Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
When the Buffalo Sabres hit the ice today for their matinee vs. the visiting Chicago Blackhawks they'll have played 34 games before the Christmas break. To say the NHL schedule maker has made it easy on the second youngest team would elicit a hearty chuckle. Then again, coming off of back-to-back last place finishes would indicate that "easy" is a word that should never enter into the equation in the first place.
Buffalo stands 14-16-3 so far this season which is one win better than they were in 2014-15, seven more than in 2013-14. That said, the Sabres have already finished their season series with the defending Eastern Conference Champion Tampa Bay Lightning (1-3-0,) the Western Conference-leading Dallas Stars (0-2,) the WC third-seed St. Louis Blues (0-1-1) and the WC sixth-seed Nashville Predators (1-1). Throw in a game vs. the WC seventh-seed San Jose Sharks (0-0-1) and their first West Coast road trip (0-3-0) and you have a pretty formidable schedule.
Of the team's 14 wins some stand out for various reasons like their first road win, a 4-3 OT thriller in Philadelphia, and their come-from-behind 2-1 win in Detroit on Monday night, but they've yet to get that signature win.
Today's game vs. the Chicago Blackhawks will provide that opportunity.
The Hawks seem to be getting their grove on as they've won five of their last seven after starting the month 0-1-0. They have the league's leading scorer in Buffalo-native, Patrick Kane (19g, 28a) who's scored in 27 of his last 28 games, and a powerplay unit that ranks 3rd in the league. They're young, fast and highly skilled and are lead by one of the best captains in the game, Jonathan Toews.
Oh, and did I mention that they have won three of the last five Stanley Cups?
The exploits of Rasmus Ristolainen have been getting plenty of press. As well they should. The 21 yr. old native of Turku, Finland is in his second full NHL season and looks to be on the verge of a breakout season. His 24:34 ATOI ranks him 15th in the NHL and he's making the most of it. Sabres PR catalogued his offensive rankings amongst defensemen to this point: T-5th in points (24,) T-6th in goals (7) and assists (17) and T-5th in multi-point games (5).
He's been carrying a heavy load along with his d-partner, 31 yr. old Josh Gorges, as they've taken on the opposition's top lines while anchoring an improving penalty kill. But they're now getting some help from the second d-pairing, Zach Bogosian and rookie, Jake McCabe.
Buffalo head coach Dan Bylsma told the gathered press yesterday that Bogosian and McCabe are a "formidable pair."
"We've counted on Ristolainen and Gorges to play hard minutes against some good players," continued Bylsma, "but now we have a second pair in McCabe and Bogo that can do a good job against just about anybody."
Bogosian missed the first 17 games of the season was thrown into the fire playing over 21 minutes in his first game of the season vs. the Dallas Stars and is still third on the team in ATOI behind Ristolainen and center, Ryan O'Reilly.
I asked him after the Detroit game on Monday (20:52 TOI, plus-1 rating) how he was feeling on the ice and he said that he's "feeling stonger and stronger every game" as he gets his legs under him.
"I'm starting to turn that corner where you're in season-mode," he continued "so I'm definitely feeling good."
Upon his return to the lineup he was paired with McCabe before Bylsma had him with Cody Franson, but now it's back to McCabe. "[They are] two good skating defensemen, two guys who can use that skating ability to defend but also add to the offense," said Bylsma after the Detroit game.
Bogosian concurred. "It's nice to play along side a good skater," he said of McCabe in Detroit. "I think that's a big part of defending. We can close gaps pretty quick as a two man unit because of our skating.
For the 22 yr. old McCabe, having a d-partner who's already played in over 400 NHL games makes for a great learning experience. "Zach, you can hear him all the time out there," he told the press after practice yesterday. "Coming back to the bench, he's not a guy who's going to get on you if you make a bad play or whatever it may be. He's an easy guy to play with and hopefully we continue progressing here."
Jack Eichel has been under some scrutiny as of late. The 19 yr. old rookie who came to the NHL directly out of college is dealing with a multitude of changes as he plows his way through the first half of his first NHL season.
Sabres GM Tim Murray has done the youngins well by surrounding them with some quality vets to help guide them like O'Reilly, Gorges, Bogosian, and captain Brian Gionta. And they're also gaining a valuable education as they've faced some of the best players in the league. But opposite Eichel and the Sabres today will be one of the best the game has to offer in Toews.
"Captain Serious" as Toews is known has been at the center, literally and figuratively of the Blackhawks rise to prominence. Drafted out of the University of North Dakota and taken 3rd-overall by Chicago in the 2006 NHL Draft, the overall speed, skill and intensity with which Toews plays the game places him amongst the best the game has to offer.
His list of accomplishments is long, including three Stanley Cups plus a Conn Smythe Trophy, four gold medals in international competition and two golds at the Olympics (2010 and 2014.) Yet, when he steps on the ice, he plays as if he has to prove himself once again.
The criticism thrown Eichel's way, however deserved, is now past. In his last game vs. the Ducks he looked like he found his mojo. Now it's a matter of keeping that mojo going for 60 minutes, like "Captain Serious" does, and has been doing for the past eight-plus NHL seasons.
Bylsma announced that goalie Chad Johnson will be in net vs. the Blackhawks today. In his past 10 games Johnson's sporting a 6-3-1 record with a .943 save percentage. Overall he's 9-9-1 on the season with a 2.33 goals-against average and a .918 sv.%.
As of late Johnson has really picked up his game and looks extremely comfortable in his role as the team's top goalie. Bylsma said the he goes back to the Detroit game and how Johnson was "solid, compact and in control."
Johnson kept it to a one-goal game for 55 minutes until the Sabres finally broke through with two goals in just over one minute. He then made a highlight-reel save to preserve the win. But he didn't stop progressing there, as Bylsma pointed out. "I think he's even added more [to his game,]" said Bylsma yesterday. "[In] last night's game (a 44-save shutout vs. Anaheim) his puck play was under control, he moved the puck to his defensemen. Same thing in front of the net."
Rebound control has been a thorn in the side of Johnson and as Bylsma indicated, he seems to be turning the corner on that. And he'll need to as he'll be seeing a lot of pressure from a strong offensive team in Chicago.
Forward Tyler Ennis returns to the ice tonight after missing 15 games with an upper-body injury and he'll be on a line with speedsters Evander Kane and Eichel. The shifty, greazy, Ennis had struggled mightily for much of the season before his injury.
The top line of O'Reilly with Jamie McGinn and rookie Sam Reinhart remains intact as does the third line of Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson and Brian Gionta.
Matt Moulson who was on the Eichel line for stints drops to the fourth line with Nic Deslauriers and David Legwand.
Marcus Foligno is out with and injury and Cal O'Reilly was sent back to Rochester yesterday.