We know that the Buffalo Sabres are without forwards Jack Eichel and Evander Kane and perhaps one of them could have solved the puzzle that was Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen last night. Andersen, whom the Leafs traded a 2016 first round pick for (30th-overall) and a 2017 second-rounder for, was stout in net last night as
The 6’4” 225 lb. Andersen robbed three different Sabres players last night. He kicked his left leg at the goal line to foil Zemgus Girgensons in the first period, played Superman as he dove across the crease to knick a Marcus Foligno shot that was headed into an wide open net in the second, then flashed some leather on a second rebound that Tyler Ennis sent top-shelf in the third.
That was what the Sabres were up against last night.
Buffalo could have used Eichel and Kane last night, especially the former. Often times the skill-level of a talent of Eichel can get one past a tough goalie. That's what the great ones do and the 19 yr. old Eichel has shown the capacity approach that level. The penchant for scoring that big goal against a brick wall dressed up as a goalie has been missing in Buffalo since Daniel Briere and Chris Drury left the Sabres in 2007 and Eichel seems to be in that mold.
The system-approach works well too and Buffalo head coach Dan Bylsma seems to have all the forwards on the same page. Last night he pointed out post-game to the gathered media that the Sabres pumped 70 shots at the Toronto net, their "most attempts by a mile this year."
Bylsma has had one line clicking for nearly the entire season so far. Johan Larsson has been centering Foligno and Brian Gionta. Foligno scored the Sabres lone goal last night after Larsson got a stick on the puck headed towards the net. The deflection went to Foligno who put it away. The trio was the first line to click under Bylsma's system as they began rolling late last season.
The rest of the forward group has lines consisting mainly of pairs joined by a third. Ryan O'Reilly and Kyle Okposo are a top-line pairing who've been joined by Matt Moulson for the majority of the young season. On the fourth line, Derek Grant had been paired with Nicolas Delsauriers until the latter went down with an injury. The third line created by Bylsma has Sam Reinhart centering Girgensons and Ennis and after a couple of games getting a feel for each other the trio has really begun to click.
When it comes to the system Bylsma employs, perhaps the play of Girgensons might be the litmus test as to how well it's taken hold. Last year the two-way forward and the first-year coach had trouble getting on the same page. At one point early in the season Girgensons and Bylsma spent an inordinate amount of time talking things over at practice.
It's always taken Girgensons a while to fully get into the flow after being placed in a new/different situation. As the youngest player in the AHL his first pro season it took most of the season for him to get a feel for how the game is played and where he fits in. Come playoff time he scored three goals in three games after scoring only six during the regular season.
Girgensons did the same thing at the NHL level. His first season he scored seven goals and 18 points in 71 games on a team that was going through earth-moving changes then followed that up with 15 goals and 30 points in 61 games when things stabilized. The following season represented a third coach in three years and he struggled mightily under Bylsma's new system. But as of late he hasn't been thinking as much and he's been able to use his speed and puck control along the boards to get into the offensive flow.
For two games running the Reinhart/Ennis/Girgensons line has pretty much controlled the puck in the offensive zone. Whether or not they can finally break through with some points remains to be seen, but they're busting their asses to create opportunities and eventually they'll be able to break through.
Regardless of the loss last night, the Sabres are playing real well at this point. No doubt they miss Eichel and Kane up front but the forward group Bylsma is icing right now is locked in. It's just a matter of continuing to do what they've been doing over the past four games, where if you take out the acrobatics of Andersen, the Sabres would be riding a four-game win streak in stead of being 3-1.
The injury to second-pairing defenseman Zach Bogosian had Bylsma doing some juggling on the back end. Inserted into the lineup was rookie Casey Nelson and he was paired with Dmitry Kulikov in Bogosian's absence. Bylsma made a switch later in the game last night moving Kulikov up to the top pair with Rasmus Ristolainen while Josh Gorges dropped down with Nelson.
Kulikov had a rather short camp in his first season with the Sabres as he spent most of it playing for Team Russia in the World Cup of Hockey. He then suffered a tail-bone injury in a preaseason game against Toronto and subsequently missed the season opener. Bylsma has been trying to ramp up Kulikov's ice time for a number of games now and it seems as if his d-man is finally up to speed. Kulikov and Ristolainen looked pretty strong together and having a steady hand for a d-partner allowed Ristolainen more freedom to move the puck up ice, which he did rather nicely last night.
Having a vet like Gorges as his defense partner seemed to calm down Nelson. The rookie had struggled mightily in his two-plus games prior and he coughed up on two egregious turnovers in the Toronto game. Nelson is a heady player known for steady play and getting pucks through traffic from the point. None of that was happening, at least on a consistent basis, until late last game with Gorges by his side.
The third pairing is second-year d-man Jake McCabe with Cody Franson. McCabe, despite being on Franson Island, continues to display his puck-moving ability and he hasn't forgotten how to stand up a player at the blueline either as Leafs forward Tyler Bozak will attest.
Finally, kudos to Sabres goalie Robin Lehner who was the victim of two egregious turnovers by Larsson and Girgensons as well as shoddy team defense in his zone. Lehner has allowed four goals on 95 shots (.958 Sv%) over his past three games but fell to 2-1 after the loss last night.