When Buffalo Sabres GM Tim Murray traded away defensemen Tyler Myers, Brayden McNabb and Nikita Zadorov for help up front, short-term pain was inevitable. Myers was a minute-eater for the Sabres and remains so with the Winnipeg Jets (20:48 ATOI, 2nd on the team) and the young McNabb (23 yrs. old at the time of the trade) has been termed "a key" (21:35 ATOI) for the resurgent Los Angeles Kings playing on the top-pairing with Drew Doughty. The 20 yr. old Zadorov just got sent to the minors, but is still being looked at as a possible top-pairing d-man.
And when none of the veteran goalies that had played well for the disaster that was the 2014-15 Buffalo Sabres were re-signed, the team entered the season with big question marks in net. Murray traded for Ottawa's Robin Lehner to be the starter and he re-signed Chad Johnson who was acquired at the deadline but never played a game for the club, as his back-up.
The short-term pain would get even worse as two of the key acquisitions behind the blueline have been out with injuries this season. Defenseman Zach Bogosian, who's 26:34 ATOI lead the Sabres last season, has yet to make his season debut. At only 24 yrs. old Bogosian has over 400 NHL games to his credit and was expected to be on the top-pairing. The 24 yr. old Lehner had his season put on hold when he went down to injury in the first game of the season.
As trade scenarios for both goalies and defensemen swirled in the rumor mill, Murray stood pat and relied upon his stable of youngins to get them through.
On defense, 21 yr. old Rasmus Ristolainen saw his average ice-time jump from 20:36 last year to 23:57 so far this year. Mark Pysyk paid his dues in the AHL for the majority of the last two seasons and rightfully has taken his spot amongst the top six while 22 yr. old rookie Jake McCabe, who spent his first pro season in Rochester last year, has forced his way in to the discussion with some exceptional play.
Goalie Linus Ullmark was re-called from Rochester on October 23rd after going 1-2 with a 2.72 gaa and a .932 sv%. This is the first foray into North America for the native of Lugnvik, Sweden and he was also coming off of elective double-hip surgery in April.
Individually, and as a group, yesterday's matinee win over the visiting Vancouver Canucks may represent a huge leap for those four. It wasn't a perfect game yesterday, in fact the ice was decidedly tilted towards the Buffalo net for huge chunks, especially in the first period, and there were plenty of mistakes including some turnovers, but the key for the youngins is how they recover from mistakes and/or miscues.
Ristolainen, the first star of the game yesterday, picked the top corner with a beautiful shot from the point on the powerplay in the secone period to put the Sabres up 2-0. Unfortunately, he and his compadres on the ice got schooled by the Sedins, Henrik and Daniel, just five minutes later. Ristolainen and his partner Josh Gorges, had the unenviable task of shutting down the twins, which they did save for that one goal. He fought through some clumsy moments during the game yet finished with the game-winner on another shot from the point, one that picked the same corner,
with just :17 seconds left in the third period. According to Sabres PR, it was the latest game-winner scored by the Sabres since Mike Grier scored with :05 seconds left on March 11, 2006.
Head coach Dan Bylsma was pleasantly surprised with Ristolainen's offensive output as he wasn't planning on that heading into the game. "The objective was to keep the twins off the board," he told the media afterwards, "but to get two goals, one even strength and one on the powerplay and be on the positive side, obviously, helped us win the game."
Ullmark was terrific in net last nigh stopping 30 of 32 shots including a half-a-dozen or so that Bylsma termed, "Grade-A's." He stopped a barrage of 15 shots in the first period then was greeted with a partial breakaway less than thirty seconds into the second period. Soon thereafter Jamie McGinn put the Sabres up 1-0. Then with the Sabres on the powerplay Tyler Ennis had the puck roll off his stick to the left the Buffalo net setting up Vancouver's Brandon Sutter for a one-timer from the slot. Ullmark came up big and Ristolainen popped in his first goal less than a minute later.
There were awkward moments for Ullmark, however. On that shot by Sutter he was anxiously leaning forward when he made the save and he was in the same position when Henrik Sedin scored his goal. He was square to the shooter like he always is but leaning like that made him smaller. On the second goal, Chris Higgins schooled McCabe and squeezed one by Ullmark on a goal that he probably should have had.
McCabe had some rough moments, but was doing it all last night in his team-leading 23:47 minutes of ice-time. Other than that play on the Higgins goal, McCabe was solid. He threw his body around, was smart at both ends (mostly) and was repeatedly jumping into the play with offensive support. It's something Bylsma talked about after the 4-1 loss to Tampa on Thursday.
One of the things that Murray wanted Pysyk to work on while he was in Rochester was jumping into the play on offense. The smart, solid Pysyk has always been sound in the defensive zone, but Murray felt that he had much more to offer.
The 23 yr. old Sherwood Park, Alberta native is still without a goal this season but has been jumping into the play more an more all season. He finally hit the scoresheet last night as he pinched in from the point, took a feed from Jack Eichel and sent a slap-pass to Jamie McGinn on the weakside doorstep who redirected it home.
McGinn himself may have had his best game as a Buffalo Sabre. He scored that goal and set the screen on Ristolainen's first goal. He also was extremely physical while playing on a line with Eichel and
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Eichel, the definitive youngin for Buffalo. This will probably get old in the near future, but the 19 yr. old's saavy, patience, hockey sense, stickwork and speed were all on display during the game and he registered his first two assists of the season. Yesterday, after drawing the entire 'Nucks defense with him he sent a pass to Matt Moulson on the weakside for a tap-in. Ryan Miller may have got his stick in on the play, but it was yet another glorious opportunity for a Sabres player to benefit from the skill of Eichel.
The Sabres probably came away with a win when they probably shouldn't have yesterday. There were a lot of mistakes, especially on the part of the youngins, but with none of the aforementioned foursome--Ristolainen, Ullmark, McCabe and Pysyk--over the age of 23, the positives that came out of the game makes for a pretty bright future.