the GM wanted to take a good, long look at the players and the team during an evaluation period as he plots his course for the future. And I can even get on board with players having off games and/or just not having it in them on certain nights, after all it's an 82-game season spanning over six months and the NHL grind can be brutal.

But what we saw on display Saturday afternoon is unacceptable. It was a piss-poor performance on any normal game day much less during a promotion called Kid's Day, where the future fans of the Blue and Gold come together to watch their hometown heroes. What those in attendance on Saturday witnessed was the Sabres going through the motions for 40 minutes against the Los Angeles Kings, what they heard was a reported "loud thud" coming from where GM Jason Botterill sits during games and they responded with a chorus of boos as the Sabres left the ice down 4-0 after the second period.

It was the fourth such Kid's Day promotion and the third clunker this group delivered. Buffalo is 0-4-0 during those games and have been outscored by a combined 20-7. In four losses during Kid's Day (out of 42 total losses when you add in OT/SO,) that minus-13 makes up nearly 25% of their league-worst minus-54 goal differential.

This is how you cultivate the future fan base?

Nothing has come out Pegula Sports and Entertainment as of late, but it's safe to say that the owners Terry and Kim Pegula, as well as team president Russ Brandon aren't too thrilled with what's transpired with this team this year, especially on Kid's Day. Then again, the Pegulas are no angels either as they're plan of diving to the bottom for a top pick has gone awry. Regardless of whether you're for it or against it, the tank did happen and Sabreland is left to deal with the after affects.

If you're into karma, this drudgery is an appropriate karmic response to the tank. If you're into seven-year karmic cycles then this era is a part of that as well.

Oddly enough, yesterday was the seventh anniversary of Terry Pegula purchasing the Buffalo Sabres and the Sabres outside of the playoffs for the seventh full season since Pegula took over ownership of the team. That would have the previous cycle begin in 2004-05 when there was a lockout with the Sabres making the Eastern Conference Finals the two years after. However, the next five years would see them make the playoffs twice, getting bounced in the first round both times.

The cycle before that began with the Darcy Regier/Lindy Ruff era under the Rigas family who jettisoning GM John Muckler and reigning Jack Adams Award winner,Ted Nolan. That era began with the team making the conference finals and Stanley Cup Finals in consecutive years under Regier and Ruff before things unraveled to the point where their Hall of Fame goalie and team captain both demanded trades. In the 2002-03 season of that cycle, owner John Rigas was indicted by the feds for fraud in summer 2002, the NHL took over day-to-day operations thereafter, the team went bankrupt in January, 2003, they were bought by B. Thomas Golisano in March while heading into rebuild mode.

Muckler took over the Sabres GM slot to begin the prior seven-year cycle in 1990-91. His big move came the following year when he traded for Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine. The team made the playoffs in six of those seven seasons but made it out of the first round only two times.

To say that it's been tumultuous over the last 21 years in Sabreland is an understatement, but regardless of that, we're still in the here and now and it hasn't been pretty.

Defenseman Marco Scandella told the gathered media post-game on Saturday that they had a good team, something which raised the eyebrows of many. Scandella's right, to an extent, in that there are good teams and a lot of parity and sometimes little things can be the difference between winning an losing. For as bad as Buffalo's record is they've lost 11 games in overtime or shootout and have been on the losing side of a one-goal game another nine times which means that they've lost 20 one-goal games out of 59 total. Add in another nine occasions where they were within a goal late in the game only to give up an empty netter (or two) and over half of their games have been losses where they were within one goal of a win or a point.

But those games took effort, and what we saw on Saturday was a complete lack of effort on the part of the Sabres through the first two periods. It's something we've seen on far too many occasions this season with three of them coming during a Kid's Day matinee.

Lo and behold, it's President's Day today, the kids are out of school and there's another Kid's Day promotion at KeyBank Center. The Washington Capitals are in town and presumably in a foul mood. The Caps got trounced 7-1 in Chicago on Saturday night and were jumped by the Pittsburgh Penguins atop the Metropolitan Division.

