Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Two out of three ain't bad...it's a goal right now for Buffalo

Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com

While many Sabres fans are caught in the quagmire of the big picture this season--27th in the league on the heels of two 30th-place finishes--Buffalo head coach Dan Bylsma offered a glimpse into how the organization is, and has been, approaching the remainder of the season. "For us, the last 17 games we've been going in three-game segments," he told the gathered media after yesterday afternoon's win over Colorado.

"We're looking at it series' of three and this (the Colorado game) was game two for us," he continued. "We won against Montreal (on Friday) and we need to get two out of three [is] the way we've looked at it. Looking at wins and looking at our mindset, we're still trying to win games, win series' and that's our focus."

The reasoning behind that philosophy was contained in the question by a Buffalo media member, "Is that a means of not getting too bogged down by the greater picture? The best way?" was the direct question.

Yesterday's decisive 4-1 win against the Avalanche at the First Niagara Center came on the heels of a rocky 6-4 win at home against the Montreal Canadiens. Yet some good things came out of both games.

First and foremost, they scored 10 goals in the two games with all of them coming at even strength except for two empty-netters which, by the way, were their 8th and 9th on the season, tying them for fourth overall in the league. The Sabres also scored early and often in those two games. Despite allowing the first goal against Montreal, Buffalo came back with two and left the ice with a 2-1 first period lead. Yesterday was a veritable blitzkrieg as the Sabres scored two goals in the first 4:42 of the game (subsequently chasing Avs goalie Semyon Varlamov) and added another with 2:46 left in the period to take a 3-0 lead heading into the break.

Buffalo also got goals from it's big-guns with contributions from those in secondary scoring roles. Evander Kane has three goals in two games, rookies Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart scored yesterday and in a secondary role, Marcus Foligno added three goals including one on a penalty shot and another into an empty net. Veterans David Legwand and Josh Gorges also lit the lamp and even though Ryan O'Reilly' goal drought is now at 16 games and counting, he contributed four assists, three of them primary in the last two games.

Series One:  2-1 (four points)

The 17-game segment Bylsma mentioned dates back to early January with the first of three road games which began in Chicago. They went into the Windy City on a five-game losing streak and proceeded to get manhandled. It was the half-way point of the season for Buffalo and they left Chicago in 29th place with a 22-15-4 record (for mid-season grades, click here.)

Buffalo then headed to Winnipeg for game two of Bylsma's series amidst a media crush on the return of Kane on what was dubbed "Track-suit Night." The Sabres came out on top with a convincing win and a selfless move by Kane to give rookie Sam Reinhart his fist NHL hat trick on an empty-net goal. Irony of ironies, former Sabres Drew Stafford and Tyler Myers were both in the screen as Kane sent a nifty saucer pass to Reinhart.

Onward to Minnesota for a game against the Wild which featured a few more ex-Sabres. Buffalo jumped on the Wild early with three first period goals then hung on for the 3-2 victory. It was the second loss in a row for Minnesota and was the beginning of a stretch where they went 1-11-2 leading to the firing of head coach Mike Yeo.

Series Two:  2-1 (four points)

The Sabres come home after a successful Mid-west swing and immediately lay an egg against Boston. After grabbing a first period lead they fell apart and gave Bruins back up  goalie Jonas Gustavsson a pretty easy win going 0-4 on the powerplay and generating very few scoring opportunities.

Redemption was around the corner as they pulled off an impressive 4-1 win over the league-leading Washington Capitals the following night. They chased the league's best goalie in Brayden Holtby who had been 20-0-2 since his last regulation loss on November 10.

Buffalo then travelled to Arizona to face the Coyotes and came away with a 2-1 victory. Arizona and Buffalo had been in a tank-battle to land one of the top-two picks in last year's draft and 2015 No. 2 overall pick Eichel shot a laser to stake the Sabres to a 1-0 lead. He would add an assist and was named the game's first star.

