Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
It was a good stretch for the Buffalo Sabres dating back to the Sunday before last. The Sabres headed to the frozen outpost of Winnipeg Manitoba on a six-game losing streak before their tilt with the Jets which included lots of familiar faces skating for both sides. Five of eight pieces from the February 11, 2015 blockbuster trade between the Sabres and the Jets were on the ice.
The centerpiece of the trade for Buffalo was Evander Kane. The malcontent of Manitoba was at the center of a media circus because of his exploits. He hit the ice, literally, as he fell out of the gates during warmups much to the satisfaction of the crowd who jeered him at every turn. A raucous Winnipeg hockey community dubbed the game, Track-suit Night, in honor of an infamous incident, but Kane and the Sabres would get the last laugh.
Contrary to the local belief, however, Kane showed a his selfless side as he sent a beautiful pass to Sam Reinhart for an empty-netter as he gifted the 20 yr. old rookie his first NHL hat trick, something Kane has never done in his six and a half NHL seasons.
Two former Sabres, defenseman Tyler Myers and forward Drew Stafford, were both closing in on the when Kane made the pass to Reinhart. They were also a part of that blockbuster, as were Buffalo defenseman Zach Bogosian and Jets forward Joel Armia who would both register zeros across the board that night as the Sabres left Winnipeg with a 4-2 victory.
Buffalo carried that momentum south to St. Paul, Minnesota where they took on the Wild, who had two former Sabres on their team--Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville. Watching that Minnesota team was somewhat like a flashback to the "core" years in Buffalo as the Wild looked very much like the talented yet middling team put together by former GM Darcy Regier. Buffalo came out on top by a 3-2 score.
The Sabres headed back home with some wind in their sails for a back-to-back with rival Boston and the league-leading Washington Capitals. Any momentum from Buffalo's road wins was soon quashed on Friday as the Sabres surrendered four unanswered goals in a 4-1 loss to the Bruins. A powerless powerplay is what essentially doomed Buffalo as did a very tight-checking Boston club that rendered the Sabres ineffective on offense.
Robin Lehner got the start for Buffalo vs. Boston, his first since the opener. He played well in his return from injury although he did give up one iffy goal. David Legwand scored the lone goal for Buffalo, his first in 21 games.
In light of the weak performance against Boston, things weren't looking good for the Sabres as they were set to face the Capitals. Washington came into the First Niagara Center atop the league with a 33-7-3 record, were on a five-game winning streak and had only one regulation loss in their last 16 games (14-1-1.)
It looked to be a tall task, but Buffalo showed no fear and played the type of game they were capable of. They skated and back-checked, created and converted on opportunities and also chased the NHL's best goaltender in Braden Holtby.
Perhaps it was fitting that Phil Varone, who'd just been called up for the first time this season, would get the first goal and Tim Schaller the second against the mighty Capitals who boast a team loaded with stars. Both players have been toiling in the AHL waiting for an opportunity and they played like it.
Varone, who was on a line with Jack Eichel and Jamie McGinn intermittently, got himself into position to bang home a rebound on a shot from the point by Rasmus Ristolainen. It was his first game of the season with Buffalo, the first goal of the game and his first goal of the season. Varone skated well, kept it simple and was named the game's second star. According to Sabres PR, his first NHL goal was also scored at the F'N Center vs. Washington on January 28, 2014 and of his five career goals, two were against Washington at home.
Last night's shorthanded tally by Schaller was his first goal of the season as well and the first shortie of his career. He has not looked out of place during his second recall and seems to be gaining more confidence with every game. Schaller has always been defensively sound, yet he's also displayed plenty of speed and skill as shown Saturday when he jumped on a misplayed puck at the Buffalo blueline, sped up ice and sent a rocket snap-shot past Holtby top-shelf, blocker side to make the score 2-0.
Buffalo's third goal by Kane chased Holtby, who'd been 8-0-1 since being pulled in a December game vs. the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Perhaps it was a case of the Caps taking the Sabres lightly as for them it was the first of a back-to-back with the latter game against a division foe in the NY Rangers (who they defeated soundly 5-2 yesterday.) But I wouldn't sell the Sabres short. They played hard and fast and they shut down the league's second-best powerplay on four opportunities thanks in large part to their game-plan and the stellar play of the game's first star goalie Chad Johnson.
Johnson made his mark during Lehner's absence and is real close to looking like starter material. He's positionally sound in net and makes himself look big, he's calm under pressure and moves the puck to the proper area. He stopped 33 of 34 shots vs. Washington and all 13 fired at him on the powerplay including a blast off of the stick of Alexander Ovechkin.
The Sabres are in Glendale, Arizona tonight to take on the surprising Coyotes. Arizona, who finished in 29th place last season sits at 22-17-5, good for second in the Pacific Division. Although they're 12 points behind the division-leading LA Kings, they're presently in a playoff spot.
This is matchup between teams who were literally battling for last place last season. Both Arizona and Buffalo are now on the rise and boast four talented rookies 20 yrs. old and younger.
The race for 30th last season afforded an opportunity to draft one of two generational-type players--Connor McDavid or Eichel. The Sabres finished last and after Edmonton won the draft lottery, they quickly selected Eichel with the second overall pick in 2015. Eichel, the youngest of the group at 19 yrs. old, presently sits fourth in rookie points with 27, goals with 13 (tie) and assists with 14.
The Coyotes have a pair of rookies in Max Domi and Anthony Duclair who are making their mark as 20 yrs. old. Domi was a 2013 first-rounder for Arizona (12th-overall) and is second amongst rookies in points (31) and assists (18) while his 13 goals is tied with Eichel for fourth.
Duclair was also a 2013 draft selection. He was drafted 80th-overall by the NY Rangers and was a part of the Keith Yandle trade. Duclair is fifth amongst rookies in points (24) and assists (12) and is tied for fifth in goals with 12. He was also the first of this rookie group to score a hat trick this season as he did it in the third game of the season for Arizona. Teammate Domi registered one in his 42nd game of the season.
Not to be forgotten is Reinhart, Buffalo's second-overall pick in 2014, who is tied for second amongst rookies with 12 goals, and thanks to Kane, scored his first career hat trick in his 41st game of the season at Winnipeg two Sunday's ago.
This is the second and final meeting between Buffalo and Arizona this season. The Sabres came out on top 5-2 on goals by Reinhart, McGinn, Marcus Foligno and two from Kane including one shorthanded. At the time the Sabres were busting out of scoring woes as they scored four or more goals in four consecutive games for the first time since Feb. 20 to March 2, 2007, according to Sabres PR.
Game time is 9:00pm EST.