Saturday, October 24, 2015

Undefeated Montreal heads to town

Reprinted with permission from

The 2015-16 edition of the Buffalo Sabres enter tonight’s game against the Montreal Canadiens with 10 goals scored in six games. Only one team in the league has scored fewer goals so far this young season than the Sabres. The Anaheim Ducks, surprisingly, have scored just six goals in six games. And only one other team is below the Sabres 1.67 goals/game—the Pittsburgh Penguins at 1.57 g/gm.
Although this isn’t an indictment of the present Sabres’ roster or coaching, it is a good thing that Montreal starting goalie Carey Price will be on the bench tonight. Price has been brilliant this season. He's 6-0 with a 1.00 gaa, a .966 sv% and two shutouts. In his place will be rookie Mike Condon who will be making is second NHL start. The 6'2"197 lb. Condon allowed one goal in his first ever win, a 3-1 victory in Ottawa over the Senators.
This group of Sabres looks nothing like the teams that hit the ice over the course of the last two seasons. Coach Dan Bylsma has them playing an up-tempo, attack style of play that has them controlling large chunks of the game. They're a group of puck-hounds with speed quickness and skill who, unfortunately, have been a bit snake-bitten in the goal-scoring department. Some of it is missed opportunities, some of it has been a matter of a defenders stick inexplicably getting in front of a shot into a wide open net as Evander Kane and Zemgus Girgensons will attest to. But they're generating plenty of shots, almost 30 per game which is right in the middle of the pack in the NHL. 

There was a time, and an extended period of time for that matter, when the Buffalo Sabres would make an average goalie look great and a great one look invincible. Former head coach Lindy Ruff frequently lamented the many missed opportunities of "the core" he was working with, but there was a difference between those teams and this one. Ruff also mentioned how he needed his team to play "out of character" and get to the areas of the ice where goals are scored.
The "out of character" play he was looking for is embodied in this group of Buffalo Sabres. Bylsma has them playing an up-tempo, attacking style using their speed and quickness to hound the puck. They're crashing the net and getting into the crease and the team's high-end skill up-front isn't limited to only one player, something which has Bylsma doing extensive line-juggling trying to find the right combination.
Bylsma had often talked about pairings up-front. He had been using Kane and rookie center Jack Eichel and Ryan O'Reilly and Tyler Ennis as duos in the top-six while inserting forwards, sometimes shift-by-shift, on a line. It's something that's been a hallmark of his coaching career as he'd don't the same thing in Pittsburgh.
At today's AM skate, Bylsma juggled things up again and broke up the pairings. O'Reilly was centering Kane and rookie Sam Reinhart while Eichel in the middle between Ennis and Brian Gionta.
One thing has been constant for Bylsma is giving Reinhart and Gionta top-six minutes on a consistent basis. He likes those two players and even individually praised their willingness to get in front of the net to screen the goalie even though they're two of the smaller players on the team. He's also grown fond of Marcus Foligno getting top-six minutes when he does some in-game shuffling. Foligno has garnered three assists while Reinhart has a goal and an assist. Gionta, who came back from injury last week for the Florida road-trip, has zero points in three games.
As bad as the Sabres have been the last two seasons (44 wins combined) they've managed to play Montreal pretty tough, all things considered. Buffalo is 4-5-1 in their last 10 games vs. the Canadiens and during the course of their teardown/rebuild, the Sabres have managed to go 5-3-2 their last 10 at home. In their last 22 games, Buffalo has a 14-6-2 record. Go figure.
WGR's Paul Hamilton tweeted that the Sabres will start Chad Johnson in net, his sixth straight start since Robin Lehner went down with an injury in the first game of the season.
Johnson has more than held his own in net even though his overall number would indicate otherwise. He's 2-4 with a 2.35 gaa and a .906 sv. % but in his last four games, Johnson has stopped 70 of 73 shots even-strength for a .959 sv. % and a 0.97 gaa.
One of the surprises this season has been the way the Sabres have been playing from a defensive standpoint. It seems like every game a forward is busting tail on the back-check to break up an odd-man rush and it's really helped cut down the number of shots and opportunities. Right now the Sabres have allowed the second fewest shots per game at 25.3 (WSH, 24.3,) which is a far cry from the 35.6 they allowed per game last season. It's something that's not lost on Bylsma.
"Tracking back, allowing our 'D' to have a good gap, and you saw that a number of times [Wednesday] night, where we're forcing the puck out of their hands before the red line," he said. "That's something the first two or three games we weren't good at. … I think we've been much better in that regard and you see that in the number of opportunities we're limiting to the opposition."
Buffalo has allowed 15 goals against in six games for a 2.50 team gaa, down from 3.28 last season.
It's a matter ironing out some wrinkles on offense and getting the skilled players untracked. It will come, you can sense it at the First Niagara Center. Even though the team isn't scoring much, fans still are on the edge of their seat every time the Sabres head up-ice on the rush. It's fun again for them.

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