This is the time of year that features many teams that are either in playoff mode or are beginning to gear up for that. The Kings are a perfect example as they came into Buffalo just outside of a playoff spot and were determined to leave with two points. The Sabres didn't come close to matching that intensity and it showed. The Caps just got surpassed by the Penguins and have the Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils nippin' at their heels. Washington is on the last game of a four-game road trip which has seen them go 1-1-1 so far.

It's safe to say that they'll be ready to play.

Many would be appalled if the Sabres came out flat today like they did against the Kings on Saturday, yet it's safe to say that most would not be surprised as this team has done so on many occasions. But to do so at home in front of thousands of kids, twice in a row, is truly unacceptable.


*****

The Sabres announced that Rochester goalie Linus Ullmark has been recalled. Reports have starter Robin Lehner day-to-day with a lower body injury, possibly from kicking the crap out of everything around him after his team mates hung him out to dry yet again.

Lehner himself isn't without fault for the shortcomings of this team this season as he's had awful games on more than one occasion, but more often than not his teammates have given him little either in goal-support and/or tenacity and/or competence in the defensive zone.

Ullmark has been holding the fort in Rochester and once again looks as if he'll be named team MVP. He's faced the second-most shots in the AHL (1118,) is seventh in the league in save percentage (.924) and wins (18) and has the 11th best goals-against average (2.43) while appearing in the third most games (36.)

The 6'4" 221 lb. native of Lugnvik, Sweden has appeared in one game for the Sabres this season allowing one goal on 45 shots (.978 sv%) in a 3-1 Buffalo victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets just prior to the Sabres bye-week in January. In all Ullmark has 9-11-2 NHL record with a 2.55 GAA and .918 sv%.


*****

The Sabres will be wearing their Winter Classic jerseys for the third time this season and they will be giving away Classic-inspired jersey towels at the gate today. Buffalo is 1-0-1 while wearing those.


*****

Game-time is 3 pm.


*****

Housley told the gathered media today that Chad Johnson will get the start in net and that Nicolas Baptiste will be back in the lineup.

The projected lineup from Joe Yerdon of sabres.com looks to be:

Kane-O'Reilly-Reinhart
Pouliot-Rodrigues-Okposo
Wilson-Larsson-Pominville
Girgensons-Josefson-Baptiste

Scandella-Nelson
Ristolainen-Beaulieu
Falk-Antipin




Monday, February 19, 2018

LAK @ BUF for a matinee on Kids Day, which hasn't been fun for the kids so far.

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 2-17-2018


It's been said hundreds of times since 2007--the Buffalo Sabres look as if they want to put on a show when playing the home crowd. Which is all well and good. Unfortunately, it seems as if they forget how to play winning hockey while inserting (or trying to insert) some flare to their home games and more often than not as of late, they've laid an egg.

Buffalo hasn't had a winning record at home since 2011-12 when they went 21-12-8 under head coach Lindy Ruff. Since then the Sabres have a gone a combined 81-103-31. This season Buffalo is 8-16-4 at home, which is poor in and of itself, but what's more troublesome is their abysmal play in two of three matinees on home ice, which happened to be during a the team's 'Kids Day' promotion.

The Sabres scheduled six Kids Days throughout the season with the matinee's featuring reduced prices for kids (with the purchase of a full price ticket,) giveaways and other events in an effort to get Buffalo's future fan base excited about the Blue and Gold. However, as the saying goes, "the best laid plans of mice and men, often go awry."

Buffalo has played three games on Kids Day so far this season and they're 0-3-0, which is not anything to get excited about. But when you look at the collective score of 17-5 in those losses, within a disappointing season no-less, it doesn't lay a very good foundation for the fan base of the future.

Kids Day should be like a fun-filled G-rated movie with popcorn and ice cream, some action on the ice with a few hard-edged surprises thrown in for good measure. But in two instances, the horror on display was enough to bring on nightmares.

