Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
For a change, the Buffalo Sabres are headed into a city digging out of a massive snowstorm instead of the other way around. Images from the blizzard known as Jonas, are very familiar to stout Buffalonians--white-outs, cars buried knee-deep in snow, tunnels being dug out just to get to the street, people having fun and those struggling.
It was the second biggest snowstorm on record in New York City dropping 26.8 inches of the white stuff on Central Park. It missed tying the record-breaking storm of February 10-11, 2006 by 0.1". Of course, it's The Big Apple where everything there needs a dramatic headline on a Broadway marquis and Jonas provided that. Gothamist.com called it, Snowpocalypse. How apropos.
As the NY Rangers prepare to take on the Buffalo Sabres tonight at Madison Square Garden, they're going through their own drama as they're in the midst of a middling season while getting buried by the press.
Prior to Jonas, Larry Brooks of the NY Post wrote a piece entitled, The Rangers are done after a 5-2 dismantling by the division leading Washington Capitals. "Forty-five games into 2015-16, it is time to recalibrate; time to acknowledge the disconnect between these Rangers and the two [Eastern Conference Finals teams] that came before them under Alain Vigneault’s watch. The individual and collective breakdowns have created a noxious mixture of doubt and passivity on the ice.
"These are essentially the same players playing under the same system, so the repeated fundamental breakdowns in discipline, defensive-zone coverage in general and defending the front of the net, specifically, are baffling."
The Rangers would go on to win the next two games, but would lay an egg in Ottawa last night getting shut out by the Senators 3-0. It was a loss so bad that Vigneault kept the post-game presser rather brief. He starting off with, “I really thought we were building momentum," then finishing with, "We played a real strong game in Carolina on the road. Thought we were getting somewhere. Then we come up with this tonight. So, thanks, I’m outta here.”
Tonight, for a change, the Sabres are headed to a city digging out of a snowstorm to face an inconsistent, middling hockey team that's on it's heels a bit.
The Sabres haven't exactly been a win-factory as of late, and they have their own troubles to worry about, like scoring, but they can take heart in the fact that regardless of their 29th place in the standings right now, they've been making strides all season. Granted, they've been inconsistent, but this group has made significant progress and when they're playing their best, they can skate with any team in the league. Youth may cause them to fall short, but they can at least run with the big dogs for a game.
And opportunity knocks. The Rangers are on the second game of a back-to-back on the heels of that dreadful performance at Ottawa. Henrik Lundqvist was in goal against the Sens so it's unlikely he'll get the start tonight leaving Antti Raanta to man the crease. Raanta is 4-4-1 with a 2.30 GAA and .908 SV%.
In addition to Raanta in net behind a defense that Brooks said allowed "Opponents who go to the front the time and space to lay down a blanket and a picnic spread without fear of being disturbed," the offense may be without winger Rick Nash again. Nash suffered an leg injury while blocking a shot against the Hurricanes and didn't play in the Ottawa game yesterday. Vigneault listed Nash as "day-to-day" saying yesterday, "I think there’s a good chance he’ll be OK for [Monday]. So we’ll see how it goes here in the next 24 hours.”
Even with all that in Buffalo's favor, they may be facing a desperate Rangers club that has an impressive 17-5-2 home record. This will be their last game before the All-Star break and one would think that they'll want to get the bad taste from the Ottawa game out of their mouth. And, of course, it's under the grand marquis of Madison Square Garden.
Back in November with the Buffalo Bills getting ready to play the NY Jets under the bright lights of the Tri-state area, I felt that the underdog Buffalo teams should start getting accustomed to the limelight and revel in it, much like Bills head coach Rex Ryan does. Regardless of the outcome, Ryan embraces the media attention.
The Sabres need to start embracing that as well. The additions of marquis names like Jack Eichel, Ryan O'Reilly and Evander Kane have increased exposure and expectations and their steady improvement this season hasn't gone unnoticed by the opposition either. No longer do teams look at them as an easy win like the last two seasons, and no longer do teams have complete confidence that they can pull out a game or sweep a season series.
Tonight the Sabres are on national TV under the bright lights of The Big Apple, at the legendary Madison Square Garden, in a city that loves drama and attention. This will be the second of three appearances for Buffalo on NBCSN and they'll have one more national game when they face Pittsburgh on NBC's Sunday afternoon game (February 21.)
