Monday, November 30, 2015

Chad Johnson holds the fort as special teams seize the moment

Reprinted with permission from

Buffalo Sabres goalie Chad Johnson has been on the winning end of identical 4-1 scores two consecutive nights. On Friday the Sabres snapped a six-game winless streak as Johnson stopped 27 of 28 shots in a home win vs. the Carolina Hurricanes. Last night the Sabres took their show to Music City where Johnson stopped 28 of 29 as they defeated the Nashville Predators.

"Johnny," as he's known in the locker room, held the fort in both games and the offense finally came through for him. It's something he's done throughout an excellent month of November. In seven appearances (two in relief of Linus Ullmark) he went 3-1-1, and gave up only eight goals on 174 shots for a .954 save percentage. After last night's game he told the gathered media that the team is beginning to come together. Johnson noted that he felt good from the beginning of the season but that the team was struggling with rust and to gel as a team. "You don't get the results when maybe you should," he told the gathered media. "I'm getting the results the team deserves, and I think I deserve."

Buffalo has seized the moment the last two games on specific turning points in the game and they both happened because of special teams.

Against Carolina the Sabres were dominated by the 'Canes in the first period but came out on top 1-0. After succumbing to a relentless forecheck that would yield the tying the score, the Sabres found themselves a man down about half-way through the second period. They would kill that penalty and just eight seconds after, Jack Eichel would jump on a loose puck in the neutral zone and laser a shot that put the Sabres up for good.

Last night they were smothered in the first period once again as the Preds had them coughing up the puck more than a cat with hairball problems. The shot total (13-9 in favor of Nashville) wasn't indicative of the disparity in zone-time or the problems the Sabres had in their own end and Nashville lead 1-0 after one period. Buffalo's struggles continued well into the second period until a defensive-zone faceoff became a turning point in the game.

Defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo took a stiff crosscheck to the Adam's apple and went down hard with what would be deemed by hospital doctors as a "dented trachea," according to head coach Dan Bylsma. It was a weird sequence and although Bylsma didn't think the crosscheck was of the malicious variety, the refs thought so. They gave Victor Arvidsson a five-minute major and a game misconduct for it.

In light of the fact that the Sabres powerplay had been a dud going 0-13 over their last five games, this was "crucial" as Bylsma told the media post-game.

After a rough start to the powerplay, Jamie McGinn got the Sabres on the board with a baseball-bat swat from the blue paint. Teammate Ryan O'Reilly had swung around the net to jump on a rebound and his shot was floating over goalie Juuse Saros as it headed towards the goal. The overhead camera shot showed that McGinn got to the change-up just before Preds d-man Barrett Jackman and was able to punch it home.

Buffalo still had over three and a half minutes left on the powerplay after the McGinn goal and used up three minutes before Sam Reinhart wristed one home from the slot on a nice feed from Matt Moulson. The goal was created by the hard work of veteran David Legwand, who shielded the puck from a Preds defender behind the net, and the Sabres were now out on top 2-1.

In addition to special teams being the turning point in both wins, the Sabres also got some bounces to go their way. Finally.

Versus Carolina on Friday, defenseman Josh Gorges scored his first goal in 130 games on a floater from the point. Legwand was originally credited with the goal as it took a weird bounce but it eventually went to Gorges.

Last night, on Buffalo's third goal last night, Reinhart was left all alone in front of Saros to snare a dribbler from the point off of Jake McCabe's stick. After snagging the puck Reinhart twirled and put a shot into the pad of Saros. The puck squirted out far-side and as Saros was positioning himself his skate inadvertently swept it in.

With seven different Sabres scoring goals over the last two games and five more hitting the score sheet with assists, things are starting to turn a bit. The team has been getting some bounces and even though it may not constitute a definitive turning point in the season, it'll definitely help the Sabres confidence-level moving forward.


The second half of November, with six games in 11 nights vs. Western Conference powers, was a pretty tough stretch for this young Sabres squad. Coming out of a six-game winless streak with back-to-back 4-1 wins is a huge step for this young club and testament, however small it may seem right now, to the construct of GM Tim Murray's team. Murray has brought in vets with a winning tradition to influence his young team and guide them through the season.

At 36 yrs. old Brian Gionta isn't anything close to a spring chicken and when he took the ceremonial faceoff with Nashville's Shea Weber, his 5'7" 178 lb. frame made him look like he was a Midget player compared to the 6'4" 236 lb. Weber. Nor does Gionta have the speed he once had either but what he does have is veteran saavy and a wealth of knowledge which he imparts on the youngins daily. He plays the same game night-in, night-out regardless of whether he hits the scoresheet.

Same with Legwand. The first pick of the Predators back in 1998 (2nd-overall) isn't what he once was, but he's able to get the job done in the role he's given. Moulson probably won't be the 30-goal scorer this year that he was on Long Island, but he's plugging away with 10 points (4+6,) tied for fourth on the team, and at a plus one rating, is one of only two players who've played 20 or more games that are in the plus column (Legwand, plus-1.)

Gorges has been logging big, top-pairing minutes for the Sabres all season and is at an even plus-minus, one of only three players on the team (O'Reilly, Reinhart.) His defensive play has allowed his d-partner, 21 yr. old Rasmus Ristolainen, to chime in with 14 points (4+10) in 24 games so far.

It's a long season full of ups and downs and having guidance from players who have a combined decades of experience, as well as Gionta's Stanley Cup ring, will go a long way. Maybe not so much in the immediate future as the team still needs to gel further while injuries and such will have an impact, but more longer term.

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