Saturday, December 31, 2016

Not Ready

Published by, 12-30-2016

Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma is known for chopping up the season in three-game increments as a way of lookin somewhat into the future while keeping the present in focus. Buffalo came out of the Christmas break with 48 games left in the season needing to make up some ground. If a goal of winning two out of three games came to fruition, which was the stated goal around this time last season, the 64 points that they would gain added to the 34 they already had should be enough to get them into the playoffs.

That's the theory.

In practice the first three-game segment started out well with a 4-3 win at Detroit on Tuesday. Buffalo and Detroit were both coming out of the break and were sloppy at times. The Sabres took advantage of the sloppiness jumping out to a lead, the Red Wings eventually tied it but Buffalo came out on top. But last night they couldn't pull off a win against the Boston Bruins whom the Sabres are chasing.

The first period last night was about as good a 20 minutes as we’ve seen the Sabres play all season. From the early tic-tac-toe of Buffalo’s first goal 1:30 into the game to a powerplay tally with 1:45 left in the period, and all points in between, they played like their pants were on fire. It even included Robin Lehner, he of the abysmal shootout record, stopping a shorthanded breakaway and when they left the ice for the first intermission KeyBank Center was buzzing.

In the second period Buffalo came out looking flat and a little confused and it didn’t take long for Boston to do what they do best—get under the skin of an opponent. With the Sabres struggling in their own zone a simple shoving match lead to a faceoff win for the Bruins, a blown coverage for Buffalo and just like that the score was 2-1.

Analyst Rob Ray warned us after the goal about the Sabres falling into a classic Bruins trap. The pesky B’s get under the skin of their opponent and the focus shifts from hockey to hostility. Sure enough, like a moth to the flame, that’s where Buffalo found themselves as they forgot what made them so successful in the first period. Although the Sabres regrouped and actually had numerous opportunities to regain their two-goal lead, the Bruins slowly and evenly turned the game in their favor.

Boston stifled the Sabres often and like a horsefly biting you then escaping, they nudged, hacked, face-washed and needled Buffalo off their game. The Sabres had their opportunities, but B's backstop Tuukka Rask turned back every one of them. Boston scored the game-tying goal late in the third period, then added an empty netter and left the KeyBank Center ice with a 4-2 victory to widen their gap over Buffalo to eight points.
It has a huge loss for Buffalo as they're trying to make up ground in the division and simply put, they were not ready for a contest that had the feel of a playoff game.
The Sabres did dominate the first period playing their finest period of the season, but once again, regulation is three periods and 60 total minutes. They should know what Bruins hockey is and they should have known what to expect for the second period as it's a formula Boston has been using for decades. Sabres winger Kyle Okposo knew it. He told the gathered media post-game that "when you have a period like we did, you have to expect them to come out and push."
Okposo had a goal last night and numerous opportunities that were foiled by Rask. He's been around the league a pretty long time and he knew that the Sabres blew this one. "We've got to be able to handle momentum," he said. "We played well enough to win that game tonight. We did a lot of good things, we just have to make sure we're doing things to stop their momentum. We just gave them too much of it in the second [period]."
This is an extremely difficult time for the Sabres right now. It's like being a teenager where you're  going through the angst of growing pains while life thrusts your eyes wide open to the world around you. If there is one thing we should have all taken away from last night's game in that the team should know who they are. This needs to be said because there were two different personalities on display this season--the lockdown defensive game without Eichel and the aggressive, up-tempo game with him on the ice, which was on display in the first period and at other times since his return.
It's a fun game to play, a fun game to watch and as has been shown for brief stretches this season, it can produce a devastating, blitzkrieg of an attack.
That's all well and good but a thousand little adjustments need to be made in game by the players and especially the coaching staff. The Sabres should have known how the Bruins would be coming out in the second period. If it was a matter of execution, as intimated by Okposo, then its on them. If it was a poor game-plan, then it's on the coaching staff.
One way or the other, the Sabres failed a big test last night. Is it cause to stick a fork in their playoff hopes a mere 35 games into the season? There's a pretty good case to be made. Or is it more a lessons learned about momentum, game-management continued self-evaluation?
Who knows with a teenager? But one thing we did find last night is that they weren't ready for a playoff-like game against a division rival and if you want to make the dance, games like these are a must.
Redemption lies in Boston at 1 p.m. tomorrow as the Sabres visit the Bruins for their fourth and final meeting of the season. Boston has won all three games in regulation against Buffalo by a combined 10-3 score including one shutout.
The Sabres have recalled winger Justin Bailey from Rochester presumably to take the place of an injured William Carrier who split his hand open while in a fight with Bruins d-man Adam McQuaid last night. Bailey has been hot lately for the Amerks scoring five goals during a four-game goal-streak.
The 6'3" 210 lb. Williamsville native has 13 goals and nine assists in 31 games for Rochester this season and this will be his second stint with the Sabres. Through two games this season and 10 NHL games total, Bailey has yet to hit the scoresheet, but in his eight games last season he did everything a powerforward should except get on the board.
Bailey's speed will be a welcome addition to the Sabres at this juncture if they want to keep playing an up-tempo game as the Buffalo could use a bit more of it.
With all due respect to what they're trying to do in Rochester, there is room on the Sabres roster for the additions of Bailey and Nick Baptiste, two young players with size, speed and scoring ability. There's even room for a journeyman forward like Cal O'Reilly or a puck-moving, bottom-pairing d-man like Taylor Fedun if Bylsma and GM Tim Murray want to shake things up a bit.
Buffalo is not at the point of no return this season, but with each loss it gets closer and there are some players in Rochester who might be better equipped to jibe with what the Sabres are trying to do then the ones they have on the roster already. 

Friday, December 30, 2016

It's time for Jack Eichel to take over his team

Published by, 12-29-2016

Former Sabres goalie and present hockey analyst Martin Biron was on WGR this morning talking about how he feels the Sabres can win games without injured top-six forward Ryan O'Reilly in the lineup. Biron said that the team can't consistently win 4-3 games like they did against the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday night but instead he said that Buffalo will need to try and win games of the 2-1 variety. After watching the team slog through November scoring only 1.87 goals/game while trying to play that way only to come out with a 5-6-3 record, that doesn't seem like such a good approach.

One can understand why Sabres bench boss Dan Bylsma went into lockdown mode back in November as he was without franchise center Jack Eichel. Without him and his speed in the lineup the Sabres became as slower team and without his skill the ice became smaller. And it wasn’t only him that was out of the lineup. Say what you will about defensemen Zach Bogosian and Dmitry Kulikov, but those two big guys can get up ice and both missed significant time in November. Add in Evander Kane who's recovery from broken ribs stretched into last month while took even more time to get up to game speed and you can see why the Sabres were playing mid-90’s style hockey.
But that's done. Over. Jack's back. And it's time for him to take over his team.
The good book says, "you don't light a lamp and put it under a basket," and with Eichel you don't smother a burning flame. You let both shine. Eichel was the player that Sabreland "suffered" for. At the bottom of the abyss there were two players who'd make all the boos worthwhile. Connor McDavid was one and the other was Eichel. McDavid took over the Edmonton Oilers from Day-1. With Eichel it's taken a bit longer, but he has those same traits.
I get what GM Tim Murray did when he brought in a veteran leader like O'Reilly who's all around skill and top-notch two-way game cover everything Sabres both on and off he ice. O'Reilly is a consummate professional who carried the team on his back for much of last season and would have done so this year were it not for spasms that have limited his effectiveness early in the season forcing him to the sidelines for some games. He wants to carry a heavy load and in his mind he may even need to carry that load, but playing a heavy two-way game for the amount of minutes per game he plays is the recipe for a shortened, injury filled career.
His and Eichel's games are different. O'Reilly will never be "Jack Flash" and Eichel will never wholly be that two-way "worker-bee." That being said, O'Reilly has speed and shows flashes of brilliance while Eichel isn't adverse to defensive responsibilities and the two can co-exist like so many one/two centers have in the past. However, if ever there was a time to define what this club should be with a player of Eichel's caliber, it is now.
The Sabres need to get on a roll and they won't be able to do it trying to win games 2-1. If they want to get things rolling they won't be able to do so tonight playing Boston's grinding game. Bruins head coach Claude Julien is a master of that style, even lead Boston to the Stanley Cup in that fashion. Although their talent isn't near what it was back in 2011, they still grind it out in all three zones and counter punch at the most opportune moments.
If you need any proof that playing Boston's game is fruitless against them, look at the results. The Sabres are 1-3-2 dating back to last season. In all of those games Buffalo tried to slug it out with the B's only to come out on the losing end. The lone win began that way and after falling behind 3-1 last December 26, out of desperation Bylsma took the governor off of his race car and the Sabres scored five unanswered goals.
Who was at the center of that onslaught?
Jack Eichel with his two goals and two assists.
And what happened this season when the Sabres tried to go all Western Conference against the Los Angeles Kings earlier this month? They slogged their way around and fell behind 2-0. What happened next was a barrage of four unanswered goals leading to a 6-3 victory. O'Reilly willed the Sabres to their first goal but after that it was Eichel with two goals and an assist to lead the way.
I'm sensing a trend here.
The Sabres have three players at the heart of their core in O'Reilly, Eichel, and Rasmus Ristolainen and all three have a huge impact on the team in varying ways. But Eichel is the center of it all. Whether or not he eventually wears the "C" is to be determined but what we're damn sure right now is that he's got what it takes to take over a game.
The time is now to for him do that for his team.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Bylsma's 300th win comes in front of some hockey heavyweights

Published by, 12-28-2016

Buffalo Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma finally got his 300th win as his team came out of Joe Louis Arena with a 4-3 victory over the Detroit Red Wings. Evander Kane continued his torrid pace as of late by scoring Buffalo's first and last goals while Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel also scored for the Sabres.

