Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Poking a wobbly bear--Buffalo aims to keep Boston off-kilter.

Published by, 11-7-2016

Although the Boston Bruins have not lost two top-six players long-term like the Buffalo Sabres have, their wobbly start can be attributed to a line-up bitten hard by the injury bug. The B's lost forward Frank Vatrano three months prior to opening night, they lost NHL defensemen Adam McQuaid and Kevan Millar for a stint and also started out the season with Patrice Bergeron on the shelf for the first three games. David Backes, who was signed away from the St. Louis Blues in the off season, returned to the ice on Saturday after undergoing elbow surgery to remove a bursa sac on October 24. The Bruins went 3-3 in his absence.

The injuries have left the Bruins searching for chemistry amongst their forward group. Outside of a stout and dangerous line that has Bergeron (8 games, 2 goals, 2 assists) centering Sabres nemesis Brad Marchand (11, 4+9) and David Pastrnak (9, 7+3) the Spoked-B has been off-kilter up front. It's a situation that's also sent their powerplay to 29th in the league converting on only 7.9% of their opportunities. To make matters worse, the B's gave up consecutive short-handed goals to turn a tie game into a 3-1 deficit. Boston ended up losing to the NY Rangers 5-2 Saturday night..

Needless to say they won't be in a very good mood tonight when the Sabres come to town. Not only do the Bruins have that foul taste in their mouth from that loss, they have a pretty hectic schedule ahead. At the conclusion of tonight's game they head to Montreal to take on the division leading Canadiens and after a day off will conclude a six game in nine night stretch playing three games in four night that concludes with back-to-back road games at Arizona and Colorado.

The Buffalo Sabres have been on a bit of a roll lately despite and seemingly have finally adjusted to life without Jack Eichel and Evander Kane. After struggling through a rough start the Sabres have won four of five that could easily have been a five-game winning streak were it not for the other-worldly goaltending of Toronto goalie Frederik Andersen. Buffalo pumped 70 shots at the Maple Leafs net with 43 of them landing on goal. Andersen stopped all but one, including three highlight reel-type saves, in a 2-1 Leafs win.

Rather than feel sorry for themselves, the Sabres headed up to Ottawa in an emotional Hockey Fights Cancer game that featured another Anderson, Craig, in net as his wife was undergoing cancer treatment. The Senators were on fire having given up only one goal in the previous three games--all played just after the announcement that Nicholle Anderson had an unknown form of cancer--and went into the third period with a 1-0 lead. But Buffalo went hard at Ottawa and came away with the 2-1 victory on goals by Kyle Okposo and Sam Reinhart and a 32-save performance by goalie Robin Lehner.

Lehner was up to the task throwing in some highlight-reel save himself which included a full-stretch stick save on the Sens Jean-Gabriel Pageau that is already being considered for save of the year. He also kicked out the left leg to stone Ottawa's Mark Stone who had slipped behind the defense on a 2-on-1.

Although Lehner's saves were incredible and also showcased his off season work on speed and flexibility in the crease, the fact that his heroics were needed on many occasions exposed a weakened Sabres defense-corps. Buffalo has been without top-four defenseman Zach Bogosian the last two games and his absence has left some kinks in the armor and had Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma juggling his pairings to provide a veteran presence on each pair. It didn't work to perfection against Ottawa, but with the stellar play of Lehner, it worked just enough.

For as bad and/or inconsistent as the Sabres have been the past two seasons, they've managed to hold their own against Boston. Buffalo 3-3-4 against the Bruins in their last 10 meetings, 4-3-3 at TD Garden. The Sabres have played exceptional hockey on the road thus far in this young season going 4-1-2 and have outscored their opponents by a combined 12-14. Of note, Buffalo blew third period leads twice before losing in the extra sessions.

