Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
Buffalo's win last night over the Tampa Bay Lightning was pretty big. The Sabres headed into Amalie Arena last night having lost all three games against Tampa this season and hadn't beaten them since December 3, 2014, a 2-1 shootout win at home. Since that win the Sabres went 0-7 vs. the Lightning and were outscored 25-5 over that span while never scoring over one goal in any single game.
So taking down the defending eastern conference champions 4-1 last night on the road was a major up-tick for a team that's been trending upward over the last few weeks. Since getting blown out by the Montreal Canadiens on October 23, Buffalo has gone 5-3 and has played very well even in the losses. And after scoring only 12 goals in their first seven games (which includes Montreal) they scored 23 over their last eight games.
At 7-8 the Sabres are inching towards that .500-mark, a place they hadn't been all season. Granted, it's only November and there are always plenty of teams looking like contenders, but taken in context--with the back-drop of two 30th place finishes and the team missing their top LW in Evander Kane, a No.2/3 defenseman in Zach Bogosian as well as Robin Lehner, their starting goalie for he year--there's a lot to be excited about.
And it really starts with rookie Jack Eichel.
Eichel scored the first goal of the game last night. It was his first career goal on the road and his first point on the road. That, in and of itself is pretty cool, albeit somewhat surprising as that was the Sabres sixth road game of the season. But how he did it is what was really impressive.
His goal last night wasn't the highlight-reel variety, of which he's already had a few, it was a one-time snipe from the left faceoff circle not far from the boards that put the team up 1-0 with just under six minutes played in the game. With 6'3" 207 lb. goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy moving quickly to his right to cover up the net, Eichel sent a bullet, putting it low, blocker-side in a place where Vasilevskiy couldn't get it. Ninety-nine time out of a hundred dating back many years, a Buffalo player in a position like that would have either sent it high and wide or hit the goalie, most times right in the crest, in that situation.
It's something to take note of as past Buffalo teams were notorious for making back-up goalies look great and great goalies look like Hall of Famers because of their poor shooting and/or outright choking.
Eichel also had a set-up for his first road assist of the season. With the game tied at one he took the puck in the neutral zone and headed into the Tampa zone with a head of steam. After drawing three Lightning defenders towards him he found a wide open Cody Franson pinching in at the point. Franson let go a wicked wrister that smoked Vasilevskiy off the post, top-shelf blocker side to put the Sabres on top for good.
Those two goals, both snipes, and both shot with authority, would put a major chink Vasilevskiy's armor. The young goalie, who was 3-0 vs. Buffalo while giving up only two goals and while also posting his first career shutout, would give up a real softie from the stick of Marcus Foligno later on in the third period to put the Sabres up 3-1.
The Sabres are skating with an aire of confidence despite being without some key players on the team and they've been doing so because they've been getting some excellent goaltending. Last night it was Chad Johnson's return to the crease after being back-up to rookie Linus Ullmark the previous game.
Johnson was superb in net while stopping 30 of 31 shots including four of five on with the Lightning on the powerplay. And even that one by Steven Stamkos was a fluke play.
"'Johnny' is calm, doesn't have a lot of movement in net," said head coach Dan Bylsma to the media post-game, "and he was real strong in the third period when there was a couple of traffic plays in front of him and he came up real big for us. I though he was strong the whole way through."
The Sabres may have found themselves a quality back-up in Johnson, something they haven't had since Martin Biron was back-up to Ryan Miller. Who the starter will be remains a big question mark as Lehner went down in the first game of the season and Ullmark is only 22 yrs. old playing in his first pro season in North America.
What the team does have, however, is a franchise player in Eichel who's confidence in his skill permeates the entire dressing room. They have a head coach with his name on the Stanley Cup and a group of players who've bought into his system.
Plus, they can point to this game as a signature win.