It was five games in the making after his team went 0-2-2 while he sat on the precipice of that milestone. With the win last night he became the 47th NHL head coach to reach 300 wins. "It's a milestone, I guess," said Bylsma to the gathered media post-game. "You try to win hockey games and 300 is a nice one to have, but it's also just [with]in the pile of games we need to win and we have to keep winning.

"It's nice to get it. I've had a couple of nice wins here in Detroit add this one on as memorable."

One of the "nice wins" Bylsma got at "The Joe" was in Game-7 against the Red Wings in the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals when he was with the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was Bylsma's first Cup win and the first one for the franchise with Sidney Crosby et al. Although this one won't be quite as memorable as the Cup-clincher, Bylsma's 300th win last night in front of some hockey heavyweights in attendance for a reunion marking the 20th Anniversary of the Wings 1997 Stanley Cup victory, one that officially hearkened in the rebirth of Hockeytown.

In celebration of the final season at Joe Louis Arena the Red Wings scheduled numerous events throughout the season and last night happened to be when they saluted the team that finally broke a 42 year Stanley Cup drought. Amongst those in attendance was legendary Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman who won his seventh Stanley Cup overall in his third year with the Red Wings. Jimmy Devellano, the architect of Hockeytown hired Bowman in 1993 to get his championship caliber team over the hump.

Devellano was hired as general manager of the Wings in the summer of 1982 and guided the franchise out of the infamous Dead Wings era. His first pick ever as GM (fourth overall in 1983) was another Hall of Famer, Steve Yzerman, who captained that '97 team.

Also on hand were Hall of Fame inductee Niklas Lidstrom, who was drafted by Devellano in the third round in 1989, and another Hall of Famer in Brendan Shanahan who came to Detroit in October, 1996 in a trade at the behest of Bowman.

Today Bowman is still in hockey as a consultant for the Chicago Blackhawks, Yzerman has served as vice president and general manager for the Tampa Bay Lightning since 2010 and Shanahan as president and alternate governor of the Toronto Maple Leafs since April, 2014.

The rise of the Red Wings was a long, arduous journey with many pitfalls along the away but was driven by owners Mike and Marian Ilitch, who bought the team in 1982, and their one desire--to win the Cup at all costs. Detroit's rise ascension to Hockeytown wasn't without some pain, pitfalls and a lot of misses along the way as Devellano promised them a Cup in eight years. It took 15 years.

Through it all the Ilitch family gave Devellano the freedom to do what he felt was best for the franchise and allowed him to make mistakes, of which he had many. The owners ultimately had the final say, but they often deferred to him and no better example of that was when Devellano hired Bowman, his sixth head coach. Mike Ilitch no longer wanted Bryan Murray behind the bench and threw the name Mike Keenan right at his GM. Devellano countered saying that Keenan wasn't the right fit for Detroit and offered up two names--four-time Cup-winner Al Arbour and Bowman. Of the two Bowman was the most receptive and the rest is history.

As Sabres fans it's not hard to get caught up in every shift of every game as we live and die with our team, but patience is a theme that ran through the entire 15 years it took the Wings to end their drought. Prior to the Ilitch family buying the team and hiring Devellano, the Dead Wings era consisted of two playoff appearances in 16 seasons and even afterwards they missed the playoff twice Devellano's first four seasons.

The game last night was a big one for a young, still inconsistent Buffalo Sabres team as they're trying to make that long hard climb up. That they were able to win in regulation and climb ever so slightly up the Atlantic Division standings was a huge pulse That Buffalo was able to strike first for the first time in eight games was a bonus as was having their goal-scorers Kane, Reinhart and Eichel light the lamp. Both teams were coming off of the Christmas break and it was a choppy game from both sides and in the end the best players from both teams were their best players. The Sabres just had one of it's best players in Kane provide his second goal of the game for the winner.

Bylsma finally got to 300 wins but up next is a team they're chasing--the Boston Bruins--with the object being wins No. 301 and 302 for him.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Big test for Sabres, O'Reilly apendectomy, plus a lesson to learn from Rex Ryan

Published by, 12-27-2016

The last six games before the Christmas break represented a big test for the Buffalo Sabres as they were trying to get back into the thick of things in the Atlantic Division. A rough opening quarter of the season left the club near the bottom of the division and the Eastern Conference. Head coach Dan Bylsma opted to stray from the "one game at a time" approach and instead talked to the media about the next stretch of games.

"After the loss to Washington, we really looked at these six games before the break for us to really bear down and focus here," said Bylsma prior to Buffalo's game against the NY Islanders on December 16. "I think that's really why the LA win is a real big win for this group and one we want to keep going here. Yes, you can look at our opponents - Carolina [Hurricanes] twice and the New York Islanders twice - but it's just a stretch of time in the season where we really have to bear down and try and get some wins here and go on a roll."

It started out well enough, but then went sour as the team failed miserably and headed into the break on a four-game losing streak. They went from consecutive wins to consecutive losses after regulation to consecutive losses in regulation. The worrisome part was the final two games is that they came out slow, just like the previous five games, but were unable to mount a comeback. In the last game at the NY Islanders, they were blown out 5-1 and looked every bit the part of a team that now sat last in the division and last in the conference.

A shot at redemption awaits Buffalo this week beginning tonight at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit where the Red Wings have been having all sorts of trouble in the Arena's swan song. Detroit is sporting a 7-9-3 record at home and have 34 points total, just two points ahead of the Sabres having played one more game.

It behooves Buffalo to avoid giving up the opening goal for the eighth straight game as it has done them no favors. Overall the Sabres are 4-12-3 when the opponent scores first, only 2-3-3 in the last seven leading up to tonight.

Having said all that, the Sabres will be without top-six center Ryan O'Reilly who underwent a successful appendectomy over the break, according to the team. O'Reilly will be out about two weeks according to Bylsma for "rest and recovery." With him on the sidelines, here were the lines at the morning skate according to the Sabres' Jourdon LaBarber :

Marcus Foligno-Jack Eichel-Matt Moulson
Zemgus Girgensons-Sam Reinhart-Kyle Okposo
Evander Kane-Johan Larsson-Brian Gionta
Nicolas Deslauriers-Derek Grant-William Carrier

LaBarber has the defense pairings as:

Dmitry Kulikov-Rasmus Ristolainen
Jake McCabe-Zach Bogosian
Josh Gorges-Cody Franson/Justin Falk

It's also been reported that Robin Lehner will be in goal tonight.

After tonight the Buffalo has a very important home-and-home with the division's third place Boston Bruins. The Sabres are eight points behind the B's with three games in hand. Boston plays the red-hot Columbus Blue Jackets tonight, winners of 12 straight games and presently the NHL's top team.

To say that these three games are important to Buffalo is an understatement and having their best two-way forward out makes the task all the more difficult. However, when all's said and done, we'll have a pretty good indication as to the direction this team is headed.


Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan got the axe today with this statement from owner Terry Pegula (who also owns the Sabres):

“I spoke with Rex earlier today and we mutually agreed that the time to part ways is now. These decisions are never easy. I want to take this opportunity to thank Rex for all his efforts and wish him all the best moving forward. Kim and I and our entire Bills organization share in the same disappointment and frustration as our fans, but we remain committed to our goal of bringing a championship to Western New York.”

The list of reasons is long and varied but what stuck out most is the failure of Ryan's defense. He and his brother Rob, who was hired to guide the d through it's complicated workings failed miserably. Forget the overall numbers, when it counted the defense gave up huge chunks of yardage that ultimately lead to Rex Ryan's overall 15-16 record in Buffalo. And worse yet, there were many times where they didn't have the proper personnel and had mix ups where there were too many or not enough players on the field.

Maybe most important is that the team had trouble with something as basic as positioning and tackling. I remember hearing someone say recently that in 2015 the cornerbacks had a great season under Donnie Henderson because he taught things like positioning. New defensive backfield coach Ed Reed was brought in to help the Ryan's teach their complicated system. The d-backs were torched all season long.

