Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
As if a five-game losing streak stretching back to December wasn't bad enough, the ice cold Buffalo Sabres begin a three-game road trip in Chicago tonight before heading to the frozen outpost known as Winnipeg on Sunday to play the Jets who are 19-19-3. As they conclude their trip on Tuesday in Minneapolis to take on the Minnesota Wild (1-11-8,) the hope is that Buffalo will have heated up on the ice even if the weather is frigid outside.
For the many who thought that this young Sabres squad might compete for a playoff spot, the bucket of water that's been tossed on you is mighty cold. Just the facts: The Sabres have a 15-21-4 record good for 34 points and the 29th spot in the league and, including the 0-2 start to this month, Buffalo is 4-20-4 in the month of January over the last two seasons.
El niño? Enero no ha sido bueno, señor.
The Sabres hit the ice at 8:30pm tonight in Chicago to face a Blackhawks team that, what a surprise, is on a five-game winning streak. Kinda seems like a theme for Buffalo. They started out the season facing a Montreal club that was on the brink of setting an NHL record for wins in a row to start the season and proceeded to get thumped, 7-2. Last month Washington came strolling into First Niagara Center on a seven-game winning streak and proceeded to up that to nine with consecutive wins over the Sabres (2-0 and 5-2.)
And the surprising (to some) Florida Panthers hit Buffalo this past Tuesday on a nine-game win-streak. They proceeded to make it 10 games as they thumped the Sabres 5-1 in one of Buffalo's worst efforts of the season.
Are you depressed yet?
Hope not, cause I got more for ya. The Sabres are 1-8-1 in their last 10 against Chicago and haven't emerged victorious at the Madhouse on Madison since January 10, 2007. Jochen Hecht and Max Afinogenov had the goals and Ryan Miller stopped 34 of 35 shots in the Sabres 2-1 victory back then.
At that time the Sabres were rising and the Blackhawks core was just beginning to take shape. Chicago's two defensive anchors--Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook--were on that team as were other players like Patrick Sharp, Dustin Byfuglien and Adam Burish who helped them win the Cup a few years later but are no longer with the team. With 2006 third-overall pick Jonathan Toews still in college at the University of North Dakota, the Blackhawks finished 26th in '06/'07, would proceed to win the draft lottery and then select Buffalo-native Patrick Kane with the first-overall pick in the 2007 NHL Draft.
From that season forward they would make a steady climb and in 2010 they hoisted the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1961.
Keith, Seabrook, Toews and Kane are all still there, sporting three Stanley Cup rings, and represent one of the best cores in all of hockey. Chicago also has a quality top-six featuring young stars, are deep and they are getting top-notch goaltending.
As for the Sabres, facing the Florida Panthers was hopefully akin to looking in the mirror in a few years. Florida's in that cocoon-to-butterfly transition right now where they're just beginning to spread their wings with a bevy of youngins starting to have a profound impact. The Blackhawks are well beyond that phase and are at the pinnacle of success right now having won three of the last six Stanley Cups. They're about as close to a dynasty as you can get in the salary-cap era.
I guess that's why I'm not really phased at the performance of Buffalo thus far this season. In looking back at Kane's first season when he and Toews joined Keith and Seabrook, the Blackhawks rode an average October and a hot November to a 19-15-3 heading into the new calendar year. They proceeded to go winless in their first seven games in January before turning things around.
The Sabres are definitely worse off than Chicago was at this point in the season, but it matters not so long as they can break out of this slump and get the ball rolling.
Gonna be kinda tough tonight against a 'Hawks team that's 16-5-1 at home, but this just about the time when we see which players on Buffalo are ready to step up.
Buffalo has a pretty good core right now and two of their anchors are 19 yr. old center Jack Eichel and 21 yr. old defenseman, Rasmus Ristolainen. Sabres fans know what these two bring to the table but former Sabres captain Craig Rivet added a little more perspective to their games.
While on Sabres Hockey Hotline with Kevin Sylvester and Andrew Peters, the former hard-nosed defenseman jumped at the opportunity to talk about something other than fighting and fourth-line players. "When you say 'offensive,' when you say "dynamic," Rivet said to Sylvester about Eichel, "all these things just glare when you talk about him. He's got size, he's got [the] skating, his poise with the puck is insane and his shot...
"This kid has a lot of insanely high-end abilities."
Yeah, Craig, we know that. And we also know that Eichel has been having trouble meshing with his linemates. Rivet would address that.
"Maybe people don't want to hear this," began Rivet as he balanced his critique, "but when I watch him play, he looks to be a very young hockey player.
"Right now I think he's a very hard player to play with. He's all over the ice. He looks, at times, like he's playing shinny hockey. He's structurally a little bit off. It gets covered up by his [puck dynamics] and he's a beautiful player to watch [but] there are things he needs to work on to become a better player and, more importantly, be a better player for the guys he's playing with."
Rivet goes on to say that Eichel is a special talent with off-the-charts hockey sense that has him thinking far ahead of most players, and he also stated that he believes the fans of Buffalo will fall in love with his play. And, most importantly, Rivet mentions that Eichel is still young and that his growing pains are not a concern at all.
Ristolainen was brought up in the conversation as well and being a former defenseman, this was right in Rivet's wheel-house. He started out by saying that he was going to set aside Ristolainen's offensive production, which is at a 50-point pace right now. "Let's just look at his play," began Rivet. "He's a big body, he's strong, he moves the puck out of the zone extremely well [and] he's an extremely intelligent player. He reads the play in all aspects and he's only 22 yrs. old?" He was corrected. Ristolainen's only 21.
Rivet then contrasted Ristolainen to former Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers, who was traded to Winnipeg last year. "He's doing the exact opposite of Myers," said Rivet. "Myers started off incredible then he basically, slowly, [failed] to mature, didn't find the confidence and was moved out.
"Ristolainen is moving forward. He's not doing anything super special where you're saying 'This is an All-Star defenseman,' but he's doing everything well for this team right now."
Head coach Dan Bylsma has Ristolainen playing in every situation, He leads the team in average time on ice and is second on the team in scoring with 26 points (7+19.) Should he continue his scoring pace and end up with 50 or more points, he'll be the first Sabres defenseman to do that since Garry Galley in 1995-96, according to Sabres PR, and the youngest since recent Hall-of-Fame inductee, Phil Housley.
I always like when Rivet is on "The Hotline." The 17-yr. NHL vet has plenty of insight as to the nuances of the game outside his expertise as a former defenseman. And he's got a pretty smooth speaking voice as well.
As mentioned in the Hotline segment, Eichel has had numerous linemates this season, but Ristolainen has basically had only one defense partner--Josh Gorges. It looks as if there will be another tweak to Eichel's line for tonight and Ristolainen will be getting a different d-partner.
As of yesterday's practice, Bylsma had the following lines, according to the Sabres:
Evander Kane-Ryan O'Reilly-Sam Reinhart
Zemgus Girgensons-Jack Eichel-Jamie McGinn
Marcus Foligno-Johan Larsson-Brian Gionta
Matt Moulson-Tim Schaller-David Legwand
On defense, Zach Bogosian and Jake McCabe were alternating with Ristolainen while Gorges was working with Cody Franson. Mike Weber and Carlo Colaiacovo were the other pair.
Line updates will come when the Sabres tweet out from the morning practice.