Monday, November 21, 2016

Hallelujah, they scored 2 goals (kind of)...and won too

Published by, 11-20-2016

Buffalo Sabres forward Cal O'Reilly's stat line for last night's game reads like this:  0 goals, 0 assists 0 points, but the final score reads Buffalo-2, Pittsburgh-1, SO. O'Reilly scored the game-winning goal for the Sabres last night in their victory but the only player to score in regulation or overtime for Buffalo was William Carrier, so technically the Sabres scored only one goal last night for the third time in a row and the sixth time in seven games. Add in the game where they were shut out against Boston and the Sabres have scored one goal or less in seven of eight games.

That's a bit disconcerting as Buffalo is averaging a league-low 1.78 goals per game, but right now, who cares? At this point in time, the Sabres got themselves a desperately needed win by beating the defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins. For the first time in the last nine games, no less. It was a huge win for a bedraggled group of Sabres that featured no less than five players who began the season with the Rochester Americans in the AHL and in the process they snapped a six-game winless streak.

Also included in the happiness in and around KeyBank Center were a couple of firsts.

Carrier scored his first NHL goal on a nice play where he found open space after a Pittsburgh turnover in their own end. Buffalo defenseman Taylor Fedun, appearing in his second game of the year for the Sabres, sent a shot from the point that Carrier deftly redirected past Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to put the Sabres up 1-0 just over eight minutes into the game.

Both players began the year in Rochester and Carrier told the gathered media that the redirect was something they've worked on at practice. "Me and 'Feds' have been practicing that play in Rochester and we've been practicing it at every morning skate," he said. "It's pretty nice to get that one."

Pretty nice for Sabres bench boss Dan Bylsma to get that win as well. It was the first time in four tries he was able to beat his former team and although he probably was ecstatic he finally beat the team he lead to the 2009 Cup, for him it was simply an important win for the team right now. "It doesn't really matter who it's against," he told the media post-game, "[It was] a win we desperately needed."

Perhaps the team has finally figured out a way to grind out a low-scoring win or perhaps the Sabres finally have the personnel to play and win such a game. Buffalo has been without their top two centers in Jack Eichel and Ryan O'Reilly, two cornerstones for the fast, up-tempo style of play Bylsma would prefer to play. Buffalo is also without two top-four d-men in Zach Bogosian and Dmitry Kulikov both of whom can get up-ice and move the puck well.

With four of their top-10 skaters out of the lineup, Bylsma's been trying to grind out wins. However, he's been trying to do it with young players like Nicolas Baptiste and Justin Bailey plus other, somewhat older players with very little NHL experience like Casey Nelson and Evan Rodrigues. That didn't work out very well as prior to the game last night, the Sabres had lost three in a row by a combined 12-4 score with each opponent scoring four goals against the Sabres.

The parade of call-ups continued on Saturday with 30 yr. old Cal O'Reilly and 28 yr. old Cole Schneider made the trip to Buffalo. O'Reilly has 134 NHL games to his credit and played over 500 total games at the AHL-level. Although Schneider has played in only five NHL games, he's played in over 300 in the AHL.

That duo joined  defensemen Fedun with over 300 pro games (14 in the NHL) and Justin Falk who's played in 176 NHL games plus over 300 AHL games. Both of those players are also 28 yrs. old.

Although none of those four should be considered upper-level NHL'ers, there's a lot to be said for grinding out a hockey career over the course of many years in the AHL. Individually they may only be able to have an impact on a very limited basis, but as a group, they managed to add some stability to the Buffalo lineup, giving Bylsma the low-scoring, grind-it-out game he's been forced to play.

Which was the plan going into the game against the high-flying Penguins.

"The game-plane was keeping the game 0-0, trying to win it 1-0," said Carrier. "They've got a lot of skill over there so we were just trying to keep it 0-0."

"It's kinda how we want to play the game," said Bylsma, "We wanted to play a tight game and we wanted to be comfortable in a tight game.

Keeping it a tight game would have been impossible without the stellar netminding of backup goalie Anders Nilsson. The game's first star stopped 46 of the 47 shots the Penguins threw at him in regulation and overtime plus stopped Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang in the shootout. The Penguins didn't score until the third period and it was the first time since November 14, 2003 that Pittsburgh went into the third period without a goal against the Sabres according to ROOT sports.

Nilsson increased his record in Buffalo to 2-1-2 with a 1.74 GAA and .951 Sv%.

This was a great, hard-fought win for the Sabres but all will be for naught if they cannot keep it going. They finish their four-game home-stand with visits from the Calgary Flames on Monday and the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday. The walking wounded should start returning in the latter part of this month with an expected return by Eichel before December 1.

That said, the Sabres can't rest thinking that Eichel will float down from heaven to relieve them and their fans from all the suffering that's been going on so far this season. They haven't even hit the quarter-pole yet and if they want any chance of making a run at the playoffs it needs to begin now by consistently winning without Eichel and Ryan O'Reilly and Zach Bogosian and Dmitry Kulikov.

Last night was a good start and winning with only one regulation goal is quite the feat. But methinks they'll need to score a little bit more if they want to head into Thanksgiving on a roll.

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