While texting with a friend last night we got on the topic of the Sabres woes and I mentioned as I have often that the players on the ice for the Sabres seem preoccupied with where to be on the ice in Bylsma's system instead of playing the game instinctively. He said that hockey in general "seems to be a very over-coached sport at virtually every level and it's frustrating.

"They should be coaching skills and technique not systems."

Seems as if Ryan tried to put the carriage before the horse and he got burned mightily. Maybe Bylsma can learn a lesson from Rex and back off on the X's and O's a bit to allow the natural talent and instincts of his players to come through a bit more. His highly structured system has this team at the bottom of the conference at this juncture and if he can't adapt, he'll be on the same road as Rex.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Christmas break thoughts on Sabres defesemen and goalies

Published by, 12-26-2016

After laying down a brief summation of the forwards to this point in the season, it's time to direct our attention to those who play below the blueline. A quick reminder, the Sabres headed into the Christmas break with a 12-13-8 record good for 32 points which is one point ahead of last year's team after 33 games.

It should also be noted that injuries have hit the d-corps to the point where Buffalo elected to call up a defenseman from the CHL's Western Hockey League. Things are back to normal and it should also be noted that the Sabres' 2.61 goals against average is tied for 11th in the league.

Rasmus Ristolainen--Whoever stated through advanced stats that the Sabres would be better without Ristolainen is eating a huge plate of crow right now. Statistics are what they are but if you've watched Ristolainen's development it's been upward and steady. He continues to eat up minutes nearly reaching Duncan Keith levels (26:35/game) and is on pace for a 60-point season. His minus-4 rating isn't the greatest but he's been minus-3 the last three games while being paired with a less than ideal d-partner. Good thing advanced stats aren't the sole consideration for Norris Trophy nominations otherwise Ristolainen and Norris wouldn't be mentioned in the same book, much less the same sentence.

Jake McCabe--McCabe was Ristolainen's d-partner for most of the season up until recently when head coach Dan Bylsma inexplicably split them up. Maybe he wanted to distribute the talent more evenly amongst the d-corps? Who knows? But McCabe has shown the capacity to hold the fort on the top-pairing and should remain there. The 22 yr. old keeps pushing his own envelope playing as hard and as fast as he can possibly go. In doing so he’s prone to mistakes, but all-in-all McCabe continues to make great strides in only his second full NHL season. Love his aggressiveness as he stands players up all over the ice and love the fact that no matter what happens, he's in overdrive going right back at it.

Dmitry Kulikov--Is the player alluded to above as Ristolainen's less than ideal d-partner. In fact, the problem that Bylsma's having is that Kulikov is nobody's ideal d-partner at this juncture. Kulikov has the size, skating and tools, but he roams around like a free electron out there and often times is way out of position. That's really not the ideal for a defenseman who's second on the team in ATOI at 22:18/game. Kulikov shouldn't be paired with Risto and right now may be a disaster waiting to happen with Zach Bogosian or Cody Franson. Hopefully things will stabilize with him but until that happens, Bylsma will need to lessen the negative impact Kulkiov has had on the team so far.

Zach Bogosian--Bogosian suffered an MCL injury that kept him out the lineup for a month and a half. It looks as if the big, speedy 26 yr. old will need some time to get up to speed, as shown my his minus-4 rating in four games since his return, but he's been around long enough to at least hold the fort no matter who his d-partner is. Except for Kulikov. He's a No. 3 on the Sabres but is probably a No. 4/5 on most teams in the NHL and despite analytics showing a negative side, his physicality and speed from the back-end are necessities in Buffalo right now.

Josh Gorges--Still a favorite whipping boy amongst the Sabres faithful despite solid play in a role that keep him in the bottom half of the corps. Gorges has been playing very well in a third-pairing/top-PK unit role while leaning heavy on the star players he's up against. At 32 yrs. old and with a lot of wear and tear on his body, it seems like a perfect role for Gorges and with his experience the Sabres have themselves a strong complimentary defensive defenseman. His $3.9 million salary is a bit steep for this role but it will have to do for now.

Cody Franson--Franson has been playing much better this season, especially when given more minutes when Bogosian and Kulikov were sidelined simultaneously. In fact, he was impressive at times. That said, he's a very slow and has a tendency to have his shots blocked quite a bit. Often times as I watch him play he looks as if he's very analytics-conscious and that everything he does is to pad his fancy stats. Although I might be exaggerating a bit, his shots are weak (save for his one goal which was scored with authority) and his prodding pace gives him the opportunity to make the safest pass.

Justin Falk--Although his big, bruising game is somewhat archaic, I like what he brings to the table. At 6'5" 222 lbs. he is a bruiser and when asked to hold the fort along with Taylor Fedun, his Rochester Americans d-partner, they did quite well all things considered. Falk is still in the lineup due to a Franson injury and to be honest, he'd be a much better choice on the third pairing than Kulikov would be at this time. Dependent upon what Murray wants to do with a poor Rochester club this season, Falk could either go the Amerks and help them out or stay with the big club as a ready d-man.

Taylor Fedun--Was a pleasant surprise as an emergency call-up for the Sabres. Fedun came back down to earth a bit after he debuted with a three-game point streak, but his skating and puck-moving never waned. Whether he's a late-bloomer or not, the 28 yr. old made a very good impression. Too bad he got injured.

Casey Nelson--Nelson showed he's not ready for the NHL. It's about the only way it can be said. Not sure where his AHL seasoning will lead him, or how long it will take for him to be ready for Sabres' duty, but we found out that it won't be this season.

Brendan Guhle--Guhle's back in Junior after his three-game emergency call-up back in November. Most feel as if he should have made the team instead of Nelson and in hindsight, that would be correct. Having said that, I think one more year in Junior will do wonders for what should be a very long and productive career. Right now he's projected as a second-pairing defenseman, but from what we've seen so far--in Rochester last season and in Buffalo this season--he may have a little more than that to offer.


Robin Lehner--I'm gonna type this word, and as I do, Sabreland will shiver after reading it--shootouts. Lehner is not good at them, at least to this point in his career. For a guy who is (still) as intense as anyone out there one would think that he wouldn't be intimidated by much of anything. It's a huge mental hurdle he'll need to overcome, but other than that, his 2.45 GAA and .921 Sv% are much more solid than his 7-10-5 record would indicate. Will always have to live up to the first round pick Murray gave up for him and it may take some time.

Anders Nilsson--After beating the Pittsburgh Penguins 2-1 in the shootout, Nilsson was heir apparent to former goalie Jonas Enroth's "Truth" moniker. Nilsson has played well at times but has also had strong goal support from the skaters. He has a 5-3-3 record with a 2.47 GAA and .925 Sv%. Nilsson's play has declined since the Pens win and in his last performance against the NY Islanders, he looked like a career back-up or worse.

The long season has a way of evening things out so past results are not indicative of what the future might hold. For the team and individual players as well it was a rough 33 games. Hopefully the future will be brighter.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Merry Christmas everyone. Some quick hits on the forward group.

Published by hockeybuzz, 12-25-2016

Merry Christmas everyone.

With very little time between Sabres games, today's as good a day as any to take a look at individual players from the forward group with the NHL on it's Christmas break. After 33 games Buffalo has a 12-13-8 record but with an 0-2-2 slide in their last four, instead of grinding up in the standings, the Sabres find themselves at the bottom of the division and conference.

Here are some quick hits on each player for the Sabres.

Jack Eichel--Came back as a force after missing the first 21 games of the season. His presence opened up the ice for everyone and his eight points (5g+3a) in seven games lead the Sabres to a 4-2-1 record. Eichel is not 100%, and probably won't be for the rest of the season due to high ankle sprain injury. At this point he's carrying the weight of the entire franchise while also trying to figure out why head coach Dan Bylsma does the things he does concerning himself and the team.

Kyle Okposo--The cool part about Okposo is that he can produce in a run and gun or dump and chase offense. He's very quick to the puck and is pretty fast for a 6'1" 218 lb winger while also displaying great stickwork and exceptional hockey sense. Until Rasmus Ristolainen made a run, Okposo had been leading the Sabres in points while his powerplay acumen has the team ranked fourth in the league (22.3%) with the man advantage. Like the rest of the team, there was, is and still are major adjustments to be made, but he's been one of the most consistent forwards on the team.

Ryan O'Reilly--Another one who may not be 100% due to lingering problems. Suffered back spasms in preseason then had a go at it before the team shut him down to fully recoup. Is no where near the force he was last season as he carried the team while they all got acquainted with each other and their new coach. Bylsma had to keep O'Reilly off the ice to allow his body to heal, but by the looks of it, a healing may not fully happen until the off season. However, O'Reilly does have his moments.

San Reinhart--There are and always will be comparisons to the other forwards in his 2014 draft class and one would think that something like that is relevant only outside KeyBank Center. Reinhart is quietly on a pace to eclipse his point total from last season, but detractors point to his failing to fully take charge when Eichel was out making the 21 yr. old supposedly unworthy of a second-overall pick. He's a cog in the wheel, but well into his sophomore season Reinhart may not be as big a cog as some would've hoped and/or expected him to be. That said, with Jack back, Sam's picked up his game.