Back in October the high-flying New Jersey Devils came to town and just annihilated the Sabres 6-2 on the season's first Kids Day. After the Devils scored two goals in the first period of that game, the Sabres answered early in the second with a goal to make it 2-1. Then the bottom fell out as New Jersey scored the next four.

Fast forward to the new calendar year and the Sabres would play even worse in January when the Dallas Stars came to town. Dallas scored the first three goals before allowing Buffalo to score about mid-way through the second period. The Stars responded with four unanswered leaving an indelible 7-1 imprint on the thousands of kids who came in rooting for the home team, but left as boos rained down on the Sabres. In between the New Jersey and Dallas games there were other clunkers, and often times we thought (or hoped) that they'd hit bottom, but nothing could have prepared Sabreland for the utter disaster that was the Dallas game.

That said, it looks as if the Stars game was finally a bottoming out. Buffalo has played very well since then going 6-4-2 in that span which includes a season-long three-game win-streak in western Canada that included back-to-back shutouts. They also had a string of four games in a row where they scored four or more goals (3-0-1,) something they'd been unable to accomplish since the latter months of 2015.

The Sabres last game was in Ottawa on Thursday, and they almost came away with a win. Despite being outplayed by the Senators for much of the game, Buffalo was ahead 2-1 in the late stages of the third period before Ottawa scored with :31 seconds to go. The Sens took advantage of an awkward Sabres change in overtime and won 3-2 while handing Buffalo their 10 overtime loss of the season against only three wins.

Buffalo takes on the Los Aneles Kings today at KeyBank Center, which might be good for the Sabres and the thousands of kids expected to be in attendance. Buffalo is on an eight-game winning streak against the Kings, according to the Sabres, and that includes two wins during their 2013-15 tank seasons.

Sabres.com also noted that Buffalo is 14-1-1 (one tie) in their last 16 home games dating back to 1993 and have outscored the Kings 67-25 and that the Kings have not won at Buffalo since February 21, 2003.


*****

Sabres head coach Phil Housley had been alternating Buffalo's two goalies over the last five games even without a back-to-back and the Sabres are 3-1-1 during that stretch. But, according to reports from the rink, it looks as if starter Robin Lehner will get the call today. Lehner is 3-3-2 since the Dallas game and was in goal for Buffalo against Ottawa and stopping 33 of 36 shots against (.917 Sv%) in the overtime loss.

Also reported is that Justin Falk and Jordan Nolan will be back in the lineup against a rugged Kings team that likes to play a heavy game. Nolan was drafted by the Kings in 2009 (186th-overall) and won two Stanley Cups with LA before they waived him in September and Buffalo claimed him.

The projected lineup this afternoon based upon yesterday's practice:

Kane-O'Reilly-Reinhart
Poliout-Rodrigues-Okposo
Wilson-Larsson-Pominville
Girgensons-Josefson-Nolan

Scandella-Nelson
Beaulieu-Ristolainen
Antipin-Falk

Of note:

--Evander Kane gets moved to the top line with Ryan O'Reilly and Sam Reinhart.

--The bottom-six of the lineup has contributed five goals since Jack Eichel went down with an injury in Boston four games ago. Scott Wilson leads the charge with three, Nic Baptiste has another and Benoit Pouliot, who's been moved up and down on the wing has the other. They've also added four assists. Buffalo is 2-1-1 in those four games.


*****

The Rochester Americans broke out of a very rough patch by laying down a 12-3 beating on the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins last night at Blue Cross Arena.

It was the most goals scored in an AHL game since December 8, 2002 when the Hamilton Bulldogs defeated the Cleveland Barrons 15-1.

Let'sGoAmerks.com laid out a number of AHL season highs with that 12-goal outburst:
  • Goals in a game: 12 (previous was 10 set by the Amerks on November 24, 2017)
  • Highest winning margin: 9
  • Assists in a game: 22
  • Points in a game: 34
  • Power play goals in a game: 6
  • Goals in the 3rd: 5 (tied with three other teams)
Notice that the previous record for goals in a game this season was also held by the Amerks at 10.

