Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Eichel and Girgensons weren't enough. But for 4:52 of the game, it was a blast.

Reprinted with permission from

For 4:52 of the third period last night, the Buffalo Sabres and the NY Rangers played the type of hockey that energized the audience. The 18,006 at Madison Square Garden as well as those watching on NBCSN were caught up in the ebb and flow of the game as players were flying up and down the ice and goals were being scored.

In less than five minutes the Sabres erased a two-goal deficit early in the third period only to see the Rangers gain it back with two of their own, and man, was that fun to watch. It was a bit of time-warp back to the "New-NHL" that was on display for a year-and-a-half after the 2004 lockout.

When Sabres GM Tim Murray stocked up on speed and skill up-front acquiring the likes of Evander Kane and Ryan O'Reilly while drafting Jack Eichel, it looked as if he was loading up a team that would play exactly like that, an aggressive, "catch-me-if-you-can" style. Instead Sabres fans have watched the team laboring under the weight of X's and O's, team-defense and proper on-ice positioning. And I get that.

On the heels of back-to-back 30th place seasons with a roster purged of nearly every pre-2012 Sabres player, the idea of laying a defensively responsible foundation like that is probably a good idea and might be considered essential to the future success of the franchise. Having the team disciplined in a strong two-way game that can keep a them in every game against every opponent playing any style is not a bad way to build a rock-solid foundation for the future. Yet for those fans watching Buffalo this season, the growth process has been a rather painful experience, especially when the team sits in 29th place only one point away from where they stood in the standings last season.

The media onslaught whining about Buffalo's place in the standings is sure to come about their place in the standings but in no way, shape or form is this team like the last two incarnations of the Sabres.

Unlike those teams, the Sabres have 42 points on a 19-26-4 record and are in a group of six teams at the bottom of the league that are separated by only four points. Last season in the midst of an 11-game losing streak one day prior to the All-Star break the Sabres' 31 points put them in last place, two points behind Edmonton and six points out of 28th place. And at this time in 2014 the Sabres sat in last place with 33 points, three points behind Edmonton and 10 points behind the 28th place Calgary Flames.

Those two teams were on the decline while this team is on the launch pad ready to rise. The speed, talent and athleticism Murray brought in coupled with some of the strong first-rounders that were already on the team is what separates them from any other team dating back to 2007.

Case in point.

The Rangers pretty much dominated the Sabres for the first two periods, which can happen when a young team faces a veteran one that's been to the conference finals two-years running. But thanks to some stellar goaltending by Buffalo's Chad Johnson and a couple of missed opportunities, NY was only up 2-1 headed into the third period last night.

At the 1:09-mark of the third period, however, the Rangers upped the score to 3-1 on a goal by Derick Brassard and with Henrik Lundqvist in net one would be hard-pressed to believe that the Sabres could overcome a two-goal deficit against one of the best goalies in the game even if he was playing the second game of a back-to-back. It hasn't been the Sabres M.O. to comeback from a game against a top goalie since the days of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. But we saw shades of that last night in Eichel and linemate Zemgus Girgensons.

The duo of Eichel and Girgensons had been flying all night with winger Matt Moulson getting into the play whenever he could. As Eichel and Girgensons applied heavy offensive zone pressure, once Moulson got into the play he was pretty strong on the puck and even forced Lundqvist to make a good stop on a tip on their first shift just after the Brassard goal.

On their next shift, Eichel raced into the Rangers zone and got tangled up on the dot to the right of Lundqvist while Girgensons crashed the net. With stick tied up and the puck right beneath him, Eichel pushed the puck with his right skate to a waiting Girgensons just outside the crease. Girgensons showed the patience and hands of a goal-scorer and when Lundqvist went down he roofed it from in-tight.

Just over a minute later, the duo struck again. Eichel jumped on a turnover in the Buffalo zone and streaked up ice while Girgensons filled the lane. The 2-on-1 ended with Girgensons walking in all alone on Lundqvist then depositing a back-hander. Eichel's saucer-pass on the play was a thing of beauty.

It was the start of the goal-barrage that would end with the Rangers scoring a goal exactly one minute after Girgensons second and another one on the powerplay just a few minutes later. In all, four goals were scored in 4:52 and despite the Sabres going on to lose the game, it's fun to think of what this team is really capable of when they're skating like that. In fact, it was the type high-flying, high-scoring loss this blogger had envisioned on a regular basis this season. With all the firepower Murray acquired and a defense that went into the season suspect, high-scoring losses were somewhat expected.

That said, the 4:52-second span also gave us a window as to who on the Sabres can really hang at a pace like that and who can't.

Eichel and Girgensons obviously can. And even though the line of  Kane, O'Reilly and Jamie McGinn were on the ice for both of the Rangers goals that surrounded Buffalo's, they have the tools to play at this pace and produce as well. Kane in particular was flying all game, wreaking havoc in the Rangers end and causing multiple turnovers. Even though he was caught napping a few times and unsuccessfully tried to channel Alexander Ovechkin, when he ditches the attempts at fancy stick-handling and silly shots, he has the envious north/south game of a powerforward that can dominate.

Eichel, O'Reilly and Kane are all key to-six forwards for this club moving forward and although Girgensons was considered top-nine material, he continues to display a scorers touch that may eventually place him firmly in a top-six role possibly as high as top-line if he can continue to work with Eichel the way they did last night.

As for the rest of the players, beginning tonight there are 37 games left to figure out who can play at a torrid pace like we saw last night.

I for one would welcome that pace for the rest of the season. Goals-against be damned.

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