Evander Kane--Has had a Jekyll and Hyde season thus far. Here's yet another one who was injured as he spent 11 games on IR recovering from broke ribs suffered in the season opener. His first 10 games back were forgetful but he's really picked things up since. We're still getting a feel for Kane on the ice, well into his second season in Buffalo, and we've seen both good and bad. Kane's a Leo which means he needs a lot of attention and needs to be in charge. Those Leonic tendencies haven't meshed well in certain situations (see Eichel as a linemate) but when he's on his game he's a force. Is required by the court system to stay out of trouble for six months, but common sense says that if he  stays out of trouble for the rest of career, he could have a good one.

Marcus Foligno--Probably playing some of the best hockey of his career right now. The strapping 6'3" 228 lb. winger has been playing up and down the lineup and is on pace to slightly exceed his career highs set last season. Unfortunately those career highs of 10 goals and 13 assists really only point to a third-liner at best but because of a hole on the wing the Sabres have him in the top-six. In an ideal world he'd be putting up those numbers on the fourth line, wreaking havoc on the oppositon with a gritty, bare-knuckles game. However, as of right now, both he and the team are not quite there yet.

Brian Gionta--The Sabres' captain keeps on keepin' on and has been a pleasant surprise. Gionta has not been putting up age-defying numbers, although seven goals and seven assists through 33 games is solid for almost any 37 yr. old not named Jagr. He has been doing quite well in keeping up with the speed of the game by using veteran savvy and while still pretty fast for his age he uses his vast experience to almost never find himself out of the play. Although his role as captain may come to an end this summer along with his contract, at this point in the season he's done enough to land a short-term deal with the Sabres if he wants to continue playing.

Johan Larsson--Larsson's good moments have largely outweighed his bad ones and most of the time this season he's been pretty solid. Was centering Buffalo's second line when both Eichel and Kane were out of the lineup, which is well above where he should be playing. Like with Foligno, in an ideal situation Larsson would be centering a hellish fourth line to play against for the Sabres hounding the opposition at every turn while producing points. But, Buffalo's not there yet.

Matt Moulson--Moulson entered the season a favorite whipping boy after coming off the worst season of his nine year professional career and only his prowess on the powerplay kept things from getting worse. At a cap-hit of $5 million, we should be expecting more than the one 5v5 point (a goal) that Moulson has so far this year. Ideally (yup, there's that word again) Moulson would be in the top six but he hasn't been producing so he's been moved up and down the lineup. With two and a half more years on his contract and the expansion draft on the horizon, he may not be a Sabre after this season no matter how he finishes the season.

Zemgus Girgensons--"Gus" scored his third goal of the season against the NY Islanders on Friday. Yay!!! Unfortunately he hasn't been anything close to the hard-driving player we saw two years ago. Is it him in a new system? Is it Bylsma and his system? We're still not sure. He has his moments, like when he scored against Washington on a breakaway but most of the time he either looks lost or disinterested.

Derek Grant--Grant's play at the beginning of the season was inspiring as the former Ottawa fourth-round pick looked indespensible in a fourth-line/penalty-kill role. But the enthusiasm, like his overall play, has waned. He's still on the fourth line and is still next to O'Reilly on the top PK unit, but he's still without a goal in his 69-game NHL career. The team could easily move another player into Grant's spot, like veteran Cal O'Reilly (Ryan's brother,) but for some reason he has the decision-makers under some sort of weird spell.

Nicolas Deslauriers--"D-lo" is supposed to come off as some crazed lunatic on skates rumbling up and down the ice striking fear into the opposition because you never know what's behind his deranged look. Since returning from injury he's mostly seen single-digit ice-time, has goose-eggs across the board and has played like a player that can easily be replaced.

William Carrier--Man. dude's got speed and there's no reason why he shouldn't be in the lineup every night. Bylsma was impressed by Carrier's performance earlier in the year to the point where he awarded the rookie top-six playing time. Carrier's got speed alright, but he's yet to figure out how to turn that into production at the NHL-level (one assist in his last 14 games.) That said, I don't think anyone has a problem with him learning the NHL game in a bottom-six role the rest of the season.

Nick Baptiste--The former third round pick (2013) has been tearing it up in Rochester since being sent down with 11 goals in 16 games for the Amerks. His fourteen goals in 21 games has him tied for the league lead in that category having played in seven less games. Baptiste has cooled off lately, going pointless in his last three, but management had to have taken notice and there's no reason why he shouldn't be trying to add to his two goals in 12 NHL games stat-line with a call-up. Hopefully very soon.

Tyler Ennis--Ennis wasn't exactly the hottest player on the team before he went down with a groin injury that required surgery, but his loss did create a hole in the lineup. Ennis, like Girgensons and Moulson, were team leaders in production under former bench boss Ted Nolan, but since Bylsma came aboard they've all slipped mightily. That said his return, which could be sometime in the near future, might be a blessing or a curse. If he's playing well and using his greaziness to create opportunities for himself and his linemates, great. However, if he's playing an east/west, dangle 'til a turnover type of game, the Sabres will be worse off. One would hope that upon his return he can fit into the top six and produce. His 40% shootout success rate from 2014-16 certainly wouldn't hurt either as the Sabres have been woeful in the skills competition this season losing five of six shootouts and only producing three goals on 15 attempts (20%.)

Once again, Merry Christmas everyone hope your day was filled with happiness.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas. Sabres give fans 2 pair of socks and 2 lumps of coal

Published by, 12-24-2016

That's what it felt like during the final four games before the Christmas break--amidst the wrapping paper and bows strewn about, Sabreland received what amounted to a couple pairs of socks and two lumps of coal. All the Buffalo Sabres could come up with in those four games against teams right around them in the Eastern Conference were two loser points and two losses by a combined 8-2 score.

Momentum was building and expectations were high in the early part of this last stretch before the break and rightfully so as the Sabres were nearly complete, most notably with franchise center Jack Eichel back in the lineup, and the team on a 5-2-1 run. Here's what Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma said coming off of a 6-3 come-from-behind win over the LA Kings in the first of those six games heading into the break:

"After the loss to Washington, we really looked at these six games before the break for us to really bear down and focus here," said Bylsma prior to Buffalo's game against the NY Islanders last Friday. "I think that's really why the LA win is a real big win for this group and one we want to keep going here. Yes, you can look at our opponents - Carolina [Hurricanes] twice and the New York Islanders twice - but it's just a stretch of time in the season where we really have to bear down and try and get some wins here and go on a roll."

Unfortunately, it seems as if Bylsma may have been looking down on both Carolina and the Islanders both literally, as in the standings, and figuratively as in looking past supposedly weaker teams. That's never a good scenario. After getting lucky and coming from behind twice to win in overtime in the first matchup against the Islanders they lost at Carolina in the shootout, lost at home to the 'Canes then lost last night in New York for a combined 1-1-2 record. Throw in a shootout loss at the Florida Panthers and that big, six-game stretch of focus netted the team six points and a place at both the bottom of the division and the conference.

Probably more troubling than the six out of 12 points they got while supposedly bearing down and focusing, are the negative trends that came to the fore. The Sabres have come out flat and have given up at least the first goal in seven games straight, they're horrible in the shootout--both skaters and goalies--they play less than a full 60-minute game and save for stretches within a game when they're on the offensive, teams seem to have them figured out.

Last night in Brooklyn against the Islanders was a complete and utter disaster as they once again came out sluggish and gave up the first goal in a 5-1 loss. Whether they were tired, as Byslma implied post-game, or the ice surface was a real hindrance or as some have intimated, Bylsma may have lost the team, they looked mostly disinterested save for a limited stretch of desperation after falling behind 2-0. They came to life later in the second period but gave up a powerplay goal late and headed into the second intermission down 3-0.

From then on you might as well have started packing up the sleigh for the ride back to Buffalo because those in the Blue and Gold looked as if they were already on that ride home.

What we witnessed last night was the Sabres on the road for the second of a back-to-back playing their fifth game in eight nights which is no small feat for any team. Were they tired? Yeah, that was part of the problem, maybe a big part. But last night it didn't look as if they were playing hockey, it was more like they were going through the motions playing the role of "X's" against "O's" on a white board while trying to figure out where to be on the ice instead of skating hard and fast. There was no flow to what they were doing or even what they were trying to do as they labored throughout the game. It's not a fun game to play nor is it a fun game to watch unless you're the opposition.

This is not a slow team yet they're playing a slow game. This is not a team devoid of talent, but with the way the Islanders frustrated them, the Sabres resembled the tank teams of 2013-15 and the manic swing from high expectations to "what the hell was that?!" is maddening right now.

The faithful in Buffalo are losing patience, especially when the probability of the Buffalo Bills having their playoff drought extended to 17 years is highly likely with only two weeks left in the season. Blame is being thrown around beginning at the top with Kim and Terry Pegula, owners of both franchises, and on to Russ Brandon who is the team president of both the Bills and the Sabres. On the hockey side it filters down to GM Tim Murray who has built this team to his specifications and to Bylsma who was hired to coach Murray's team.