The Defense-corps

With Bogosian sidelined for the last two games, Bylsma has kept his top-pairing of Rasmus Ristolainen and Josh Gorges intact while moving defenseman Jake McCabe to the third-pairing with Cody Franson. In the middle is rookie Casey Nelson with Dmitry Kulikov.

Those pairings, however, have changed a bit in-game as Bylsma has used Kulikov on the top pair with Ristolainen in a showcase of what eventually might be the Sabres shutdown pairing somewhere down the road. Both Ristolainen and Kulikov are big, mobile defensemen who are pretty sound in their own end and Bylsma has slowly been increasing Kulikov's as the d-man's comfort-level increases. Kulikov missed the most of training camp and the season opener because of the World Cup of Hockey and due to injury.

Regardless of who's paired with whom, the defense-corps needs to break through with a goal. In 11 games thus far Buffalo's defensemen have registered zero goals and one of the reasons their goalless is that their shots just aren't getting through on a consistent basis. McCabe managed to get one through against Ottawa and it bounced off of Okposo to tie the score. It was McCabe's third assists of the year. Only he, Ristolainen (8 assists) and Kulikov (3) have hit the score sheet for the Sabres so far this year.

Speaking of McCabe, it would seem as if the drop down has done little to affect his confidence. He's an extremely mobile d-man who's quick to the puck and relishes the opportunity to stand a player up at the line. McCabe is still young (22 yrs. old) and is in only his second NHL season so he'll have his fair share of mistakes, but as has been mentioned often times, he recovers from them rather quickly. He's always had a penchant for getting a shot through and his play from the point, which includes pinching in, should have gained the attention of his coaches.

William Carrier

Carrier made his NHL debut against the Ottawa Senators on Saturday and after getting acclimated to the NHL game showcased the speed and tenacity that defines his heavy, north/south game. After he began with fourth-line duties, Bylsma gave Carrier an opportunity to play on a line with Reinhart and Zemgus Girgensons and it paid dividends on their very first shift together. Although he didn't hit the score sheet on Rienhart's game-winner against Ottawa, Carrier found Ristolainen in open ice in the slot after beating a check on the boards. Risto got the puck to Girgensons who shot it on net where Reinhart was there to eventually poke it home.

With Tyler Ennis having a maintenance day at yesterday's practice Bylsma, according to Chris Ryndak of, had Carrier skating with Reinhart and Girgensons.

The Atlantic Division

There's quite the jumbling of teams behind the division-leading Montreal Canadiens who are 10-1-1. Most had Montreal in the mix for the division title this season along with 2016 Eastern Conference finalist, the Tampa Bay Lightning (who are second right  now) and odds are that when all's said and done, both of those teams will occupy the top two spots in the division.

However, what's taking place beneath that probability is rather interesting as there are six very different teams who cold all have a shot at third in the division. As of today just three points separates third place Ottawa from eighth place Florida and all are very different teams on differing timelines.

Ottawa is a young team who kicked off the season with five new faces and first-year head coach, Guy Boucher. The young, upstart Maple Leafs, who are in the first year of their build, are one point behind the Senators tied with an aging Detroit team still trying to muddle it's way through the losses of head coach Mike Babcock prior to last season and Pavel Datsyuk who no longer plays in North America. Buffalo, who's in year-two of their build is tied with Boston a team that's retooling on the fly while last place Florida is off to a tough start after making the playoffs well into their rebuild.

Outside of Montreal and Tampa Bay the rest of the division, and especially a coveted third place spot, is up for grabs. It would seem as if the Atlantic Division is weaker than the Metropolitan meaning there's a good possibility that both wild card teams will come from the Metro.

In the off season Bylsma mentioned the he had a 95-point team, which if true, should make the playoffs. As if right now, at 5-4-2 the Sabres are on pace for an 89-point season, which wouldn't be good enough. Although they're well ahead of last year's 4-7-0 team through 11 games, points are crucial. For instance, they blew two third period leads against Calgary and Philadelphia. Just gaining that one point would have them on a 96-point pace at this juncture.

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