Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
For much of the first period of Buffalo's 3-2 shootout loss to the Minnesota Wild, Sabres were out of synch. Passes were in skates, or not even close, especially trying to break out of their own zone and they would leave the first period down 1-0. But the light would click on for them as a fortuitous high-sticking call on Nino Niederreiter put the Sabres on the powerplay for four minutes.
Based upon the last few games, drawing any kind of minor would be cause for a declining of the penalty as the Sabres powerplay has been anything but as they were 1/16 in their last five games including going 1/8 with two, two-man advantages against the Calgary Flames on Thursday. Fortunately for the Sabres, the league does not allow a team to decline the penalty and the Sabres responded.
Assistant coach Dan Lambert, who came down from the pressbox to take over for an injured Dave Barr, made a couple of adjustments to the powerplay including distributing a little bit of the talent. Rookies Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart along with defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen were on the top unit, as usual, but they were joined by Johan Larsson and Cal O'Reilly and it paid dividends.
The Sabres scored their first goal of the game with under a minute ticked off in the first minor as Larsson jumped on a juicy rebound in the blue paint. Larsson got the play started by feeding Eichel from behind the net, Eichel got it to Ristolainen drifting in from the point and Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk was forced into a toe save that went to Larsson.
Lambert's other unit began the second-half of the double minor. Brian Gionta, Evander Kane, Matt Moulson, Mark Pysyk and Zach Bogosian made up the second powerplay unit and did some good work including a little after the whistle action when some Wild players took exception to the feistiness of Gionta's play.
After yeoman's work the first unit came back on and scored their second powerplay goal. Nearly every player on the unit was in on the goal as the puck went from Ristolainen to O'Reilly to Reinhart who was to Dubnyk's right and cross-ice to Eichel who waited for the Wild to commit then proceeded to wrist it home.
The powerplay hasn't looked this good in months and Lambert should be commended for both personnel and strategy. Complaints from Sabreland have been coming from all over as there's a perception that Eichel's being misused, especially on the powerplay. Lambert addressed how he sees Eichel fitting in on the powereplay to Sabres.com's Brian Duff.
"You can use him anywhere. You can use him everywhere," Lambert told Duff.
Eichel told Duff he was in tune to what Lambert was thinking. "We talked about little things I could do on that strong side," said Eichel of his conversation with Lambert. "With Ristolainen up top, maybe I could draw a guy down low and then feed him up top for a one-timer."
Sure enough, it actually worked.
Another thing that's working is the line of Eichel, Reinhart and Kane. Although they haven't hit the scoresheet with the consistency or frequency befitting a highly skilled line, they're getting their chances. Eichel and Kane just missed a couple of times and you can see chemistry building. Kane's been playing so well, so differently than the way he has been that it caused rink-side analyst Rob Ray to say, "You're now seeing Kane pass the puck more than ever this season," at one point in the third period.
But, regardless of all the positives Buffalo still came out on the wrong end of the scoreboard. They took a penalty late in the third up one goal and the Wild converted. It was the 12th straight road game that Minnesota scored a powerplay goal and had the Sabres not gone to the box, they might have won this in regulation.
Three-on-three was a hoot and I believe it's one of the best things the NHL has come up with in a long time. Buffalo trotted out Eichel and Kane for plenty of ice time with Kane getting a breakaway. Eichel almost had one but Mark Pysyk was slow to react and a frustrated Eichel was caught off sides.
The shootout looks to be Buffalo's Achilles heel moving forward. Eichel scored the only goal in session while goalie Robin Lehner gave up two. Despite the outcome, head coach Dan Bylsma might want to consider using Eichel, Kane and Reinhart almost exclusively to start the shootout. They looked at home in the spotlight. Marcus Foligno? Meh. Not so much.
Former Sabres captain Jason Pominville scored the game winner in the fourth round for the victory. And if Buffalo was going to lose, might as well be Pominville, a former player who's still well liked in Buffalo.