Circular debates amongst the fan-base as to who's at fault go on ad infinitum covering each individual player and whether or not what talents they have are coming to the fore as well as who's responsible for them if they're not performing at their best.

I like what WGR's Paul Hamilton said post-game last night when he simply stated that the Sabres' best players have not been their best players as of late. Eichel was doing his best Zemgus Girgensons impersonation last night falling all over the place and is scoreless in his last five games while the team went 1-2-2. Ryan O'Reilly has been invisible for a while with only one assist in the last five games. Rasmus Ristolainen has stood out, but not without having his fair share of blunders. And prior to his three-game points streak, Sam Reinhart had one goal in six games.

When comparing this team to last year's 81-point club, the 2016-17 edition of the Buffalo Sabres is only one point ahead of last year. Through 33 games in 2015-16 the Sabres were 14-16-3 good for 31 points while this year they're 12-13-8. At this point last year they were seventh in the division, 13th in the conference and seven points out of a playoff spot. This year they're last in the division, last in the conference and eight points out of a playoff spot.

Merry Christmas, Sabres fans.

One thing that will fall on deaf ears amongst the Sabres faithful is excuses. Most Buffalo fans gave them a huge mulligan when the team was besieged by injuries in November. They also understood that Eichel, the team's franchise player, also missed the first 21 games of the season.

Bylsma had a lot of good will heading into these last six games and he probably used up most, if not all of it, especially in light of the benching he bestowed upon the player fans suffered two seasons for. His benching of Eichel on the team's first powerplay against Carolina caused a stir in Sabreland especially after the team lost 3-1 at home amidst a chorus of boos after every period. Word has it that it was a minor disciplinary action and that was nothing to get up in arms about. But try telling that to the fans at KeyBank Center who dished out hard-earned money to go to the game or to those of us in blogger world or the mainstream media who were left dumbfounded at the move.

The Sabres play three crucial games against Atlantic Division foes coming out of the break. On Tuesday they head to Detroit to take on the Red Wings and they play a back-to-back home-and-home against The Boston Bruins who are presently eight points ahead of Buffalo having played three more games.

There won't be any speculation as to what might unfold coming from this blogger's fingertips. Being a Buffalo sports fan for as long as I have, day-to-day and week-to-week prognostications prove futile if not completely maddening.

Christmas is tomorrow for those of us in Whoville and my particular focus will remain far away from what could become a Grinch-like Sabres season. During the next two days we'll revisit the individual players and their performance, which won't be all that fun, but for the most part there's work, family, and feasting all of which I'm lucky enough to have. And there will be presents as well including socks, which will neither be surprising nor a disappointment.

Coal on the other hand....

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Not this time

Published by, 12-23-2016

Sometimes when you're dancing on the edge too long, you end up falling off. Simply put, the Sabres have been dancing on that edge for the last four games as they've found themselves behind in all of them. Fortunately they've managed to come away with a 2-0-2 record but last night it finally caught up with them.

In a nutshell:

--The offense didn't show up until later in the game, as per usual lately, and this time they came up short
--Team defense was lacking as numerous odd-man rushes lead to glorious opportunities and  put the team in another hole.
--Once again Robin Lehner made some good saves out of the 34 shots he faced to keep the game within reach before the skaters woke up
--Intelligence hit some serious lows as an array of Sabres took stupid penalties in the second period with the team down 2-0 and momentum swinging in the their direction.
--The PK was tough
--The PP was not
--And boos could be heard from the hometown fans

It was not a good performance by the Sabres and head coach Dan Bylsma didn't help with his less than brilliant idea to bench Jack Eichel for their first powerplay. When asked post-game by a media member why he did that to their franchise player after the team tanked a whole year to get that talent, Bylsma's response was that he "wanted a different look" for the team while also trying to send a message that he wasn't thrilled with Eichel's play lately.

It backfired and they lost some serious ground in the standings.

It's a game they'll need to forget and luckily they'll get right back at it tonight with a game in Brooklyn against the NY Islanders in their last game before the Christmas break. Bylsma made some curious moves with his line combinations and juggled his d-pairings a bit. We'll see how much of a carryover there is tonight.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Thoughts, notes and other tidbits

Published by, 12-22-2016

Evander Kane has been getting a lot of positive attention lately. And he should.

During his time with the Buffalo Sabres criticism has been heaped upon him because of his immature off-ice antics and his very good, but not great, on-ice contributions. Add in injuries that have kept him out of the line up for large chunks of the season and the headaches he's brought to the organization weren't worth the $5.25 million cap-hit the Sabres were using on him.

Last year he scored 20 goals and had 35 points in 65 games for Buffalo. This year he's played in 20 games after coming back from injury and he's scored 11 points (6g+5a) with all of his goals and all but two points coming in the last 10 games. That turnaround puts him on a pace for about 24 goals and 20 assists. Points are one thing, but how he's getting them is more important as he's playing his game and doing the things that lead to production in the NHL.

Sabres beat reporter Paul Hamilton was on WGR550 today telling hosts Howard Simon and Jeremy White that Kane is using his speed to be first on the forecheck, is winning he battle for the puck and is getting to the net and getting pucks to the net. "It was like [he] was a totally different player," said Hamilton.

Kane was demoted to the fourth line by head coach Dan Bylsma and the reason the coach did that, according to Hamilton, was because Kane was doing one thing in particular that was detrimental to the team. "Dan Bylsma despises the 'just take a shot, you never know' type of mentality," said Hamilton of Kane's well known 'shoot from anywhere' trait. "To him that's a turnover."

 "[Bylsma] believes in a shot with a purpose," continued Hamilton, "he believes you shoot from the high percentage areas."

Kane was notorious, especially when he was playing poorly, of flying up the left wing and sending a shot that lead to the other team gaining possession--either by an easy save or a wide shot that rings around the boards--and turning back up ice. He did that a lot last season which contributed to his career-low 7.4% shooting percentage. Upon his return from injury he began doing it again and Bylsma, according to Hamilton, had enough.

"I think it just got to the point where [it became] 'if that's all your're going to do, and you're not going to listen, we're just going to put you down there'" is how Hamilton believed Bylsma came to demoting Kane to the fourth line.

There's been a change in Kane's game that's drawing a lot of positive attention and if Kane can continue to eschew a "Mr. Hyde" type lapse into the dark side of his game, we may finally see the complete player GM Tim Murray traded for. Although with Kane off-ice issues always seem to be a possibility, at leas he might be able to get half the equation correct.


Speaking of that "shoot from all angles/just get pucks to the net" mentality, a young, highly skilled Toronto Maple Leafs squad is having a similar problem. According to TSN's Kristen Shilton the Leafs are second in the league in shots on goal, yet in their last meeting against the Colorado Avalanche (a team they face tonight on the road) they lost 3-1 despite sending 99 shots to the 'Lanche net and getting 52 of them on goal.

Shilton points out that Leafs coach Mike Babcock joked about his team missing the net too much as a contributing factor to their scoring deficiency and she quotes forward Nazem Kadri on the subject. "I think we have to stop trying to pick the exact corner of every single net, especially on the flank side,” said Kadri. “When you’re on the outside and putting pucks on the net and it misses the net it can wrap around the boards and create an odd-man rush for [the other team]. And if you miss the net, you don’t get secondary opportunities. So realistically we don’t have to put it in the top upper corner of the net, or go post and in, just hit the net and hope for a rebound and get goals that way.”

Wonder if Kane's been in Toronto lately?


When Rasmus Ristolainen signed his six-year/$32.4 million contract extension, his status amongst most followers that he was at the very least a top-pairing defenseman and on the Sabres he was their No. 1. He went into this season with steady season-over-season progression in points, ice-time and responsibility. As of right now he's continuing mightily with that progression and it's looking like the team got themselves a helluva deal.

If you'll remember, Ristolainen came into camp as an unsigned restricted free agent that asked permission to practice with the team. It was a curious request, one not normally found in any sport, much less hockey, but Murray granted Ristolianen's wish while they worked on his contract. When it was inked, here's what Murray said to the media, "Rasmus has already proven to be a pivotal player on our blue line, and we are eager to have him back with the team. This deal is a reflection of the hard work and improvement Rasmus has shown since being drafted. And we hope to see him continue on this trajectory moving forward."

Sure enough, Ristolainen has continued that trajectory and has taken it to another level. His ice-time is up and he's on pace for major up-tick in his production.
After Ristolainen finished last season 10th in the league in ATOI with 25:26 minutes/game, Bylsma said in the off-season that he'd be trimming his minutes. Yet as injuries piled up on the blueline, Ristolainen found himself reaching the 29:00-mark and now averages a fifth-best 26:41/game. And he can handle more.  "He’s a guy who’ll take as much as you give him. The overtimes, he seems like he can keep going and going and going. Nothing can stop him," said Bylsma to the gathered media yesterday.

