Saturday, October 17, 2015

Notes from the game at Florida

Reprinted with permission from

For those diehard Buffalo fans who’ve been following the Sabres the last two seasons, a typical game in Florida against the Panthers left you just short of brain-dead. On one side was a visiting Sabres team in the midst of a scorched-earth rebuild with barely enough talent to be called an NHL team. On the other side was the Panthers chock full of youth surrounded by aged veterans guiding this group youngins through the early stages of the building process.
A typical game saw two teams skating in sludge making many mistakes in front of a sparse BB&T Center crowd with many of the less than 10,000 in attendance decked out in Blue and Gold regalia. Sure the game summary will say that there’s upwords of that number, but one can easily see season ticket holders and others spending the evening hanging out on the beach instead of watching Cats goalie Roberto Luongo shut out a third-rate Sabres team.
In his last five games vs. the Buffalo Sabres over the course of the last two years (one while he was with Vancouver,) Luongo is 5-0 with five goals against and three shutouts (one with VAN on Oct. 17, 2014.) Overall the Panthers went into last night's contest with a 7-0-1 record versus the Sabres and were on a three-game home winning streak. Buffalo hadn't won in Florida since October 25, 2013 with Ron Rolston as head coach. Seven players were on the roster that night--Mark Pysyk, Mike Weber, Johan Larsson, Zemgus Girgensons, Rasmus Ristolainen, Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno. The "elder-statesmen" of that group were Weber (25 yrs. old) and Ennis (24.) All the rest were under 22 years of age.
With a revamped lineup and those seven two years older, the game was much better to watch and although the announced crowd of 11,616 looked more like 6,160, there was a little more energy as an up-and-coming Panthers team was taking on a young, eager Sabres team. It didn't help on the scoreboard, however, as the Buffalo dropped this one 3-2, but at least it approached the level of mild entertainment.


Florida's doormat status is no more and GM Dale Tallon has built himself a pretty good squad. Tallon was the GM in Chicago while they were rebuilding and took a last place Blackhawks team to the conference finals before he was demoted to senior advisor prior the Hawks Cup-winning 2009-10 season. He has his name engraved on the cup as well as a Stanley Cup ring.
Tallon rebuilt this Cats team with size and speed and the Sabres found themselves trying to navigate around large bodies with long arms and equally long sticks. And that was just to get to Luongo. And when they finally did, "Lou" was there to shut the door.
Beating a top-notch goalie has been a problem for the Sabres dating back to the "core-era." Whether it was lack of confidence, lack of overall skill or missed opportunities, the Sabres had trouble with good to great goalies. Last night was a bit different as they did get to Luongo for two goals in a game that was competitive. The old adages we've heard time an again about driving to the net and making it difficult on the goalie held true last night and it took a rookie to get the Sabres going.
Defenseman Jake McCabe, playing in only his second NHL game this season (11th career) got the team on the board by jumping into the play and driving hard to the net. With Girgensons occupying two Florida d-men in the slot, McCabe snuck in weak-side and tipped a Foligno pass into the open net to cut the Cats lead to 2-1. It was the 22 yr. old McCabe's first NHL goal.
Another youngin, Sam Reinhart, who has been inconsistent at best so far this year, contributed to the Sabres second goal without hitting the score sheet. Reinhart provided the screen when Ennis took a cross-ice feed from Ryan O'Reilly and blistered one past Luongo. It was the second time Reinhart screened the goalie for a Sabres goal and it's those types of plays that will keep him in the lineup while he adjusts to the NHL game.
Buffalo still has plenty of kinks to work out in this young season, but you can see that this is a totally different team than the ones we've witnessed dating back to "the core-era."
Head coach Dan Bylsma, who's notorious for changing lines (and y'all though Lindy Ruff was bad) has one line he can count on--O'Reilly, Girgensons, Ennis. He has a pairing of Evnader Kane and Jack Eichel, but has found only one player thus far who can hang with those two speedsters. Bylsma has tried Reinhart, Foligno, Jamie McGinn and last night, captain, Brian Gionta, but the best player to skate with those two is Girgensons.
The unrest in the top-six means the bottom-six is a work in progress as well.
Buffalo's defense, which has been a source for consternation through the first four games, is beginning to tighten up, and McCabe is a big reason for that. He's been paired with Pysyk since McCabe's recall from Rochester two games ago. The duo had spent plenty of time as a pair in Rochester and you can see it in their game. When talking with the Rochester Americans broadcaster Don Stevens, he mentioned that McCabe looked as if he was trying out a few things "to step up his game" against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday and he did it again.
With Pysyk as a steadying force, and with the duo knowing each other's game well, McCabe was able to play his game, one which includes jumping into the play like he did on his goal.
It's a long season and to see the Sabres stumble out of the gate is not surprising. The imminent return of defenseman Zach Bogosian should bolster the defense, especially on the penalty kill Buffalo ranks 26th in the league with a 63.6% (four opposition goals on 11 opportunities.)
On the positive side, the Sabres have the eighth best powerplay in the league at 27.8% (5/18) and their averaging two goals per game, something we haven't seen since the 2012-13 season.



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