Sabres forward Matt Moulson has been struggling for a very long time. The former three-time 30-goal scorer is currently in the midst of a 17-game goal-less drought and has managed only six assists and during the last game he skated a season-low 10:44 minutes. Yet, despite that limited ice-time, it might have been one of his best games in a while.
Moulson had some jump to his step and was working pretty hard. He landed the primary assist in the third period on Rasmus Ristolainen's third goal of the period. Although it wasn't on the level of an Adam Oates set-up, as Moulson's shot went wide and was picked up by Ristolainen on the other side, it was somewhat karmic as he'd been playing a pretty good game with nothing to show for it. And apparently head coach Dan Bylsma saw enough good things in Moulson's game that he put him back in the top six.
Bylsma had reunited rookie Jack Eichel and LW, Evander Kane late in Buffalo's 5-2 loss at Vancouver then had them together for the entire game at Calgary to finish off the team's first West Coast road trip of the season. "I didn't like where we were at the last couple of games (at Edmonton and Vancouver,)" said Bylsma before the Calgary game. "They had some success earlier in the season playing together. There wasn't a lot of finish in that success, but they had opportunities."
The move seemed to benefit Kane as he registered four shots on goal while on a line with Eichel and Buffalo captain, Brian Gionta. Eichel, on the other hand, was smothered by a Flames team that was hell-bent upon stopping him before he got going. Gionta didn't do much at all on that line or on the any of the Sabres three powerplays. He had zero shots on goal.
What Moulson replacing Gionta does for Bylsma is a head scratcher, although when he's at his best, Moulson can snipe a shot from in tight. The question is, Can Kane and/or Eichel create opportunities for Moulson? "Matt does his best work 'in the house' in the offensive zone" said Bylsma to the media after the morning skate. "That's where he needs get to and that's where he needs to be to be productive for us.
"He should get that opportunity with [Eichel and Kane]. Their speed and their ability to lug the puck. It should give Matt that opportunity to get the area he needs to be to have success for us."
Gionta drops to the third line on the left wing with Johan Larsson, who continues to struggle mightily battling it out with Cal O'Reilly (brother of Ryan) for a spot on the that line with Gionta and Zemgus Girgensons. Although he's shown glimpses of the galdfly-like game that's been his bread and butter, Larsson is without a point in his last 16 games and still without a goal on the season (26 games) despite getting ample time in the top-six.
Girgensons has been having troubles as well and that includes having a hard shot roll up his stick and open a 12-stitch gash in his mouth. In a chicken and egg situation, Girgensons has had trouble hitting the score sheet with only two goals and three assists on the year. Bylsma has had him on the third line nearly the entire season so scoring has been difficult, but when he's been moved up in cameo's, he's not been producing.
One good thing Bylsma has done is pair Girgensons and Kane on the penalty kill. Although the coaching staff doesn't teach it, those two are a threat to turn the powerplay back on the opposition for a short-handed opportunity.
On defense, rookie Jake McCabe and Zach Bogosian make up the second pairing. They played well as a duo when Bogosian first hit the ice this season, but Bylsma broke them up. Even though they had a rough game with McCabe going minus-2 and making some fairly egregious mistakes, Bylsma likes what the youngin brings to the table. "We gave up 20 scoring chances against," said Bylsma to the press, "we broke down in a number of areas and Jake was a part of that. I can't say he was great in the game, but I know we benefitted from his skating and we benefitted from his ability in the game and that's what he has to continue to do for us."
The Kings are on the third game of a six-game road trip and are coming off of a 3-2 shootout win at Pittsburgh. The win is their sixth in a row and their 7-0-1 since their last regulation loss. As the hottest team in the league hits Buffalo, in a weird aberration, the Sabres actually play extremely well against the Kings, even during the last two seasons when Buffalo was the doormat of the league. Last year Buffalo shut out Los Angeles at home giving them a 9-1-0 record at home versus the Kings, 6-3-1 in their last 10 overall meetings.
The Kings have four former Sabres on the team, including goaltender Jonas Enroth who was Buffalo's goalie last season when they shut out Los Angeles 1-0 on the First Niagara ice. Also on the team are Jamie McBain and Christian Ehrhoff, two free agent signees for Buffalo the last few years as well as defenseman Brayden McNabb.
The 6'4" 208 lb. McNabb was Buffalo's 66th pick in the 2009 NHL Draft. He was traded to the Kings on trade deadline day, 2013 as Sabres GM Tim Murray sent him and two second-round draft picks (both received by Buffalo from Los Angeles in the Robyn Regehr trade) to the Kings for forwards Nic Deslauriers and Hudson Fasching. It was Murray's first trade as Sabres GM that was of his own volition as the Miller trade to St. Louis was already in the works.
McNabb has been a staple on the Kings' blueline this season ranking third amongst LA d-men in ATOI with 21:15 minutes. On offense he's contributed one goal and added four assists while his plus-6 rating is third amongst their d-men.
Of note, Deslauriers (3g, 3a) has been consistent in his bottom-six, checking line role while Fasching is still in college. The junior had two goals last night for the University of Minnesota and now has 13 points (7+6) in 14 games.
Today's projected lineup for Buffalo:
Jamie McGinn-Ryan O'Reilly-Sam Reinhart
Matt Moulson-Jack Eichel-Evander Kane
Brian Gionta-Johan Larsson/Cal O'Reilly-Zemgus Girgensons
Marcus Foligno-David Legwand-Nic Deslauriers
Josh Gorges-Rasmus Ristolainen
Jake McCabe-Zach Bogosian
Mike Weber-Cody Franson
Bylsma said rookie Linus Ullmark will be in goal for Buffalo. Although Ullmark is 0-4-2 since his last win, Bylsma doesn't put the blame fully on the young goalie's shoulders. When asked today if Ullmark's woes have anything to do with team's having tape on him Bylsma refuted that saying "I don't thing the one or two or three instances we're talking about are spots where he's vulnerable, [spots] that have been picked up on. Actually he's made the spectacular save, he's made the hard save."
Now he just needs to put it all together as he's set to face former Sabres Enroth tonight.