"He gets a 30-second breather and he’s back out there again. He ends up with 28 minutes and again we can have this conversation probably over and over again about the number of minutes that you want him to play, but he handled 28 minutes just fine, [Tuesday] night."

Ristolainen's also on a tear in the scoring department with 13 points (3+10) in his last 10 games which places him atop the team in scoring with 23 points (3+20) overall. The run has him on a 60-point pace (8+52) and with the confidence the 22 yr. old has shown of late, he could very well hit that.

Many are starting to look at Ristolainen as a possible Norris candidate while this blogger was simply looking at him as a having the makings of a good captain once Gionta steps aside. Hamilton kind of sealed it for me when he told the morning guys on WGR550, that Ristolainen "really wants to help this hockey team and he was willing to take less money to do it."

Regardless, we're watching the evolution of something special. Just how special is yet to be determined, but something special none-the-less.


Fast thoughts:

--The only person that will be of any help to Robin Lehner when it comes to the shootout is...Robin Lehner. It's in his head, obviously, but he needs to go into the skills competition with an open mind. Simply put, it can't get any worse.

--Dan Bylsma coached NJ Devils winger Beau Bennett when he was behind the bench in Pittsburgh. The Penguins used the 20th overall pick in 2010 to draft Bennett. During his best years I saw a player who was extremely quick to the puck and as a rookie he scored 14 points (3+11) in 26 games. Devils GM drafted Bennett when he was in Pittsburgh then sent a third-rounder to the Pens when he took over in New Jersey. Injuries have been an issue but it might be a low-end/low-risk move for the Sabres to bolster the bottom-six with some high-end skill.

--Speaking of the shootout. Sam Reinhart is 2-4 this season and 3-6 over the last two. Methinks it might not be a bad idea to go with him should the Sabres find themselves in that predicament. Next on the list is Matt Moulson who went 1-3 last season but has yet to score this season. He should be another choice. And, one would think that Jack Eichel should be an automatic player designate for the shootout since he is the team's franchise player. There's your top three for the foreseeable future, the only question should be, what order?

--Zemgus Girgensons is having a rough year after coming off of a pretty rough year last season. He's been relegated to the fourth line and can be seen on the ice with the Sabres coming out of special teams situations. Last game he was on the penalty kill for 3:06. I wonder if we're seeing the possibility of him being rebuilt from the ground up after his confidence sunk to an all-time low.

--According to, Ristolainen blasted one off the mask of backup goalie Anders Nilsson and cracked it forcing Nilsson to go with a plain white backup mask. After all the new sticks Ristolainen broke early in the season, at one point prompting Bylsma to bench him on the powerplay because of it, it's good that he went back to the old one. At least for the stat-sheet.

--Finally, and this has nothing to do with above post, Lehner gets the call tonight against the Carolina Hurricanes in Buffalo's final home game before the Christmas break. Hopefully Nilsson gets his mask situation in order as he'll probably be in net tomorrow night at the NY Islanders in Buffalo's last game before the break.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Troublesome trends, plus Evander Kane and Jaromir Jagr

Published by, 12-21-2016

Sabres fans can take heart with the knowledge that it’s not November and that a two-goal deficit for their team is no longer insurmountable. For the better part of last month when the opposition went up by two goals, for all intents and purposes the game was over.

That’s not been the case lately as the Sabres have shown the propensity to storm back from behind in a game, something they proved again last night as they scored three unanswered goals against the Florida Panthers to take a 3-2 lead into the third period. It’s a huge positive that the team can do that, especially against a goalie like Florida's Roberto Louongo who's had their number for years, but there are still a couple of troubling traits. 
The first one is slow starts.

For the fifth game in a row Buffalo allowed the first goal of the game and in three of the five they found themselves down by two after allowing the second. However, the Sabres did manage to come back and get points in the last four games while coming away with a 2-0-2 record. After falling behind 2-0 they stormed back with a four-goal explosion in the second period against the LA Kings and won 6-3. The following game against the NY Islanders a Matt Moulson third period goal tied the game at 2-2 and they won it in overtime. Against Carolina over the weekend Evander Kane saved the day with a late third period goal but they lost in the shootout 2-1. And last night against the Panthers they gave up a late third period goal and lost in the skills competition.

There's the second troubling trait--the shootout. Simply put, the Sabres are horrible at it and they proved it again last night against Florida.

We can start with goalie Robin Lehner.

Lehner played a very strong game last night in regulation and overtime stopping 36 of 39 shots sent his way. He was particularly strong during the first period when the team in front of him was being overwhelmed by an extremely quick Panthers club and getting outshot by a 16-4 margin. It took Florida most of the first to finally break through, but the score could have easily been 2-0 or 3-0 heading into the first intermission. 

Eventually regulation ended in a tie and after some hair-raising moments in the overtime session, Sabreland shivered at the words, "We are going to the shootout."

Heading into the game last night Buffalo was 1-4 in the shootout and save for one game neither goalies or skaters instilled any sense of confidence amongst the faithful. Lehner has been particularly brutal in the shootout as he entered the game with zero saves on four attempts resulting in an 0-2 shootout record. That trend would continue as he allowed two goals on two shots. Granted, Buffalo's shooters have scored only once in seven attempts with Lehner in goal, but fact is the opposition's just blowing the puck by him.

Sabres goalie coach Andrew Allen has his hands full with this one. Lehner's more than capable in regulation and overtime. In his three shootout losses he gave up five goals on 92 shots good for a .946 save percentage, but when it comes to the skills competition, the 6'5" 220lb. Swede looks small in net. So small that he's not even getting the benefit of a missed shot or a fumbling of the puck as shooters come in, see gaping holes and fire it home.

Slow starts and the shootout are the two biggies for Buffalo and they're frittering away points in the process. Sure they managed to snag two loser points in the last two games but giving away one point to a Florida team they're chasing in the standings won't cut it. As it stands the Sabres have 32 points placing them sixth in the division three points behind the Panthers with two games in hand and five points behind the third place Boston Bruins with three games in hand.


Much maligned Sabres winger Evander Kane has really been bringing it lately. Kane scored again last night and upped his season totals to six goals and five assists in 20 games. He's on a four-game point-streak with three goals and one assist and he has nine points (6g+3a) in his last 10 games. It's a far cry from when he first returned from the broken ribs he suffered in the season opener as he managed only two assist in those 10 games.

Kane is in Dr, Jekyll-mode right now as his play reveals the powerforward GM Tim Murray traded for back in 2014. He's skating hard, quick on the puck and is constantly in the dirty areas of the ice, which is where he has scored his last three goals. No longer are we seeing a perimeter Kane throwing pucks aimlessly at the net like he did in his first 10 games back with 20 shots on goal and nothing to show for it. In his last 10 he's scored six goals on 35 shots and in the process he's upped his shooting percentage to 10.3% on the season. Last year he had a career low of 7.4%.

Head coach Dan Bylsma sent Kane down to the fourth line dating back to the Los Angeles game and a ticked-off Kane has responded with his best hockey of the season. He's been on the third line lately and last night his line applied the most consistent pressure of any Buffalo line resulting in the Sabres second goal. The line of Kane, Johan Larsson and Brian Gionta had one egregious shift in the first where a Gionta turnover and weak Larsson back-check resulted in the 'Cats first goal but other than that they were solid.

As with all things Kane, we're not sure where he'll end up next, but as of late he's been a joy to watch.


Speaking of players being a joy to watch, Florida's Jaromir Jagr tied Mark Messier for career points last night. Unfortunately for the Sabres, the point that Jagr got to reach Messier was on the game-tying goal late in the third period. At 1,887 career points the two trail only Wayne Gretzky's unbreakable 2,857 career points.

Jagr and his line gave the Sabres fits all night and at 44 yrs. old the only thing he lacks is the speed of youth. His two assists displayed vintage Jagr stick work and vision and were it not for losing a step because of his age, he'd have beaten Buffalo's Jake McCabe to a loose puck in overtime and taken it in from the neutral zone.

I'm going to miss watching him play. As a Sabres fan I hated what he did last night but as a hockey fan it was marvelous.


Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Of scheduling, Eichel, injuries, the Panthers/analytics and Eric Wood

Published by, 12-20-2016

Sabres bench boss Dan Bylsma was on WGR550 this morning mentioning what a good stretch of scheduling the team just had. "It feels a lot different," he told host Jeremy White. "This 10 days we're not playing in [rapid fire] succession."

Beginning November 1 they had a stretch of seven games in 12 nights, had their first two off-days in a row then followed up with six games in 10 nights.From thence it was three days off followed by five games in eight nights and on to the 10-day stretch he referred to where they had stretches of two, three and two days off with only one game between.

The final run to the Christmas break began last week where they played a back-to-back, had two days off and are now in Florida for a game against the Panthers tonight before finishing with a back-to-back Thursday and Friday.

