Saturday, October 22, 2016

Next stop, Philly. What we learned from the western Canada swing

Published by, 10-21-16

The Buffalo Sabres are off until Tuesday when they finish their four-game road trip with a stop in Philadelphia to face the Flyers. Buffalo just completed a western Canada swing where they went 1-1-1 and outscored their opponents 11-8.  Heading into Vancouver last night the Sabres special teams were on track with the powerplay clicking at a 25% rate while the penalty kill had not allowed a goal and was nine-for-nine. They left Rogers Place with a 19% conversion rate after going 0-5 on the PP vs. the Canucks while their PK dropped to 92.8% after allowing their first goal against as Vancouver went 1-5 with the man advantage.

Numbers change, obviously, throughout the course of the season as hot start cools and vise-versa. Good teams can go in a funk or get stronger. Strong teams sometimes take a while to get going while bad teams offer glimmers of hope but just don't have the horses to compete and in the end succumb to lack of talent.

The Sabres are coming off of a good season where they pulled themselves out of the basement. Last year they started out rough, steadied the ship and began to make serious progress by the end of the season. This season looked to be promising but it was undercut by two key injuries in a span of about 24 hours. Jack Eichel went down with a high-ankle sprain at practice the day before opening night and winger Evander Kane crashed heavily into the boards in the opener and cracked three ribs. Both are out long-term.

In their absence lines have been shuffled, roles have changed and through four games head coach Dan Bylsma has stabilized things and is in search of consistency. The Sabres got schooled in the opener by the Montreal Canadiens 4-2 then proceeded to blow out the Edmonton Oilers on the first game of this road trip, 6-2. They played sporadically good hockey vs. Calgary but blew three one-goal leads, including twice in the third period, then proceeded to lose in overtime 4-3.

Last night was another choppy performance "in a game not unlike a normal game against Vancouver," stated Bylsma to the gathered media post-game, "where it turns into a little bit of a special teams [game] and they get the goal in the third period that's the difference." Buffalo's top d-man Rasmus Ristolainen was in the box and the Canucks converted on their fifth and final powerplay of the game to put them up 2-0.

Rookie Nick Baptiste was credited with his first NHL goal last night as a weird pinball play that had his feed tot he crease bounce in the air, deflect off of at least two 'Nucks players and cross the line. The goal was originally waved off as the ref said Sabres forward Nicolas Deslauriers deflected it in with his body. Come to find out Deslauriers never even touched the puck and Baptiste got credit for the goal.

Congratulations, Nick.

We're four games in, the Sabres are headed to Philadelphia with a 1-2-1 record and here's some of what we can take away from the first four games:

The Lars, Moose, Gio line

The Eichel and Kane injuries forced Bylsma to juggle his lines, but late in the opener against Montreal he went back to the well and reunited center Johan Larsson with power forward Marcus Foligno and captain Brian Gionta. They were the most consistent line last season after Bylsma formed it and that has carried over to this season. They play a dogged two-way game with a pesky Larsson, rugged Foligno and the smooth, savvy vet Gionta often times puzzling the opposition. And they've been able to produce as well.

The Defense

Buffalo went into the season minus recent top-four acquisition, Dmitry Kulikov. Rookie Casey Nelson got the call in game one but has been relegated to the bench upon Kulikov's return. Of note, Nelson finished a minus-1 in his 11:47 of ice-time in Kulikov's absence and looked as if he needs to bulk up and get some seasoning in Rochester. Ristolainen is once again the key to this defense while sophomore Jake McCabe has played solid in a top-four, all-situations role. The others have done their best while getting juggled a bit, but it seems as if once Bylsma settles on his pairings outside Zach Bogosian/McCabe, there's still a little thing called chemistry the pairing will need develop.

Kyle Okposo

Last year he was with the NY Islanders but Sabres GM Tim Murray signed him long-term over the summer. Like Kulikov, Okposo also missed the season opener but certainly made his presence known in the second game at Edmonton when he had a goal and an assists. Bylsma has himself a line with Okposo, Sam Reinhart and Ryan O'Reilly that has elite hockey sense and the ability of each player to adapt and play with almost anyone. The three together didn't have the best of games after the Oilers win, but the foundation is there for this to be a pretty special line.

Ryan O'Reilly

He played through back spasms in game-1 but is in his usual spot atop the Sabres leader board with three goals and five points in four games. He also leads all NHL forwards in average time on ice at 23:13. Although this is only his second season in Buffalo, he looks like he's been a Sabre for years.

Robin Lehner

The stats aren't there, but he looks quicker and despite him cutting off his locks for a more buttoned-down look, behind that mask is a beast. He still has tons of work to do as he'll let in an easy goal now and again but his movements in net look solid. Big test for him is the shootout which by far is his weakest area.

Matt Moulson

Something happened over the summer. Whether it was a dedication to a new training regimen or having Eichel move out of his house, Moulson has looked much more engaged so far this year and he already has two goals in four games to show for it. Said Bylsma after the game last night of Moulson, "He has scored already this year but I think this is his strongest game [so far]. Their line in the first period (Moulson, Zemgus Girgensons, Tyler Ennis) was the line in the first period on the forecheck and [forcing turnovers]. Matt was physical, Matt was in and around the net. That's Matt's best game for us so far this year."

Of note:  The Moulson, Girgensons, Ennis line was the Sabres top-line in 2014-15 when the team landed at the bottom of the standings. They had some pretty good chemistry back then. Ennis lead the team in goals and points and Moulson in assists. Girgensons was second in goals and fourth in points.

Derek Grant

The July 2nd free agent signee has excelled in a defensive role for the club and looks to be a solid fourth-line addition and key PK-cog even when Eichel and Kane eventually come back. He's not perfect by any stretch of the imagination and he's still waiting for his first NHL goal some 44 games into his career, but the 26 yr. old Grant seems at ease with himself and his role while his 6'3" 212 lb. frame and mobility give him a presence on the ice.

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