Series Three:  0-3 (zero points)

Buffalo left Arizona and headed north to Denver to face the Avalanche for the first time this season. Kane broke a scoreless tie late in the second period with his 10th of the season then the Avalanche would get the equalizer shortly after Kane returned to the ice from serving a double-minor for high-sticking. Francois Beauchemin would score the game-winner with :32 seconds to play in a heart breaker for Buffalo. It was the 10th consecutive time the Avalanche defeated Buffalo.

The Sabres travelled back home to take on the Detroit Red Wings and laid another egg in a 3-0 loss.

They would finish that set with a trip to Madison Square Gardens to face off against the NY Rangers. The Rangers would break a 3-3 tie in the third period with three unanswered goals on their way to a high-flying 6-3 victory.

Series Four:  2-0-1 (five points)

The Sabres closed the month of January with a 3-2 win at Ottawa in goalie Robin Lehner's first game against his former team. Lehner stopped 32 of 34 Senators, Eichel had two goals and Kane the other as the Sabres snapped a three-game losing streak.

From there Buffalo travelled to Montreal to take on the Carey Price-less Canadiens. Since Price went down Montreal's been in a tail-spin and they continued their slide as Buffalo beat Les Habitants 4-2. The Sabres scored three unanswered goals in the third period, including an empty-netter by captain Brian Gionta.

With at least two of three secure in this set, the Sabres went back home to take on the Boston Bruins. Buffalo went into the third period with a 2-1 lead but the entire team was caught napping on an early third period goal by Brad Marchand to tie the score. Boston would win the game in the shootout (1-0.)

Series Five:  0-2-1 (one point)

Marchand would continue his legacy of Sabres nemesis in the second of a home-and-home between the two teams. With the game tied at one in overtime, Marchand was awarded a penalty shot on what can be described as a pretty cheesy call. He converted and the Bruins beat Buffalo in overtime.

That call and that game would seem to collectively get into the heads of the Sabres as they proceeded to drop the next two games by a combined 12-5 score.

The Atlantic Division-leading Florida Panthers dropped them 7-4 at home. Florida jumped out to a 4-0 lead in 20:22 before Lehner was pulled. The highlights of the game included Kane with the Eddie Shore hat trick (three fights in one game,) Reinhart with two goals and defenseman Mike Weber scoring his first of the season.

The Sabres travelled to Philadelphia to take on a team they'd beaten twice already this season. It was a clunker for Buffalo as they dropped the game 5-1. Lehner was in net again and gave up five goals on 28 shots. In two games he surrendered a total of nine goals on 40 shots and watched his goals-against average balloon from 2.12 to 2.95 and his save percentage plummet from .939 to .915.

A quick note on that game, Williamsville, NY native Justin Bailey (2013, 52nd overall) made his NHL debut at Philadelphia. According to Kevin Oklobzija of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Bailey is the fourth Buffalo-area native to play for the Sabres which includes Scott Thomas (1989, 56th,) Tim Kennedy (2005, 181st, WSH) and Patrick Kaleta (2004, 176th.)

Series Six:  2-0-0 (thus far)

As mentioned earlier, the Sabres bounced back nicely from those two embarrassing defeats by beating Montreal and Colorado. Of note, the win against the Avalanche was the Sabres first since beating them on December 4, 2005. Also of note in that game, the Sabres killed of the first-half of a double-minor high-sticking penalty to Zemgus Girgensons and were two-men short for two minutes as Josh Gorges went off for another high stick.

A win tomorrow night against the Ottawa Senators would give the team 20 of a possible 36 points during the span Bylsma mentioned, or roughly 55% of the points they'd like to get.

They'll have 24 more games remaining in the 2015-16 regular season beginning Friday in Columbus, OH for a total of 48 points on the line. The goal, according to Bylsma is to get at least 32 of those points. If they beat Ottawa and get those 32 points they'll finish the season with 86. Should they finish at a more logical pace of 55% while winning at Ottawa on Tuesday they'll add 26 points to their present 52-point total and finish with 78 on the season.

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