From the box score, three players had two goals each last night--Seth Griffith, Kyle Criscuolo, and Alexander Nylander. Leading the charge in assists and points was Griffith with three while Criscuolo, Nylander, Hudson Fasching, Taylor Fedun, Brendan Guhle and Justin Bailey all had two assists each.

Griffith lead the team with five points while Criscuolo and Nylander had four each.

Linus Ullmark was in net allowing three goals on 38 shots. He did not allow a goal until the Amerks were up 5-0 just over half way through the game.




Saturday, February 17, 2018

Buffalo at Ottawa tonight with the Sabres and Sens heading in different directions

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 2-15-2018


At some point, I'm of the opinion that the Buffalo Sabres will pass the Ottawa Senators in the standings this season. I know it's not saying much as only three points separate the two teams at this juncture, but it's significant in that these are two teams at the bottom of the Eastern Conference going in different directions.

Buffalo headed into this season on the heels of a disappointing 2016-17 campaign that saw the general manger and head coach get fired. New Sabres GM Jason Botterill hired a new head coach in Phil Housley, the team tweaked their defense and Buffalo went into this season with a sense of optimism that they could take a step forward.

It didn't happen.

An 0-4-1 start lead to a 10-20-8 record for the 2017 portion of this season placing them all but mathematically out of the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season. A few years back Buffalo had decided on a scorched earth rebuild featuring two seasons in the tank. They made a huge leap in points in the 2015-16 season after drafting Jack Eichel and trading for young vets Ryan O'Reilly and Robin Lehner at the 2015 NHL Draft. But the next season they took take a step back which lead to the firings.

The Senators have spent the last 10 years mostly alternating between making the playoffs and missing them. Prior to last year's run where they came to within one game of the Stanley Cup Finals, Ottawa missed the playoffs four times and never made it out of the second round when they did. Their best season was in 2006-07 when they defeated the Sabres in the ECF then lost in the SCF to the Anaheim Ducks.

That 2007 playoff season was the last time either team was consistently good and it would seem as if Ottawa, like Buffalo a few years ago, is ready for a massive rebuild. Like the Sabres did when they realized that the team as constructed was mediocre with only a faint possibility of making any noise in the playoffs, the Senators came to the conclusion that the only way to move forward is to undertake a rebuild.

Last year's run to the ECF was an aberration in the grand scheme of things for Ottawa and despite having a bona fide superstar in defenseman Erik Karlsson, it sounds as if the Senators are ready to sink to the bottom for some high picks. "The goal is to win the Stanley Cup," said team owner Eugene Melnyk in a press release announcing the extension of GM Pierre Dorion. "Having come within one goal of last season's Stanley Cup Final, we were hopeful entering this season. Obviously, our results have challenged those expectations. What remains unchanged is the dedication that goes into evaluating every aspect of this organization."

Although the team did not mention "rebuild" the press release followed that quote with the rather lengthy euphemism stating that the Sens "will concentrate on building a foundation of sustainable success." Aka, building through the draft.

"Today's announcement reflects a renewed commitment to scouting, drafting and development," continued Melnyk. "It may require changes to our lineup. Rest assured, we will only tolerate pain with an endgame in mind: building an organization that wins - at all levels - year in and year out." With "changes to our lineup" being a code word for tanking the season.

Sabres fan know all about "pain with an endgame in mind," and oddly enough, management actually used the word "suffering" when it came to what the fans should expect during their tank. Unfortunately, that pain extended a little farther than we would have liked. Buffalo went from 30th place two years running to 23rd, back down to 26th and is now in second last place again.

Ottawa began it's rebuild by shipping veteran defenseman Dion Phaneuf on Tuesday. Ironically, the Senators trading for Phaneuf was the start of a three year "win-now" push by the organization which also saw them acquire young vets Derek Brassard, Tommy Wingels and Matt Duchene, amongst others, as they built to win while Karlsson was still under contract until the end of this season. It almost worked, but in the process they gutted their prospect pool.