Bylsma made no excuses using the schedule, nor did he make any excuses using injuries. "This is the NHL," he told White. "You have injuries, you have a lot of injuries, you get healthy and hopefully you can keep that health going forward."

Of course the big injury for Buffalo was that of Jack Eichel who missed the first 21 games of the season with a high ankle sprain suffered on the eve of the regular season. Eichel returned to the ice and put together two adrenaline-filled performances at Ottawa and at home vs. the NY Rangers, both wins for the Sabres, but started feeling the effects of the long layoff, according to Bylsma.

"His first two games back were pretty remarkable," the coach told White. "Then in games 3, 4, and 5 he started feeling [it]. He started to get some bumps and bruises in other areas and felt that ankle against Washington and was feeling pretty banged up. As he got acquainted to a higher level of work, playing more games, I think he started to feel a lot better, like he had that extra gear."

When Eichel is healthy, that extra gear is like switching on the nitrous tanks and it's good to see that he's rounded into game-shape.

Long-term injuries will do that. It's not just the recovery period off the ice and the body healing, it's also about getting up to speed and conditioning the body to take on the physical punishment. As we look back on the first quarter of this season we see a team that has had numerous long-term injuries to key players. Along with Eichel there was Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian and Dmitry Kulikov, three more top-half players who were sidelined for extended lengths. However, beginning in Carolina on Saturday, all the Sabres players are back on the ice save for Tyler Ennis whom we barely even know as he has yet to play this season after appearing in only 23 games last year.

Bylsma pointed to this final stretch of six games as an area of focus for the club. Buffalo is 2-0-1 in the first half while the second half begins tonight at Florida against the Panthers and they're looking to get on a roll.


The Florida Panthers are a bit of a mess right now as ownership did some strange things in the off season.

After accumulating 103 points and winning the division last season, the team went through a philosophical change that has them struggling this season with a 14-13-5 record. The Panthers are only two points ahead of the Sabres having played two more games.

Analytics was at the crux of the decision to trade away defensemen Eric Gudbranson and Kulikov in the off season and it eventually lead to the firing of head coach Gerald Gallant last month. The mastermind behind the 'Cats rise to the top of the Atlantic Division was Dale Tallon. He, like Gallant, is a hockey guy and the players that were traded were hockey players. But in the world of analytics, there's no room at the inn for a mindset like that so they all were removed from the equation in some way. Tallon is still in the organization but was kicked up to an upper management role that took him away from hockey decisions.

Regardless of Tallon's place now, which is said to be back making hockey decisions, Pandora's box has been opened.

Florida joined the Arizona Coyotes and Toronto Maple Leafs in openly and overtly riding the analytics wave. All three have highly-touted "analytics gurus" in management positions--Tom Rowe is Florida's GM and interim head coach, John Chayka is GM in Arizona and Kyls Dubas is AGM for the Leafs.

These are the three teams to follow in the battle between new and old school and they're off to a rough start at this juncture. The Panthers' 33 points is best amongst the trio of teams, Toronto is next best at 31 while the Yotes have 27 points and presently sit 29th in the league.

The Sabres shutout Florida earlier this season 3-0 and tonight represents the second of four meetings between the Atlantic Division foes. Last year the Panthers went 3-1-0 vs. Buffalo outscoring them by a combined 17-10.


Injured Buffalo Bills center Eric Wood is a great interview and is the longest tenured player on the team right now. As rumors fly that head coach Rex Ryan will get the axe come season's end (or sooner,) Wood is none too pleased with that possibility. After already playing for four different coaches since being taken by Buffalo in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft, Wood is backing his head coach.

“I’m a Rex guy. I like Rex a lot. I like him as a coach. I think he’s a great leader,” Wood said, via the Associated Press. “I know it doesn’t feel like it all the time, but we’re so freaking close.”

Wood is a pretty astute guy who's certainly in touch with One Buffalo the blanket thrown by Terry and Kim Pegula, owners of both the Sabres and the Bills and he used a hockey, the Sabres and tanking to make a point. “This isn’t like hockey where you scrap your franchise for a guy that you know is coming like a [Jack] Eichel or [Connor]McDavid,” Wood said, referring to the No. 2 overall pick in Buffalo's Eichel and the top overall pick in 2015 in Edmonton's McDavid. “This is football. You can get a No. 1 draft pick, and the best guy on the board is a tackle that year, and a tackle doesn't change your franchise."

I'm all for continuity as well but who knows what ownership will do, but those comments by Wood make me like him even more. He's a football player through and through.


Bylsma looks to be sticking with his lineup changes with a projected lineup, according to of:

Marcus Foligno-Ryan O'Reilly-Sam Reinhart
Matt Moulson-Jack Eichel-Kyle Okposo
Evander Kane-Johan Larsson-Brian Gionta
Zemgus Girgensons-Derek Grant-William Carrier

Jake McCabe-Rasmus Ristolainen
Dmitry Kulikov-Zach Bogosian
Josh Gorges-Cody Franson

Robin Lehner gets the start in net.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Rasmus Ristolainen should be the Sabres next captain.

Published by, 12-19-2016

Brian Gionta has been a good captain for the Buffalo Sabres. The 37 yr old Stanley Cup winner came aboard to help stabilize a team about to embark on a complete rebuild and was asked to maintain high standards of professionalism. He's done that very well even finding the fountain of youth in the process.

But Gionta will pass the 'C' on to someone else as soon as next year and there looks to be three viable candidates who's names are always in the mix to succeed him--Ryan O'Reilly, Jack Eichel and Rasmus Ristolainen. Sabers-centric social media, message boards and forums invariably have the captaincy as a battle between O'Reilly and Eichel with Ristolainen stitching on an 'A'.

O'Reilly's a big Canadian boy who lives and breathes the game of hockey. It took a trade to the Sabres and a contract extension for the 26 yr. old to finally get a letter and since he's arrived in Buffalo he's been the consummate professional (save for one off-ice incident) with a drive that has him conducting after-ice practices on a daily basis. He has top-six talent, is impeccable on the draw and is the top minute-man amongst forwards in all situations.

Whiz kid Eichel has a skill-level not seen around these parts for decades. The 20 yr. old center with blazing speed and intimidating skill-set backs off the opposition at every turn and at this juncture seems to be one of those franchise-type players where the moment is never too big. The offensive dimension he adds to the Sabres is statistically chartable, yet the confidence the team gains with him on the ice is immeasurable. He's a player that could (will?) eventually be playing in all situations, but as of right now Eichel is the driving force behind the offense and there's a belief in many circles that the team's best player is ususally it's captian (see Connor McDavid.)

Either player would make an excellent captain for the Sabres, but the one who seems to be building the strongest case on a nightly basis is Ristolainen.

At 22 yrs old Ristolainen has already appeared in 224 NHL games with mostly hard minutes attached to them. Dating back to last season he's been on the ice as an all-situations, top-pair/No. 1 defenseman that has not only grown from it but has thrived as more and more responsibility has been heaped upon him. He skate's extremely well for a big defenseman, has the skill-level to put up points and has a burgeoning Chris Pronger-type attitude when it comes to making life difficult for opposing star players and/or those invading the space around his goal.

Both O'Reilly and Eichel are determined players on the ice, with O'Reilly's leadership coming through regularly, but Ristolainen has a conviction about him. He has that hate-to-lose attitude and you get the feeling that he takes every loss personally. Not in a pensive "I need to be better" way that O'Reilly does, but more like and aggressive frustration that he takes out on sticks and pucks and fitness machines with the idea it won't happen again.

It was that type of attitude that got him noticed on day-one at Sabres development camp back in 2014.

The 2013-14 season for Buffalo was tumultuous as the Sabres fired their long-term GM and the head coach as they nose-dived to the bottom of the league early. Ristolainen was part of a large group of rookies on the club to begin the season but was sent to Rochester after 19 games. He ended up playing in 34 games for Buffalo and 34 games for the Amerks that season and learned a few things about himself and his place in hockey.

While with Rochester Ristolainen was afforded the opportunity to play for his country at the World Junior Championships in Malmo, Sweden. He put on an All-tournament performance topped off by scoring the Golden Goal as Team Finland defeated Team Sweden in overtime. Ristolainen took his place amongst the best of his peers. And during his stint with the Amerks he was fed top-pairing minutes and ended up with 20 points (6g +14a) and a minus-2 rating in 34 games.

For a player who played in the Finnish Elite League as the second youngest player ever at 16 yrs. old and who'd began his NHL career as a 19 yr. old, the AHL wouldn't do. He headed back to Finland at the conclusion of the hockey season and came back cut eliminating every ounce of "baby fat" he could during off season. "He's an absolute powerhouse," said fellow prospect Anthony Florentino at Sabres development camp. "Honestly, the only word to describe him is a specimen."

Ristolainen has been that way ever since. His workout regimen allowed him to play three consecutive games at over 29 minutes this season and say afterwards that he could handle more. Being a specimen doesn't a captain make. Having the internal drive to become that in order to become the best possible player one could be is certainly a captain-worthy trait.

