It's been a few days since the Buffalo Sabres extended their win streak to three game, but the down-time hasn't gone by without a little intrigue.
On Sunday the team sent goalie Nathan Lieuwen back to Rochester as the injured Michal Neuvirth has progressed quicker than expected. Neuvirth will be backing up Jhonas Enroth on Wednesday when the Sabres take on the visiting Winnipeg Jets at the First Niagara Center.
Neuvirth suffered a bruised knee against San Jose' last Tuesday and as luck would have it, the Sabres only had one other game on the schedule, a Saturday tilt at Washington. Enroth was stellar in net vs. San Jose' in relief and again on Saturday giving up only one goal in each contest while facing a total of 64 shots in five periods of play.
The Sabres have been scoring more, 15 goals in the last four games, but they've also been relying on goaltending to much. They've allowed 132 shots on goal the last four games (33 sa/gm) and continue to give up the most in the league (36.9 sa/gm.) Teams are attacking a young top-four defense-corps that has a depth defenseman (Tyson Strachan) playing top-pairing minutes. It's not to say that Strachan, along with 20 yr. old Rasmus Ristolainen and 19 yr. old Nikita Zadorov are playing poorly over that stretch (Strachan is a minus-1, Zadorov plus-5 and Ristolainen plus-6) it's simply a matter of the opposition trying to attack a perceived weakness.
Timing was everything with Neuvirth's injury. As mentioned he's had a week to let his bruised knee heel and will probably have a few more days as the team begins a three-games-in-four-nights stretch beginning tomorrow.
Lieuwen is back in Rochester and will try to try get his game on track. In 10 games played for the Amerks he's 3-4-0-0 with a 3.53 goals against average and a meager .876 save percentage. He's being pushed by back-up Andrey Makarov who is 5-5-0-1 with a 2.94 gaa and a .913 sv%.
Makarov, it would seem, thrives in situations when he's carrying the load. After a three game period of adjustment last season after a Lieuwen call-up, he went on a tear in helping lead the Amerks to a playoff berth. Past performance means little, but with Lieuwen in Buffalo last week, Makarov went 1-1, allowing five goals while facing 82 shots against. He was named the Game's second star in his last game after turning aside 45 of 47 shots in a 2-1 loss against the Adirondack Flames (CGY.)
Sabres forward Cody McCormick is going through the league's concussion protocol after getting hit on the noggin in Washington. With McCormick out for an undisclosed amount of time Buffalo is down to 12 healthy forwards and they may be looking to call someone up from Rochester.
Since McCormick is a fourth-liner it would make sense that they would bring up an energy/checking-type player in his absence. The Sabres have two lines clicking now and are working them as a top-six: Matt Moulson/Zemgus Girgensons/Tyler Ennis and Brian Flynn/Torrey Mitchell/Brian Gionta. With all due respect to Joel Armia who's having a fine campaign, and Phil Varone who continues to do what he does--lead the team in scoring while playing a solid two-way game--Tim Schaller has been lighting it up and deserves his shot.
Schaller was considered a bottom-six forward in Rochester but he's shown that he's more than just a checker. He's presently tied for third on the team (Armia) with 15 points in 18 games (6+9.) As much as he's a defense-first forward, he often finds himself in the right place at the right time around the net and can finish.
Last season with the playoffs still hanging in the balance he scored three third period goals in just over 14 minutes to erase a 3-0 deficit at Toronto vs. the Marlies. The Amerks pulled that one out 4-3.
Two games ago the puck was finding him again as he helped the Amerks stop a two game skid against the league-leading Utica Comets. Schaller had a career high five points on two goals and three assists (two primary.)
It's the first time in his short career that he's 100% healthy and he came into camp in the best shape of his career. Schaller had piqued Nolan's interest in camp and got his feet wet in a preseason game at home against Toronto before being sent to Rochester.
Sabres prospect Nicholas Baptiste is on his way to Erie after the OHL's Sudbury Wolves traded him to the Otters. The 2013 third-round pick (69th overall) finds himself in the enviable position of being on Connor McDavid's wing when the phenom returns from a hand injury. McDavid injured his hand after dropping the gloves on November 11.
The Otters traded 6'0" 200 lb. defenseman Cole Mayo, 5'11" 185 lb. Travis Wood (a two-way forward,) two second round picks and two third round picks to the Wolves for the 19 yr. old Baptiste.
In a clear indication of just what new Sabres GM Tim Murray thought of Baptiste, he inked the 6'1" 190 lb. right winger to a three-year entry level contract in May.
This will be Baptiste's final year in junior and he's set to go out with a bang playing alongside the best player in Canadian Junior. Before McDavid's fisticuffs, he had 16 goals and 35 assists in only 18 games (2.83 points/game) prompting Kris Baker of sabresprospects.com to write "There is no question that the move will prove positive for Baptiste's professional development.
"Stylistically, Baptiste is a great fit for McDavid, or perhaps in the interim, 2015 draft eligible Dylan Strome. His speed allows him to close gaps, cause turnovers and win 50/50 battles."
In an email to me earlier today Baker, who also writes a weekly prospects column for sabres.com, expounded a bit, "It's a great match. His speed and physicality can exploit junior-level defenders, so Baptiste's production should rival the big numbers we saw from guys like Connor Brown, Dane Fox and Andrew Burakowsky whether he's playing with McDavid or Strome. Let's face it though, Bassin made this deal to give McDavid a prime time wing man.
For those who wanted to make the trek to Erie to see McDavid, there's now another reason to head there.