In direct contrast to season's past, the Sabres defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-1 on the road in their first appearance on NBCSN back in November. Eichel had a goal and an assist and was named the game's first star while goalie Chad Johnson stopped 30 of 31 shots for a .968 SV%. Oddly enough, it was the fourth and final meeting between Buffalo and the defending Eastern Conference Champion Lightning. Tampa was 3-0 vs. Buffalo heading in and outscored the Sabres by a combined 10-3.
As Buffalo heads into their first meeting with the Rangers, at least one of the walking wounded will be set to hit the ice. Forward Zemgus Girgensons was a full participant in practice yesterday and looks to be a go. Girgensons had missed the last four games due to an upper-body injury suffered in Boston. The Sabres went 2-2 during that stretch.
The Latvian Locomotive had been on a line with Jack Eichel and Brian Gionta and his contributions didn't go unnoticed by head coach Dan Bylsma. "If we look back to the two games against Washington, they were playing with [Gionta] at the time," said Bylsma to the gathered media after practice yesterday, "I thought they were generating quite a bit of offense, scoring some goals with [Girgensons] generating more offense than he had and that's what we hope when we put them back together."
What Bylsma was referring to more pointedly was the last meeting between Buffalo and Washington where Eichel and Girgensons each had a goal and an assist leading the team into the third period with a 2-1 lead. The Sabres then proceeded to fall apart allowing four unanswered goals in a 5-2 loss.
Eichel seems to like the idea. Via Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News, “He’s a key player for us who brings a lot to the table so it will be great to have him back,” Eichel said of Girgensons. “He plays a real straight-ahead game and you know what to expect. I really enjoy playing with him. We were able to connect a little bit, get some chemistry going. Hopefully, he hits the ground running.”
The feelings are reciprocal for Girgensons. "It's awesome. He’s an amazing player. Watching him is fun but playing with him is even more fun," said Gus of Eichel after practice yesterday. "You get more ‘o-zone’ time if you’re playing with him, so that’s always a good thing.
“Every day you’re together with a guy, you get to know him better on and off the ice."
The duo were coupled with Matt Moulson during yesterday's practice. Moulson's game this season has not been awesome. He's sporting a paltry 12 points (4+8) in 47 games for Buffalo this season and, ironically, was a healthy scratch for that Washington game.
Yet, opportunity knocks for him as well. With top-six forwards Tyler Ennis and Sam Reinhart out with injuries, Moulson is now skating in a top-six role and he should be thrilled to be on a line with Eichel and Girgensons. Will it get him out of a 35-game goal-scoring drought and 18-game pointless streak? It better. Both Moulson and the team need him to snap out of it.
Defenseman Josh Gorges was back at practice and the Sabres now have eight healthy defensemen. Unfortunately for him the defense-corps has been playing extremely well, especially Zach Bogosian who took Gorges' top-pairing spot next to No. 1 defenseman, Rasmus Ristolainen.
Bogosian looks fully healed from his lower-body injury that kept him out the first 17 games of the season. Said Bylsma of Bogosian after practice yesterday, "He's settled in playing with Risto against top guys playing top minutes. He's skating well, playing hard against good players and he gonna keep getting put on the ice if that's the case."
WGR550 had a nice piece on the Risto/Bogo pairing that included some advanced stats. The Corsi-rating is up despite them both being right-handed and although Gorges was good for Ristolainen to an extent, Bogosian might be even better. From the piece, "Bogosian has a skill set that compliments Ristolainen. The former No. 3 overall pick (Bogosian) is physically intimidating, fast and can make the occasional play with the puck. The In Arizona, the two put on a Bash-Brothers show at the end of the game. They also had this nice puck movement that created a goal by Phil Varone."
Regardless of their record, the Rangers are dangerous. They didn't make it to within one game of the Stanley Cup Finals last season without talent and a coaching staff to get them there. As the Sabres trudge towards Madison Square Garden tonight looking to bury the Rangers in a Buffalo blizzard, a game like this has the feel of a statement game and the Sabres can do themselves some good by embracing the moment.