Monday, October 31, 2016

Analytics, schmanalytics...

...sometimes you just gotta will your way to a win.

Published by, 10-30-2016

It wasn’t a thing of beauty, but it would have made former head coach Ted Nolan proud. Nolan, who twice had stints asd the Buffalo Sabres head coach was never aan X’s and O’s kinda guy, he just got his players to believe that if you worked hard and kept at it things would eventually go your way. Often times he was right, then again, he wasn’t right enough to remain coaching in an ever-evolving NHL. Yesterday was one of those games for the Sabres where it went right as they came away with a hard-earned, 3-0 shutout win against the Florida Panthers at KeyBank Center.
For the time being, possession is the trend d’jour in the NHL and the Panthers went heavily in that direction this off season. After making the playoffs for the first time in three years with a good, young mix of talented young players that look to be on the rise, management made the decision to upgrade the blueline with analytics darlings like former NY Ranger Keith Yandel and former Sabre, Mark Pysyk. In the process they traded away gritty, Nolanesque type d-men in Eric Gudbranson, who went to Vancouver and Dmitry Kulikov, who was part of the Pysyk trade.

For Sabres fans it was reminiscent of what transpired after the 2005-06 season. After making a surprise run to the Eastern Conference Finals in '06, Buffalo lost some of it's grit, heart and soul when defenseman Jay McKee went for a big contract in St. Louis and the team, because of cap constraints, opted for a soft, but skilled Ales Kotalik over the sand-paper JP Dumont. Ultimately they made it back to the ECF, but were handled easily by a big and rather chippy Ottawa Senators club.
Analytics has it's place in the world, yet because the movement is still in it's infancy, just how much space it takes up is yet to be determined. In yesterday's Buffalo/Florida game, however, numbers didn't seem to matter too much as the puck was bouncing and taking weird turns. Whether it was the ice, divine intervention or the remnants of Nolan's old-school hockey approach etched in the boards at KeyBank Center, the Sabres were able to do what the Panthers could not--score.
Johan Larsson's goal would have made him the poster-boy for Nolan's "just work hard" philosophy as he and his linemates Marcus Foligno and Brian Gionta tortured the Cats on the forecheck. And you want to talk about puck-possession? Foligno did so on his knees along the boards, head up and in full control before skipping a pass to Gionta. That sequence ended up with a weird bounce and a shot that nicked the post before Florida sent the puck into the Buffalo zone.
The Larsson line retrieved the puck and headed back up ice again full bore and continued their dogged work in the corner. Foligno got the puck to Gionta below the red line and Gionta, with a Florida player on his back, sent it to Larsson who found open space in the slot. Larsson snapped one top-shelf past Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo and it was 1-0 Buffalo. Like Sabres analyst Rob Ray said, it was a goal that was desperately needed by the Sabres.
By no means was it a perfect game by the Buffalo as the Panthers had pretty good scoring opportunities throughout the game. But when they added a second goal by Kyle Okposo on the powerplay, the Sabres made smart plays that kept Florida's opportunities to a minimum. Props to defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen on the Okposo goal as he beat a Florida player to the puck headed up the wall and sent it to the net. Okposo and Sam Reinhart were right around the blue paint when Ristolainen lofted the puck to the net. Reinhart got a piece of it and it fell right to Okposo who got it past Luongo.
Buffalo's final goal also came on the powerplay as Reinhart banked one in off of the skate of Pysyk from below the red line. Reinhart was making the simple play by sending it out to the slot and as Pysyk went to block the pass he angled his skate perfectly to deflect it past a surprised Luongo. Things like that happen and Pysyk just happen to be on the wrong end of that one.
The Sabres are in Winnipeg today for the second in a set of a back-to-back games with the Jets. The last time Buffalo was in Winnipeg they came away with a 4-2 win. Reinhart got his first-ever NHL hat trick as former Jet Evander Kane unselfishly sent him the puck for the empty-netter to finish the scoring.
Some interesting notes from Sabres PR:
--The Sabres and the Buffalo Bills are playing on the same day for the second of three times this season after doing so three times last season. The other two dates are Oct. 16 and Nov. 7.
--The teams have played on the same date 213 times, with both teams winning their respective games on 48 of those days.
--The Sabres are 114-66-33 when playing on a Bills game day and the Bills are 91-120-2 on those dates.
--If both teams win today, the Sabres and Bills will both have won on the same date twice in the same season for the first time since Nov. 5 and Nov. 26, 2006.
The Bills host Tom Brady and the New England Patriots today.
One thing we'll keep an eye on today is the status of forward Nicolas Deslauriers who was hit in the knee late in the game. After skating gingerly to the bench he sat as the final minute-plus ran off and was on the ice as the Sabres saluted the hometown fans. No word on who they'll call up but Cole Schneider has been on fire for Rochester.
Last night the Amerks beat St. John's 5-2 for a split and Schneider had a goal and an assist plus five shots. The 6'1" 199 lb. Williamsville, NY native leads the Amerks in scoring with 10 points (4+6) in seven games and is also a team-leading plus-three. The 26 yr. old Schneider has only two NHL games to his name, both of them coming last season. 
Finally, congrats to Buffalo goalie Anders Nilsson who got the shutout last night. It was his first as a Sabre and the second of his career. Nilsson filled in for starter Robin Lehner for the last three games and the win yesterday puts him at 1-1-1 with Buffalo. The 33-save shutout against the Cats dropped his GAA from 2.90 to 1.96 while his save percentage went up from .903 to .937. Lehner, who was given the extra day to recover from illness should be back in net for Buffalo today. 

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