With the hopes of a deep playoff run dashed, their prospect pool depleted and the team's bottom line getting worse by the day, the time to start again is now. Some are all-in on rebuilding and are ready for their team to lose for high draft picks.

"I understand that cheering for your favourite team to lose goes against every fibre of your body," wrote SBNation's Trevor Shackles today, "and it feels sickening when you are actually excited to see them do poorly in games." He continued by writing, "what’s best for the Ottawa Senators the rest of the season is if they continue to pile up the losses. I don’t see a way out of this continuous cycle they are in unless the 18-wheeler finally does fall off the cliff."

Shackles is the Sens writer for SBNation and the first reason behind him wanting his team to lose was to "net them the highest pick possible" while also adding that it will "force the organization to make some long-lasting changes that will make the team a sustainable contender."

That should sound familiar to Sabres fans as the team went through five seasons post-'07 where they either missed the playoffs or got bounced in the first round with a team that either wasn't good enough to make (or advance in) the playoffs, but weren't bad enough to get top picks in the draft.

The Sabres and Sens had enjoyed a pretty heated rivalry prior to their era's of inconsistency beginning in '07/'08 but now they find themselves at the bottom of the Eastern Conference heading in different directions.

While the Senators are barreling towards the bottom, the Sabres seem to be picking themselves up. After their atrocious start to the season and poor play that kept them at the bottom of the conference, the past few weeks have seen them start to find themselves as a team. Beginning with a three-game western Canada swing where they swept the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks (by a combined 11-1 score,) the Sabres have managed to muster a 6-4-1 record and in the process have gained a ton of confidence.

Will this upswing be sustainable?

With this team you just don't know, especially with Eichel out 4-6 weeks with a high ankle sprain. But for those who've been watching Buffalo all season, this stretch has a welcome reprieve from the terrible hockey we've subject to for much of the season.

The Sabres head into Ottawa tonight having won three of their last four. In their three wins they've beaten the league's best team in Tampa Bay as well as the Boston Bruins, who sit second in the conference. Buffalo also beat a NY Islanders team that was in playoff desperation mode as they're dealing with the possibility that franchise center John Tavares might leave when his contract expires this off-season.

For the first time since Nov. 27-Dec. 4, 2015, the Sabres scored four or more goals in four consecutive games. Low and behold, they won three of four. The Sabres found their lost powerplay last month and continue to move up in that department. Since January 1 when the PP was at 12.4% (14/113), Buffalo has converted on 17 of 61 opportunities (27.8%) which moved them from 30th in the league to 23rd at 17.8%. In the last four games they've gone 4/15 with the man advantage (26.7%.)

WGR550's Paul Hamilton tweeted from Ottawa that the lineup looks to be the same save for defnesman Josh Gorges replacing Justin Falk which means this is what Buffalo will be icing tonight:

Pouliot-O’Reilly-Reinhart
Kane-Rodrigues-Okposo
Wilson-Larsson-Pominville
Girgensons-Josefson-Baptiste

Scandella-Nelson
Beaulieu-Ristolainen
Gorges-Antipin
Hamilton also tweeted that it looks like Lehner will be in the net for the Sabres.

In their only meeting of the season, the Sabres defeated Ottawa in Buffalo 3-2 with Lehner in net. Benoit Pouliot, Kyle Okposo and Evander Kane staked the Sabres to a 3-0 lead just past the half-way point of the second period, Ottawa would counter with two third period goals including one with less than a minute to play with their goalie pulled.

The Sabres are 7-1-2 in their last 10 against the Senators, 4-5-1 on the road, according to Sabres PR.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Sabres find a formula (and PP) in win against the NHL's best team.

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 2-14-2018


For those of us who remember, Games 2 & 3 of the Buffalo Sabres season were utter disasters. A new coach with a different philosophy and a remade defense tried to go stride for stride with two fast, talented teams early in the season and it didn't work out very well.  In trying to match the pace of the NY Islanders, and especially the NJ Devils, the Sabres got buried like a mudder on a fast track against a Kentucky Derby favorite.

