Wednesday, December 31, 2014

If you're gonna have a "soft night," it might as well be on the road

Reprinted with permission from

Perhaps the best way for the 2014-15 regular season to ultimately unfold is for a young, inconsistent Buffalo Sabres team to have strong, entertaining home games balanced by lackluster performances on the road.

On Saturday night Buffalo entered the third period down 3-0 at home to the NY Islanders. For the only the third time in franchise history they were able to come back and win the game (4-3 SO) and they left the ice as a raucous First Niagara Center crowd gave them a standing ovation.

Last night on the road in Ottawa, the Senators scored three unanswered goals, including an empty-netter to take down the Sabres 5-2 in a game that was punctuated by soft, "fly-by" play from the Sabres. Buffalo is now 4-12-1 on the road this season. Only the Edmonton Oilers (what a surprise) have less wins (2) than the Sabres on the road.

For a team that simply doesn't have the firepower to even make a playoff run, a win at home/lose on the road mentality offers up a modicum success in what would otherwise be another bad season.

There were very few positives last night for a Sabres club that once again iced a team debilitated by injury an illness. Two of their top-four d-men were out--Tyler Myers and Rasmus Ristolainen--and it showed.

Sabres analyst Brian Duff said it best when he said there was a disconnect between the forwards and the defensemen in the Sabres zone. How else can you explain leaving Sens forward Bobby Ryan alone on two of his three of his goals? Ryan was unchecked in the crease as he buried his own rebound for the first one, broke free from Sabres d-man Josh Gorges for a redirect in the crease late in the second period and was all alone in the slot to finish off his natural hat trick on a feed from Erik Karlsson early in the third.

Ryan's second and third goals were particularly irksome from a team standpoint in that Ryan's second came late in the second period. Goals late in the period have been a trouble spot for the team for a very long time as are goals early in the third period, when Ryan completed his hat trick. Until those two goals, the Sabres looked to be rebounding nicely from a lackluster first period to take a 2-1 lead.

That third goal was a weak all around effort by the entire team on the ice. Head coach Ted Nolan was rather astounded at how it all unfolded. Ottawa has one of the best defensemen in the league in Karlsson "and we don't check him," said Nolan, "we just skate right by him."

Nolan summarized the evening as "a soft night." He elaborated a bit, "In front of our net we didn't hit anybody and we didn't make it tough on any of their players at all."

Lost in the "soft night" were some real strong individual moments most notably from Sabres d-man Mark Pysyk who was called up to replace Ristolainen.

Pysyk played a whale of a game for the Sabres and had the score been a tighter, his play was good enough to at least earn the game's third star. Pysyk plays a steady, stay-at-home type game where he simply makes the smart play and moves the puck where it needs to go. He does that by positioning himself well, anticipating where the puck is headed and moving the puck with deft passing. The only "knock" on him is his untapped offensive potential.

Sabres GM Tim Murray has been wanting to see Pysyk become more active on offense for almost a year now and it's something he wanted the 22 yr. old work on while in Rochester. Although he's still a bit hesitant in that area, perhaps last night's goal, Pysyk's first of the season, will bust him out of his shell.

Pysyk jumped on an errant pass at the red line and headed into the Ottawa zone with some steam sending a quick, low shot to the net that forced a rebound right into the shin guard of fellow Sabre Chris Stewart. As he followed through on the play the rebound deflected to him on the other side of the net where he lifted it home. As Pysyk sat on the bench basking in congratulatory taps, Hall of Fame assistant coach Bryan Trottier came over to offer words of encouragement as well.

Of note is that Pysyk was not on the ice for any of the Senators goals last night including the empty-netter and he finished the game with a plus-2 rating.

Pysyk's d-partner Nikita Zadorov also had a strong game finishing with an assist and an even-rating. In a sure sign of growth and maturity, Zadorov was laying the body all over the ice last night but doing so in a controlled, well-timed fashion. There was no better example of that than this "Hello Carubba!!" hit (thx, Rick Jeanrette) on Milan Michalek:

(Video from the NHL)

Jonas Enroth had another stellar game in net even though he was clearly frustrated by the play in front of him (he should talk to former Sabres goalie Ryan Miller about that.) His .886 save% for is deceiving as he was forced to make some incredible saves on a total of 35 Ottawa shots. Enroth's been locked in for a while now having gone 10-3-1 in his previous 14 games and it continued last night. Had the score been closer, he's another that would have been in the running for the third star of the game.

And, finally, Patrick Kaleta injected some life into a rather lackluster first period for Buffalo.

Late in the period he took a exception to a cross check to the back of teammate Johan Larsson and proceeded to engage the offender--6'5" 230 lb. Jared Cowen.

Kaleta unleashed a series of lefts, half of which connected then threw a few more before Cowen's long reach tagged him. In a YouTube moment, a winded Kaleta psyched himself out by punching himself in the head before throwing one last punch at Cowen:


It was a somewhat crazed attempt to wake himself up, but the best take on Kaleta's smack to his own face may have come from Sabres' rink-side analyst and former enforcer Rob Ray, "you're not punching me hard enough, I have to punch myself."

After a frenetic come from behind victory at home the previous game, some bright spots and levity in a follow-up game on the road isn't too much to ask of a depleted hockey club. Pretty sure Sabres' fans will take a combo like that for the rest of this season.

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