Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Sabres late surge puts a scare in the Wings, but rally falls short

Reprinted with permission from

For 47 minutes the Detroit Red Wings stifled the Buffalo Sabres to the point where the Sabres were on pace to record the fewest number of shots in a game this season. Detroit held Buffalo to only 14 shots up to the point when they scored an empty-netter with exactly three minutes to go and it looked as if the Wings walk out of Joe Louis Arena with a 3-0 victory.

Before the Sabres frantic comeback, Detroit controlled the puck in all three zones and were in every gap whenever the Sabres had the puck. Buffalo couldn't get the puck deep and when they did it didn't take long for the Wings to get it back. It also didn't help that the Buffalo gave Detroit three powerplay opportunities in the first period. The Wings would eventually break through on their third opportunity with 1:28 left in the first period as rookie Dylan Larkin pounced on a big rebound.

Detroit controlled the second period as well and scored when Riley Sheahan went coast-to-coast, weaving his way through all five Sabres on the ice before rocketing a wrister far-side past goalie Buffalo goalie Chad Johnson. There would be signs of life from the Blue and Gold very late in the second period as they started to really skate with a sense of urgency but even so, the Sabres left the ice down 2-0 while being outshot by a 21-9 margin.

As Buffalo kicked up it's intensity early in the third period, minus an injured Evander Kane, a desperate Red Wings team kicked it up a notch as well. The last time Detroit missed the playoffs was 1989-90 and as unusual is it looks, right now they're on the outside looking in. Even though it's only by virtue of having the same number of points as the eighth-place Philadelphia Flyers while playing one more game they're out of the playoff picture right now and every game for them is a playoff game. When they scored into the empty net only :15 seconds after the Sabres pulled their goalie, it looked as if they were on their way to two more points in the standings.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the shut out victory. The Sabres mounted a furious comeback.

Immediately after surrendering the third goal Buffalo's Johan Larsson tied up Pavel Datsyuk on the draw at center ice and Brian Gionta got the puck back to Rasmus Ristolainen at the Sabres blueline. Gionta got the puck back on the give-and-go and headed up ice drawing two Detroit defenders to him inside the Detroit zone. Zemgus Girgensons charged to open ice in the slot and took a slick feed from Gionta before snapping a quick shot far-side off of the post to make it 3-1. It was his sixth goal of the season and the first one since January 25th, a span of 23 games.

With the momentum shifting, the Sabres pulled Johnson again and began to apply serious pressure with some great hustle and some slick puck movement.

Ryan O'Reilly, whose own goal-less streak is now at 24 games, stopped a clearing attempt in the slot and Sam Reinhart got the puck back to rookie defenseman Casey Nelson at the point. Nelson, who's shown veteran-like calm with the puck in his first two NHL games feigned a shot and sent a perfect pass to Reinhart who had drifted towards the bottom of the right faceoff circle. The former 2014 second-overall pick cranked a one-timer home to make the score 3-2.

It was Reinhart's 22nd goal of the season putting him one behind team leader and fellow second-overall pick (2015,) Jack Eichel.

For Nelson, it was his second point in his second  NHL game. Although he only played 13:51 versus Detroit, head coach Dan Bylsma had him on the powerplay for 2:10 and he never looked out of place. Despite being a 23 yr. old rookie, Nelson is learning the NHL game but he's not been overwhelmed by the pace. He's been impressive while making very sound decisions in nearly every situation. Throughout his powerplay time, he showed he was adept at deftly moving the puck with authority to the open man.

After scoring two goals in :61 seconds, the momentum was clearly in Buffalo's favor and you could sense a collective pucker in Detroit's gluteus maximus. The Sabres would apply the pressure once again as they won three of four faceoffs in the final 1:49 and cranked three shots on goal. Reinhart had a glorious chance from in tight with :34 seconds left but missed just wide and the Sabres would fall by the final of 3-2.

Those three shots on goal in the final 1:49 gave the Sabres 20 for the game, only one more than their previous low of 19, an indication of just how outmatched they were through the first 47 minutes as well as an indication of just how far they need to go to be a playoff team.

The Red Wings have made the playoffs 24 consecutive seasons and are lead by players with their names engraved on the Stanley Cup. They have always played a puck-possession game and they know when they need to kick it up a notch or two. The Sabres, for their part, had missed the playoffs the last four season and haven't won a playoff series in nine years and this is the first season that this newly rebuilt team has been together.

Buffalo fans can take heart in knowing that even though they were outclassed for nearly the entire game and didn't have the experience to shake free of the Wings, they showed plenty of gumption to at least put a scare into them. Although they had managed to pull out consecutive come-from-behind victories over Carolina and Winnipeg the previous two games, Detroit is that much better and Buffalo knows that there's some work to be done before they can run with playoff teams. Not a ton of work as they're getting better and better with every game, but enough to where they need to show more on a consistent basis before we can start thinking playoffs.

That said, it might not be too far off.

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