From then on it's been a season of discontent and misery as this edition of the Buffalo Sabres has vainly tried to find themselves. They have a coach in Phil Housley who wanted an uptempo game, but had only a few players who could actually play that way. He had players who could push the pace but with the rest a step or so behind, often times we were witness to disjointed play and ugly results.

The Sabres are starting to find themselves, and maybe Housley himself has finally figured out how to pull the proper levers at the right time. Buffalo laid out a gameplan last night against the league's best team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, and came out on top at home. It was a dogged effort but not without adversity as the calls were not going there way through much of the early portion of the game. Despite that they were able to overcome, even when self-inflicted minor penalties seconds apart gave the league's second-best powerplay heading into the game a 5-on-3 for 1:53.

Buffalo made it through that and ended up with a 5-3 win over the Lightning much to the delight of a sparse crowd at KeyBank Center.

There was no way Buffalo was going to run stride for stride with Tampa so instead of feeding their transition with attempts to carry the puck into the Lighting zone, the Sabres played a game of dump and chase. They got the puck in deep, got on the forecheck, and even when there was a change of possession, Tampa still had 200' of ice to cross to get to the Sabres net.

It worked.

Buffalo jumped out early on Nicolas Baptiste's second goal of the season at the 6:25 mark of the first period. Baptiste and Zemgus Girgensons kicked it into overdrive before using a nice give and go along the half-wall to spring Baptiste. The 22 yr. old, who was just called up from Rochester on Sunday, cut to the front of the net and went five-hole for the goal.

Baptiste especially, but Girgensons as well, added a ton of speed to the fourth line and it showed on that goal.

Third line winger Scott Wilson would also get in on the scoring for the Sabres. The sequence started with the Evan Rodrigues line as they sustained some heavy pressure in the offensive zone. Tampa was force to dump it up ice but the Sabres came through the neutral zone with speed and established the forecheck again. Jason Pominville got it out to the left point where defenseman Victor Antipin swung it to the right. D-partner Casey Nelson sent it to the net where Wilson was there for the redirect.

That goal put Buffalo back on top 3-2 and was a nice answer to a fluke goal that saw Buffalo goalie Chad Johnson miscommunicate with Antipin and an ill-advised clear in front of his own net went directly to Tampa's Vadislav Namestinkov who deposited into a wide open net.

Secondary scoring has been non-existent for the most part this season for Buffalo so having two in one game was a pleasant surprise, as was how well the powerplay looked without Jack Eichel.

Eichel went down with a high-ankle sprain against the Boston Bruins on Saturday night and with a back-to-back against the Colorado Avalanche on Sunday, there was no time to work somebody in. Evander Kane filled in against the Avalanche and it was a mess going 1/5 with their only goal being scored 5-on-3.

Housley moved Rodrigues into Eichel's spot and it looked as if the first powerplay unit never missed a beat, save for Eichel's blistering shot from the circle.

Ryan O'Reilly and Sam Reinhart have been the two principles on the powerplay all season and once again they were the driving force in Buffalo going 2/3 with the man advantage last night. Reinhart scored off of an O'Reilly rebound while O'Reilly scored his own while pouncing a wide shot off the stick of Kyle Okposo.

O'Reilly has been a beast these last two games without Eichel. He had a goal and two primary assists in the 5-4 loss to Colorado and duplicated that last night against the Lightning. Those six points hurtled him past Kane and into second place on the Sabres in scoring. But probably more important is that those points are the product of the Ryan O'Reilly former GM Tim Murray fell in love with before trading for him.

Since coming to Buffalo in a trade at the 2015 NHL Draft, he's either lead the team in scoring (60 points in 2015-16) or has been second (55 points last season.) Those six points the last two games puts him on a pace for right around 60 points again and dependent upon when Eichel gets back in the lineup, O'Reilly could end up leading the team in scoring again.

But that's not the whole story with him. The points are a product of how determined his play has been. Unfortunately for him and the Sabres, he's been inconsistent in that department. O'Reilly has always had the capacity to take over a game and that's why Murray wasn't hesitant in giving him a long-term contract with a $7.5 million cap-hit. He's a beast on the faceoff dot but hasn't dominated the game as much as that cap-hit would indicate he could.

