Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
The last word I wrote at the conclusion of Buffalo's 3-2 shootout loss to the Chicago Blackhawks yesterday was "disappointment" as Buffalo was a mere :34 seconds away from bringing this one home. It took a 5-on-3 Chicago powerplay that began with 2:33 left in the game--one that eventually turned into a 6-on-3 as the Hawks pulled goalie Cory Crawford--and 1:59 of that powerplay for Chicago to put the tying goal behind Buffalo goalie Chad Johnson.
When you look at the firepower that hit the ice for the Blackhawks at that point in the game the Sabres penalty kill units, as well as Johnson, should be commended for coming within :01 second of killing the dual minors. Chicago iced Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook who were joined by Marian Hossa when Crawford went to the bench for the extra attacker with 1:15 left in the game.
And not only did the Sabres almost kill the penalties, center Ryan O'Reilly came within a foot from a length of the ice shorthanded goal into an empty net just a few seconds after Hossa came on the ice. Being the trooper that he is, O'Reilly wasn't satisfied with coming close in either case. He told the gathered media post-game that missing the open net was "embarrassing" and that despite coming close, "it's all about results."
"We have to close it. It's not acceptable."
Although this is one of those instances where a lot of slack can be cut for a Sabres team that probably would have held on for the victory had they not been two-men shorthanded for two minutes, ya gotta love O'Reilly's approach to all of this. It's something that will serve the team well in the future in a sense that losing is no longer acceptable.
The Sabres started out unevenly in the first period and eventually found themselves down 1-0 just six over six minutes into the first as Chicago's Dennis Rasmussen picked up the puck at the red line, eluded a back-checking Evander Kane and barely beat Johnson as he banked one in off of the post.
It was the first whistle of the period as both teams were skating up an down the ice just letting 'er rip. They continued that pace after the goal as there wasn't a second stoppage until nearly the 10-minute mark. Chicago was in full control for the rest of the first period as they swarmed the puck. The Blackhawks' puck support is unmatched as there always seems to be three guys around the puck.
Between periods Buffalo defenseman Jake McCabe said that they'd gotten caught up in Chicago's up-and-down style and that they needed to get back to playing their game. "You gotta grind 'em down," he told Sabres analyst Rob Ray between periods. "That's what we've been good at when we get those wins."
The final two periods were some of the best hockey the team has played all season and they were lead by their third line. Johan Larsson, Zemgus Girgensons and Brian Gionta had the unenviable task of defending against the Hawks premier scoring line of Kane, Panarin and Artem Anisimov, a trio that has a combined 41 goals and 56 assists on their 34-game resume'. And they held them in check throughout regulation.
Not only that, the Sabres checking trio also started a chain of events that would eventually lead to Buffalo's first goal.
The Larsson line was dogged on the forecheck early in the second period and spent their entire shift in the Chicago zone. One-by-one they left the ice for a change and when all was said and done the Sabres spent 1:44 in the offensive zone. The defensive pairing of McCabe and Zach Bogosian were also instrumental as pointed out by Sabres analyst Brad May during the second intermission. May figured that they touched the puck at least 10 times during that stretch.
Although Chicago was able to get the puck out of the zone at one point, it wasn't far enough for their defensemen to get off for the change. Keith and Seabrook were on the ice for two minutes and their whole defensive scheme was thrown out of whack. About a minute and a half later a seemingly harmless clear-in around the boards turned into a goal.
Rookie forward Jack Eichel sent the puck behind the Chicago net and Crawford missed it. Defenseman Cody Franson pinched hard on the half-wall and sent the puck in off the far post before Crawford could get set. "I just tried to get down [to the puck] and throw it on net and try to beat him back," he told the media, "and luckily it went in."
The Sabres kicked in their A-game, ending the period with a 28-12 shot advantage and seven scoring opportunities according to the Sabres broadcast. And they continued in the third period eventually taking the lead on a nice play from rookie Sam "The Forgotten One" Reinhart.
O'Reilly chased down a lead pass from McCabe deep into the Chicago corner and fed Reinhart who followed the play and ended up behind the net. While gliding backwards towards the opposite side with the puck, Reinhart kept his eyes on O'Reilly who found some open space near the goal line. The 20 yr. old had the entire Chicago team moving to one side before calmly sending a sharp pass to O'Reilly. Crawford never had a chance.
“That was a big-time play,” said Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma at his post-game presser. "Sam just shows a ton of patience. He’s drifting over the goalie’s left shoulder. He’s drifting way back there and makes a same-side feed. It’s an empty net. It’s half empty but Crawford had looked over his left shoulder and was looking over there and the puck’s gone the other way and it’s a pretty spectacular passing play by that line.”
Reinhart and O'Reilly have really developed chemistry and the rookie knew what O'Reilly was going to do on the play. "I knew he was going to find the soft area and I was just kind of waiting it out," he told Sabres.com. He talked more about their chemistry with Jon Vogl of the Buffalo News. “We’ve skated with each other a lot. Early on even, I think Tampa was the first game we played together quite some time ago,” Reinhart said. “Then we got away from each other and found each other again. With [Jamie] McGinn on that other side we’ve started to create something and I think with O’Reilly, he’s such a smart guy he always finds the right spot.
"If you find him at the right time he’s going to make something happen.”
The Sabres head into this Christmas hiatus with plenty of positives to build upon. They have two lines that are clicking and they are getting healthier. Probably most importantly, however, is that their play has been improving to the point where they bottled up and nearly beat the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks.
Their next goal is to eliminate that word "nearly."
The fact that I, like most Sabres fans, was disappointed in the loss yesterday is indicative of the huge strides made by this team in light of where they came from last year. That O'Reilly was "embarrassed" was huge sign that the culture is changing and that losing nobly is unacceptable. Having Bylsma say about the loos, "I'm not gonna lie, it hurts," also tells us that he believes this team can do some good things and hang with the big boys and that he's expecting them to win no matter who they face.