For Buffalo Sabres fans watching last night's game vs. the Boston Bruins, the 3-2 shootout loss at the hands of the Bruins was a letdown, especially after blowing a 2-1 third-period lead on a goal that caught the entire team napping.
Boston's best penalty killer, Zdeno Chara went to the box for tripping and an inept Sabres powerplay couldn't convert. To make matters worse, just after the penalty expired, the Bruins' Brad Marchand, the second-most hated Boston player behind Chara, caught the entire Sabres team napping as he went one-on-six and lifted a backhander past a surprised Buffalo goaltender, Chad Johnson. The game-tying goal.
Even though Johnson was stout in net the rest of the way, including a sterling save in overtime, it was "that one goal" that he and all of Sabreland wanted back.
C'est la vie.
Although management, coaches and players are saying all the right things about this season, the playoffs are a far too distant dream at this point. The Sabres have 47 points, good for last in the Atlantic Division and they're 11 points back of the last wild card spot with six teams ahead of them. If they're not sellers at the February 29 trade-deadline it would be really surprising.
What we have for the season thus far is a year of evaluation--who can play at the pace of head coach Dan Bylsma's system, who clicks with each other. A season of finding strengths and weaknesses and who has the ability to adhere to a structured environment of set plays at a rapid pace while playing in their designated roles.
Last night the Bruins did what they always do--dog you with an intense forecheck and cause you to make mistakes. At the start of every period Boston coach Claude Julien had the line of Patrice Bergeron centering Marchand and Brett Connolly and they applied tons of pressure. But the cool part about the Sabres this season is watching them develop breakouts from their own zone under heavy pressure and last night they did some fine work. Not only was the support there, but their passes were quick and on the mark.
They would eventually get bogged down by the tight-checking Bruins, but when they were on their toes, the Sabres applied plenty of pressure themselves which staked them to a 2-0 lead. The line of Johan Larsson centering Evander Kane and Brian Gionta had another strong game and got them on the board first. On paper it looks like Bylsma drew names from a hat as they don't seem to have much in common, but for the second game in a row, it's clicking. The trio has combined for 3 goals, 1 assist and a +6 rating since the break.
Kane himself looks energized as well. Perhaps it was the All-Star break or that he's clearly "the" talent on the line, but his north/south game has been in overdrive. Last night he pumped 11 shots on goal (scoring on one of them) with more than a few coming from open space he created for himself. He now has 12 goals on the season, good for fourth on the team and should be looking at a 20-goal season, his first since scoring 30 in the 2011-12 season for the Winnipeg Jets.
Individually the players are still finding themselves but as a team the team the Sabres are really starting to gel. They look confident in the game they're playing and now they simply need to do that for a full 60 minutes.
Some quick notes:
--The hockey world knows where Buffalo has been the last two seasons and that Boston has been the bully on the block. The Sabres are starting to gain respect around the league but for some in the Boston media, they're still the Atlantic Division rug the Bruins walk all over. Last night a reporter asked Marchand about coming back to win the game in the shootout and here's how he put it (courtesy of Sabres PR,) "A lot of people will look at the boxscore and say 'Oh, they needed to go all the way to the shootout', you know, [against] the Sabres..." I'll take some cheese if this is considered whining, but just wanted to point it out.
--Sam Reinhart was parked in front of the net when he scored on a tip-in from the point. Defenseman Mark Pysyk sent a high shot to the net after a nifty move at the blueline and Reinhart was parked there to tip it home. The defender on the play? Chara. How the 6'9" 250 lb. Chara allowed the 6'1" 185 lb. Reinhart the wiggle room to do that is beyond me. Or is more like Chara is beyond his NHL shelf-life. Not taking anything away from Reinhart who's found a home in front of the net, but two or three years ago Chara would swallow up anyone in that area.
--Ryan O'Reilly is struggling right now. He hasn't scored a goal since January 8, a stretch of 11 games, and is a minus-10 during that stretch. Simply put, he looks a little run-down right now. Dude carried the team for the first half of the season and it seems like it finally caught up. That said, methinks next year he'll pace himself a little more as his teammates pick up the pace. At least that's how I hope it pans out.
--The Sabres really miss Tyler Ennis. Granted, injuries have taken it's toll and he's been less than average when in the lineup, but the right side of the Sabres lineup is pretty weak right now. Reinhart is the only top-six player on that side right now and the duo of Jack Eichel and Zemgus Girgensons could really use more skill. Plus, he may be able to help an inept shootout percentage.
--The Sabres have scored only two shootout goals in 17 attempts this season for an 11% conversion rate. Only the Minnesota Wild's 0% rate (0-9) is worse. Last night Bylsma went with Brian Gionta, Kane and O'Reilly. Gionta lost the puck in tight, Kane shot right into Boston goalie Tuuka Rask's blocker and O'Reilly fired way wide and the Sabres dropped to 1-4 in shootouts this season. The coaches no longer need to submit a list of the first three players in the shootout as they can now go exclusively on intuition. Perhaps Bylsma may want to check that and go strictly with odds.
--Ennis is third on the team in shootout percentage dating back to the lockout shortened 2012-13 season. He has converted on 10 of 32 opportunities for a 31% conversion rate. Second is O'Reilly at 33% (6 of 18) but he's 0-5 as a Buffalo Sabre. The leader of the team is...Matt Moulson. The detrimentally snake-bit Moulson has converted 6-15 shootout attempts during that span for a 40% conversion rate. Girgensons is at 23%, Gionta at 20% and Kane at 15%--0-3 for Buffalo.
--Bylsma has tried everything to get Moulson out of his slump, including 2:02 of powerplay time in place of Girgensons last night, but the $4M/yr. player still looks like a fourth-liner and perhaps it's time to give him a shot at the shootout. Couldn't hurt, could it?