Saturday, November 12, 2016

Sabres and Devils begin a back-to-back at Buffalo tonight

Published by 11-11-2016

Odds are that the back-to-back, home-and-home games between the Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils beginning tonight could be a snooze-fest. The Devils are traditionally know for playing a tight game while the Sabres, have been without Jack Eichel all season and were missing Evander Kane for 12 games until he returned to action against the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday. Those two top-six forwards combined for 43 goals last season so a big chunk of the Sabres offense has been on the sidelines.

Having Kane come back on Wednesday against Ottawa was a plus for Buffalo but that was countered when top center Ryan O'Reilly was felled by an upper body injury that kept him out of the game. O'Reilly lead the Sabres in scoring last season with 60 points (21+39) and is in a three-way tie for the team-lead this season with eight points. Head coach Dan Bylsma has O'Reilly listed as day-to-day.

The Sabres were also without Tyler Ennis against the Senators and will be without him for weeks after he underwent groin surgery yesterday. Ennis has had a tough go of it the last two seasons having played in only 35 games total. He suffered two concussions last season limiting him to 12 games.

All of those injuries, however, have opened up opportunities for others.

Center Derek Grant found himself on the top-line between Kane and Buffalo's leading goal-scorer, Kyle Okposo, at times vs. Ottawa on Wednesday. Bylsma told the gathered media after yesterday's skate that he had Grant up there for his faceoff prowess. Grant ranks second on the team (100 faceoffs or more) behind O'Reilly with a 59.5% win percentage.

Grant has been carving out a spot on the roster as a defensive specialist for the club. He is second on the club amongst forwards in penalty kill TOI with 2:25/game while centering the fourth line. The role he's playing is what 35 yr. old David Legwand played last season. The Sabres had the ninth best kill last season at 82.6% and while this year so far they rank 19th at 80.4%.

Because of his defense, the 26 yr. old Grant has been garnering a lot of attention from the Sabres despite having only one point so far this season. It was a secondary assist after winning a faceoff (of course) against Ottawa on Wednesday. He has yet to score an NHL goal in 53 games.

With the injuries to regulars Nick Baptiste is getting an extended look in Buffalo. Baptiste joined the Sabres for an early Western Canada swing and in two games recorded his first NHL goal. The 21 yr. old was sent back down to Rochester but was recalled late last month. He remained solid in his fourth line role despite not hitting the score sheet but broke through with his second goal of the season against Ottawa. In eight games with Buffalo the speedy winger has two goals and has a plus-two plus/minus rating.

Winger Cole Schneider finally got the call to Buffalo after leading the AHL with 15 points in 12 games. He registered his first NHL point vs. Ottawa when he jumped on the faceoff win by Grant and tapped it to Batiste who sent a quick shot home to light the lamp. It was only the third NHL game for  the 26 yr. old.

To say the Sabres are having trouble scoring is an understatement. Their only goal against the Senators in the 2-1 shootout loss to the Senators came from the fourth line. Okposo has five goals while O'Reilly has four. Matt Moulson also has four but none have been at even strength and he hasn't scored a goal in eight games. With Kane returning to the lineup Bylsma dropped Moulson to the third line last game.

In all the Sabres are averaging only two goals per game tying them for 28th in the league. No doubt injuries have played a big part but they've also been unable to finish. Brian Gionta, who has three goals and Zemgus Girgensons (one goal) both had opportunities in overtime against Ottawa but were victims of the iron.

Without the goal scoring the Sabres have been forced to focus a lot more on defense in an effort to win, something the New Jersey Devils have done for decades. When they meet tonight it will be a game featuring teams with the fourth and fifth best goals against in the league. The Sabres have allowed an average of 2.23 goals/game while the Devils chime in at 2.25. New Jersey, by the way, is averaging 2.33 goals per game this season ranking them 25th in the league.

Traditionally when these two meet, one should expect a match akin to two heavyweight wrestlers going at it. The two sides plod along with not much happening until one side makes a mistake. In the nine meetings between the two teams over the past three years they scored a combined 31 goals or 3.44 goals/game. During that stretch the Sabres are 3-4-2 against New Jersey scoring a grand total of 14 goals and three players who are out of tonight's game--Eichel, Ennis and O'Reilly--scored eight of those.

In the last two seasons the Sabres have managed only three points against New Jersey--a win late last season and  shootout loss midway through the 2014-15 season. During that six-game stretch they're 1-4-1 against the Devils. With the entertainment value down, fans should expect a battle of attrition for two points in the standings. The Devils have 15 points (6-3-3) in 12 games placing them fourth in a tough Metropolitan Division while Buffalo has accumulated 13 points in 13 games placing them in a tie with Toronto for seventh place in the Atlantic Division.

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