Why, is the big question with him, but when we see him in games like this, and when we see a player like Eichel taking over games on a more often, the Sabres with those two at center should have a much better record these past two seasons than 50-67-22 over the last two season. Sure, their defense hasn't been the greatest and goaltending, specifically this season, has been erratic, but with those two there really is no reason why they should be bottom-five in scoring two years running.

Last night was the fourth game in a row the Sabres have scored four or more goals and they went 3-1-0 in the process. The last time Buffalo scored four more goals per game for a four-game stretch was November 27-December 15, 2015. They went 3-0-1 with a shootout loss.

It's great to see smiles on the faces of Sabres' players post game and it was downright thrilling to hear the chants of "Let's Go Buffalo!" throughout KeyBank Center last night. Although sparse, the crowd last night was clearly appreciative of what the Sabres were doing and showed that they were into the game early as they vociferously booed some bad calls against their team.

For far too long the Sabres players have wanted to put on a show for the home crowd and often times it's resulted in ugly losses. Last night they kept it simple, as if playing a road game. Low and behold they scored some goals, got the crowd into it and skated away with the 'W'.

Not a bad formula.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

NHL-leading Bolts coming off of a tough loss isn't ideal for Eichel-less Sabres

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 2-13-2018


The Tampa Bay Lightning are presently on a quick two-game jaunt to the shores of Lake Erie where they finish up a back-to-back road trip against the Buffalo Sabres tonight. The Bolts, owners of the best record in the NHL, found themselves in an early hole last night at Toronto against the Maple Leafs and eventually fell 4-3.

Toronto took a 3-0 lead on a goal in the first period and two in the second before the Lightning finally broke through with less than five minutes in the stanza. Two quick Tampa goals in the first 1:18 of the third period tied the game at 3-3 but Toronto countered with a James van Riemsdyk goal just a few minutes later to finish the scoring.

Tampa and Toronto are two of the faster teams in the league with a lot of skill flying up and down the ice. All-Star Lightning defenseman Victory Hedman, stated the obvious to the gathered media last night when he said that Toronto's "got some good speed under their feet and can score goals," yet he was also quick to point out, "other than that, I thought we controlled the pace of the game. We created a lot of chances and it could have gone either way."

Division foes Tampa and Toronto are Nos.1 and 3, respectively, in the Eastern Conference while the Boston Bruins, also of the Atlantic Division, come in at No.2. Their places on the podium in the conference isn't all that surprising when you consider that the teams behind them in the division aren't of their caliber. Tampa, Boston and Toronto have feasted on Atlantic Division foes to the tune of a combined 29-11-4 record and have done the same in the Eastern Conference going a combined 59-24-12.

Tampa's foe tonight is the Buffalo Sabres, currently last in the Eastern Conference and second-last in the entire NHL.

The Sabres have been left in the NHL dust this year and have been trying to make the climb towards respectability after starting the season on a 0-5-1 losing streak and going 10-20-8 through the 2017 portion of the season. Although Buffalo had put together a solid 5-4-1 record over their last 10 games, which includes a season-long three game winning streak just prior to the All-Star break, having franchise center Jack Eichel go down to a high ankle sprain on Saturday in Boston was a huge blow to their progress.

The Sabres finished out that game against the Bruins by holding on for a 4-3 win but headed back to Buffalo for the second of a back-to-back against the visiting Colorado Avalanche. The 'Lanche are a young, quick team and even without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon were able to take a 5-2 lead in the third period then hold on for the 5-4 win.

Despite some atrocious play, being able to come back should have left the Sabres with a bit of confidence moving forward but not having their star player really hurts. The speed element Eichel added to this Buffalo team is unmatched and his absence from the Sabres first powerplay unit was sorely missed. Plus 5v5 he's the only player on the team right now that makes his linemates better. The Colorado game was a perfect example of how much he was missed as the Sabres were outskated, didn't score a goal 5v5 and although they did score a goal on the powerplay, it was with a two-man advantage. The other four powerplay opportunities came 5-on-4 and they could barely establish an offensive-zone presence.