What it comes down to is a captain representing the ideal of what a franchise should be. A prime example of that is in Detroit where the rise of the Wings began with a highly skilled, smooth-skating, hockey-smart captain in  Steve Yzerman passing the baton to Niklas Lidstrom and now Henrik Zetterberg. In Philadelphia it was a highly skilled, rough and tumble Bobby Clarke who defined Philadelphia. Throughout the years Eric Lindros and Mike Richards took the mantle and the 'C' eventually rests in the capable, Clarke-like hands of Claude Giroux.

The Buffalo Sabres are being built to play an up-tempo game with offensive speed and skill and have a head coach in Dan Bylsma who won a Cup while coaching a team with pieces like that. Sabres teams from the past have been built like that dating all the way back to the French Connection, a time when Sabres' owner Terry Pegula was developing his love for hockey. Up-tempo, high-speed and high-end skill are right up Eichel's alley which is why many feel he should be captain.

Yet, for a 6'3" 207 lb. defenseman, Ristolainen has excellent speed and ample skill and hockey smarts to succeed in a system like that. He also plays with an edge to his game somewhat reminiscent of the Flyers back in Clarke's days with a team that was the first to catch Pegula's eye.

The Sabres are evolving right now and the end result is yet to be determined, but Ristolainen has taken his game to a whole different level. “You see him start to develop into a force, joining the offensive play and being part of the five-man offensive thrust,” said Bylsma in a Buffalo News, John Vogl piece today.

Veteran Josh Gorges, Ristolainen's d-partner nearly all of last season and early into this one has seen the evolution up close.

From the Vogl piece:

“He’s starting to realize his potential, realize how good he is, and he wants to be the guy,” the Buffalo defenseman said. “He wants to be the best, and you see that in his drive and how he prepares, how he practices when he gets on the ice.

“You can talk about the skill level and the ability to play the game with 50 different players in the league, and the difference in them isn’t much. I think what separates good players, great players to the elite players is how they think the game, how they see the game, how they prepare and how they go out there. They’re not OK with just being average or just being good. They want to be the best, and that drive is what takes them into what they’re able to do.

“Especially the last little while with Risto, he’s taken it on his shoulders to step up and be a difference maker.”

To me, that's captain material all the way.

For those who haven't seen it, or want to revisit it, here's Ristolainen's Golden Goal at the 2014 WJC courtesy NHLUniverse:

Monday, December 19, 2016

Food for thought

Published by, 12-18-2016

Taking five of a possible six points over the last three games simply rocks. How the Buffalo Sabres did so is somewhat unsettling as they gave up the first goal all three games. Against the LA Kings on Tuesday they gave up the first two goals before storming back for a 6-3 win on the strength of four unanswered goals in the second period.

Buffalo had trouble with the tight checking of the NY Islanders on Friday but got the game to overtime on Matt Moulson's game-tying goal early in the third period. Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen provided the winner in OT while goalie Robin Lehner followed up a so-so performance against LA with a strong one against the Isles.

The Carolina Hurricanes did their finest 1995 NJ Devils impression by bogging things down through two periods while taking a 1-0 lead into the third. The Sabres, and PNC Arena finally came to life but it took most of the period for Buffalo to score as the much maligned Evander Kane tipped in a pass from the point by Jake McCabe. Anders Nilsson was solid in net, but he only had to face 16 shots through regulation. As per usual, the Sabres stunk in the shootout, yet still managed the loser point and right now it's all about getting points.

Beginning in Pittsburgh with a 2-1 shootout win (ironically, their only SO win on the season,) the Sabres have compiled a 7-3-3 record good for 17 points. Projected out over an 82-game season that comes to a total of 107 points.

Since Jack Eichel's return to the lineup they are 5-2-2 for a total of 12 points or on pace for 109 points.

It will take a pace like that to get them into the playoffs.

The cool part about mounting comebacks in the last three games is that we in Sabreland know it's possible. After witnessing the barrage of goals against LA, how many fans did not get that sinking feeling when Buffalo was behind both the Isles and 'Canes? Count me as one.

Then think back to the dread that was early-mid November.


The Sabres haven't had a fully healthy d-corps for quite a while. In fact they've only played a handful of games with the defense as laid out over the summer.

Buffalo started out the season with Dmitry Kulikov out and upon his return one game into the season they played the next eight games with their top-six intact. From October 16 to November 1  Buffalo went 4-2-2 for 10 points. Projected out over an 82-game season that's 102 points for that stretch with a complete d-corps.

Also during that eight-game span the Sabres outscored their opponents by a combined 21-17 or an average of 2.63 to 2.13.

And they had their only three-game winning streak of the season outscoring their opponents by a combined 8-2 score.


From November 3, their first game without Bogosian to the last game prior to Eichel's return (Nov. 25) Buffalo had a record of 3-6-3 with a the defense decimated by injuries and top-two center Ryan O'Reilly joining Eichel for a stint. Buffalo scored 15 goals for (1.36 g/gm) and gave up 27 (2.45.)

The nine points in 11 games projects out to 67 points over an 82-game season.

No wonder there were calls to man the tanks once again as the Sabres were certainly looking like a last place team.

Just something to chomp on.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Looking for a winning streak.

Published by, 12-17-2016

Win one game and it's simply a win. Win another and it's two in a row. Win a third and now we're talkin' streak.

That's what the Buffalo Sabres are looking at tonight. For the second time this month the Sabres are looking to turn two wins in a row into a three-game winning streak. It's something they've accomplished only once so far this season. Back in late October/Early November they managed to string three in a row before losing to the Toronto Maple Leafs 2-1 at Key Bank Center.

Things could be a whole lot different right now if it weren't for some dominant play strewn between timely goals and fortuitous bounces as Buffalo's been unable to put together a complete game. Against the LA Kings they sleep-walked through the first half of the game before waking up with a vengeance scoring four unanswered goals in just over six minutes to take a 4-2 lead. Last night vs. the NY Islanders, a team that had just went toe-to-toe with the Chicago Blackhawks. The Sabres were rested, the Islanders were not.

The Sabres went into the third period down a goal and looked scatter-brained for the opening few minutes which included an early powerplay. Even on that the first PP unit looked pretty bad and the second unit not much better. But with Evander Kane forcing the issue and getting the puck to the net, a rebound popped out to Matt Moulson who sent a cross-ice pass that banked in off of Isles d-man Thomas Hickey and into the net with :03 seconds left in the powerplay.

Buffalo would pressure from there on in but it wasn't until Rasmus Ristolainen scored :42 seconds into overtime that the Sabres could finally put this one away. Ristolainen was a study in contrast last night. He sent a shot pass to Johan Larsson for Buffalo's first goal and his goal in overtime was beautiful, however, he tried some fancy passing in his own end that lead to Islander scoring chances which included putting one right on the stick of John Tavares. All-in-all Ristolainen played a stellar game but we're pretty sure head coach Dan Bylsma and his staff will mention those gaffes.

Props to goalie Robin Lehner who kept the team in the game all night with some nice saves. Lehner stopped 33 of 35 shots while on the way to his seventh victory of the season. He's sporting a 2.45 goals-against average and .920 save percentage.

Regardless of their cliff-dancing, the Sabres are winning, even when they probably shouldn't. "We definitely weren't at our best tonight,"said forward Kyle Okposo post-game to the gathered media. "You're going to have some different games, some games where you're not at your best and you've got to find a way to win those.That's the sign of a good team, what good teams do. You're going to have some off nights. 

"Find a way to win that game."

Okposo was instrumental in both of the Sabres wins. Against the Kings on Tuesday he had three assists in the 6-3 Sabres win including the primary one on Jack Eichel's eventual game-winner. He also set up the game-winner in overtime last night as he pulled the d-coverage over to him and sent a perfect feed to Ristolainen in the slot. It Okposo's first game against his former team since signing with Buffalo in the off season.

The Sabres are making things difficult on themselves by allowing the first goal of the game. They're 8-1-5 when scoring first, 6-0-3 when leading after the first period. However they're 3-10-1 when the opposition scores first, 2-7-0 when trailing after one period according to Sabres PR. Granted, when Eichel was out of the line up, along with a revolving door of other forwards, the team couldn't score, but even with him back and the team averaging 3.25 goals/game since, you don't want to dance on that ledge too often.

Buffalo is looking to make it three in a row at Carolina tonight where the Hurricanes have been tough at home as of late. After a 4-2 loss on November 10 vs. Anaheim, the 'Canes rattled off seven in a row at PNC Arena before losing in overtime last night to the Washington Capitals. Carolina has 31 points which places them sixth in the Metro Division and 11th in the conference, one point ahead of Buffalo who has a game in hand.

The Sabres swept the season series last year. They beat the 'Canes at home 4-1 and 3-2 in OT while also winning 3-2 in Carolina. Eichel had three goals last season against Carolina including this doozy in overtime off of a rainbow feed from Evander Kane with seconds left.

Enjoy, courtesy NHL videos: