Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
In just over a week the NHL's trade deadline will be upon us and in one week from today, the Sabres will have gone through another particularly tough part of their schedule.
Back in November, Buffalo faced the top two teams in the Western Conference at the time--the league-leading Dallas Stars and the St. Louis Blues--in a six day span. Needless to say the schedule-maker did the young Sabres no favors with that four-game stint as Buffalo finished 0-3-1. This afternoon they begin another tough six day stretch when they play an afternoon game that kicks off Hockey Day In America on NBC.
Buffalo will host the Pittsburgh Penguins at 12:30 p.m. After that, the national spotlight turns to Minneapolis, Minnesota as the Wild host the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks in a 3:00 p.m. outdoor game at TCF Bank Stadium, home of the Minnesota Golden Gophers. NBC and NBCSN finish off their triple-header with the Detroit Red Wings travelling to Madison Square Gardens to take on an Original Six foe in the New York Rangers at 7 p.m.
After today's game, the Sabres then hit the road for a West Coast swing to take on the surging Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday, travel up the coast to face San Jose at the Shark Tank then head back down to Orange County in Southern California for the second game of a back-to-back against the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday night.
They'll be back in Buffalo next Sunday and after having adjusted to Eastern Standard Time, on Monday they will be wrapping their heads around the possibility that the team could be in flux once again as Sabres GM Tim Murray works the 3 p.m. trade deadline phones. Although it won't be anything close to the scale of the last two deadlines, barring surprises, there will still be some turnover as the team is clearly in seller mode.
If there was any thought of Buffalo making the playoffs this season, they were probably put to rest earlier this month when they dropped four in a row (0-2-2.) Even after their recent 3-0-1 run the Sabres are still 11th in the Eastern Conference and 11 points behind the Penguins with six teams to jump to get the last playoff spot. It's a mighty task indeed.
Although the playoffs might be out of reach, taking on hot Penguins team and coming out on top would be a major confidence booster moving forward. Since Pittsburgh fired head coach Mike Johnston and promoted Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach Mike Sullivan, the Pens have gone 14-10-5. They've really picked it up as of late with a four-game win-streak kicking off an 8-3-1 run. And the driving force behind the surge?
Who else? Sidney Crosby.
Crosby caught fire with the coaching change scoring 19 goals and 17 assists in 29 the games since Sullivan took over. However, the Penguins surge took a major blow when Evgeni Malkin went down with a lower body injury in a game vs. Ottawa. Malkin's been out seven games now and the team has gone 4-3-1 with Crosby being held scoreless in four of the last five games and the team going 2-2-1.
Lack of secondary scoring has been a main culprit in Pittsburgh's woes as of late but Sullivan wouldn't blame it all on the bottom-six, "We need to get more scoring, period," he said on Thursday. "Whether it be the bottom-six or the top-six.
“Certainly, when the bottom-six guys do chip in with the odd goal, it certainly helps our chances to win. But I wouldn’t categorize it as it’s just the secondary scoring. We need scoring, period.”
Regardless of Pittsburgh's problems, the Sabres clearly have been having trouble with Crosby and the Pens beginning with the 2007-08 season. In Crosby's first two seasons Buffalo had a 7-0-1 record against the Pens with Crosby in the lineup despite his four goals and five assists in those games. Since the 2007-08 season, in 21 games leading up to today Buffalo is 3-15-3 against Crosby and the Pens and he's put up 38 points on 10 goals and 28 assists.
With a new core in place this season, the Sabres still had trouble Pittsburgh in October as they dropped 4-3 decision in head coach Dan Bylsma's return to Pittsburgh. Buffalo pumped 53 shots on back up goalie Jeff Zatkoff, who was getting his first start in the NHL since April, 2014, but they couldn't get the "W" for Bylsma.
From this vantage point, and with the rebuild still in it's infancy, this is a pretty big game for Buffalo despite their playoff hopes being far, far away. The Sabres have been making steady progress during the second half of the season and despite that four-game losing streak earlier in the month are clearly on the upswing. And although they've been terrible at home, the Sabres have the opportunity for a fourth consecutive regulation win at home, something they haven't done since 2011.
They'll also have a red hot Robin Lehner in net. In his last three starts Lehner is 2-0-1 with a .980 save percentage (97-99) and a 0.65 goals-against average, according to Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News. He's also on the longest shutout streak of his career at 117 minutes, 50 seconds which includes a 38-save performance at Columbus on Friday.
Lehner was unbeatable on Friday but he's playing against a team lead by a player who knows how to beat the best.
The spotlight's on.
Of note, Justin Bailey has been recalled from Rochester.