The Sabres will have a morning skate today which marks the first time they'll be on the ice in a non-game situation without Eichel. No doubt they'll be working on the powerplay as they're going to need as many goals as they can, but head coach Phil Housley may want to keep an close eye on his defense.

For two of the last three games (both wins) the pairing of Rasmus Ristolanen and Nathan Beaulieu was solid. However, they were a disaster against the Avalanche on Sunday night. It began only :43 seconds in when Colorado's Colin Wilson somehow got behind the duo, pulled in a 130' pass and fed a streaking Alex Kerfoot for a layup on a 2-on-0. It was all downhill from there for that duo, especially for Ristolainen. The 23 yr. old workhorse d-man for Buffalo was on the ice for all five Avalanche goals and was pinned to the bench 5v5 for nearly all of the second and third periods.

Something clearly wasn't right for Ristolainen as he may have had the worst game of his career. Fatigue, both physical and mental, may have played a role, or as Housley put it post-game on Sunday, "preparation, maybe confidence" might be some of the issues. Ristolainen hadn't played less than 27 minutes in the six games post All-Star break yet Housley kept loading up the minutes. After the Colorado game, "I just don't see him as sharp in his game right now, going back to the All-Star break and I think he's got to refocus and get his game back."

Perhaps Ristolainen needed the day off yesterday to, like Housley said, "refocus," but the team really could have used some practice, especially when prepping to face the best team in the league. The Sabres are only 1-8-1 in their last 10 against Tampa Bay, 2-5-3 at home. The Bolts are the only team in the NHL to score 200 goals so far this season (201,) have the most goals/game (3.55,) have the league's third best powerplay (23.8%) and boast the league's top scorer in Nikita Kucherov (71 points) as well as the fifth leading scorer in Steven Stamkos (65.)

If that weren't enough, Tampa also has the sixth best goals-against average in the league (2.63) despite having the 22nd best penalty-kill (78.7%.)

Add it all up and this game vs. the Lightning without Eichel isn't exactly the best scenario for the Sabres.

But then again, games are played on the ice.


*****

Reports from the rink have these lines and d-pairings at the morning skate:

Pouliot-O’Reilly-Reinhart
Kane-Rodrigues-Okposo
Wilson-Larsson-Pominville
Girgensons-Josefson-Baptiste

Scandella-Nelson
Beaulieu-Ristolainen
Falk-Antipin

Notes on the projected lineup:

Housley mixed things up on the forward lines moving Benoit Pouliot from the fourth line and Sam Reinhart from the second line up to the first line with Ryan O'Reilly. Forward Evan Rodrigues starts at center again on the second line with Evander Kane and Kyle Okposo on his wings while Scott Wilson drops to the third line with center Johan Larsson and Jason Pominville, who was on the first line against Colorado. Jacob Josefson anchors the fourth line with Zemgus Girgensons and Nicolas Baptiste.

Baptiste finally makes it into the lineup after getting the call on Sunday but sitting out the Colorado game. The 22 yr. old should add much more speed and a better scoring touch than the player he replaced, Jordan Nolan.

Housley is sticking with the same d-pairings he's used the last three games with rookie Casey Nelson up top in a pairing with Marco Scandella. Nelson has been playing very well, despite a few rookie mistakes, while displaying speed and crafty stickwork. He also scored his first NHL goal which happened to be a shorthanded tally. Only one other player in Sabres history had done that and you have to go back to March 14, 1971, according to Sabres PR, when Kevin O’Shea scored his first NHL goal shorthanded at Minnesota against the North Stars.

The duo of Ristolainen and Beaulieu are back for a fourth straight game with Justin Falk and Victor Antipin once again on the third pair for the third straight game.

Defenseman Josh Gorges looks to be in the press box keeping Nolan company.

Word from the rink also has backup goalie Chad Johnson in net.