Published by hockeybuzz.com, 12-14-2016
Sabres starting goalie Robin Lehner got a taste of what it's been like for back-up Anders Nilsson as of late. While Lehner was trying to keep things tight as the team in front of him was busy scoring 14 goals in his last 10 games, Nilsson was living the high life as the team in front of him was scoring 12 goals for him in his last four appearances. The end result was a 1-6-3 record for Lehner and a 3-1-0 record for Nilsson.
There must have been a strong sense of deja vu for Lehner last night as Buffalo found themselves down 2-0 in the second period. It was looking like a game that we'd seen so many times this year, especially with Lehner in goal. The Sabres would fall behind then work their way back to come within a goal, which was what happened when Ryan O'Reilly roofed a smokin' backhander to make it 2-1 last night, but ultimately they wouldn't be able to muster another and the final score would end up being 2-1, 3-1, or even 4-1 which happened a few times.
That was the November Sabres when injuries decimated the club with one in particular taking away everything this team was built upon.
When Jack Eichel was out, open ice was hard to come by but since his return the Sabres have been buzzing. In the seven games since his return to the lineup, the Sabres have had only two poor performances--a 2-1 loss vs. the Boston Bruins and a 4-1 loss vs. the Washington Capitals. In the other five games Buffalo's offense kicked in gear to the tune of 21 goals. During those five games they had a two-goal game only once and lost to Washington in overtime. In the other four games they won by scoring 5, 4, 4, and 6 goals.
The calendar reads December, not November, and after a ticked off O'Reilly willed that first goal, the flood gates really opened when Eichel surprised LA's Peter Budaj with a quick ice-level wrister that found the corner of the net to tie the score at 2-2. Twelve seconds later defenseman Justin Falk's shot from the point banked in off of Brian Gionta's leg and less than two minutes after that Eichel worked his way to the high slot where he sent a rocket past the Kings Jeff Zatkoff to make it 4-2 Buffalo in an explosion of goals.
Post-game Lehner was asked what it was like to finally hear the goal-horn, "It was nice," he told the gathered media, "it was fun. Jack [Eichel], Ryan [O'Reilly] and a lot of the guys stepped up and bailed me out a little bit. It was very nice the guys came up with some tonight."
The Kings got back in it with a goal that Lehner admitted he wanted back but Eichel set up Evander Kane to restore their two-goal cushion and Sam Reinhart added a rare empty-netter for the 6-3 final score.
Those of us in Sabreland who were slumped in our Lazy-boys with that sinking feeling may have felt a little bit different after watching the Sabres take over the game. Lehner wasn't perfect by any means but both he and Nilsson should now know that they don't need to be in order for this team, with Eichel and a full compliment of forwards, to win.
When Sabres GM Tim Murray took over the Buffalo Sabres in January, 2014, the Kings were on their way to their second Stanley Cup in three seasons with a Western Conference Final appearance in between. The formula centered around big, gritty players that could skate. The conference was rough and tumble as veritable trees skated up and down the ice knocking each other around. Chicago was the outlier as the Blackhawks boasted tremendous speed and skill but in order to get to their two Stanley Cups they had to maneuver themselves around the heavyweights that teams like the Kings, San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues were loaded with.
Murray was tapping into that western conference philosophy when he made a trade with the Kings to bring in "heavies," as he called them. He sent big defenseman Brayden McNabb along with two second rounders (both picks originally held by LA) to the Kings for 6'1" 230 lb. Nicolas Deslauriers and 6'2" 217 lb. Minnesota Golden Gopher freshman Hudson Fasching.
Times change quickly in the NHL and only two years after the Kings second Cup-win, the speed-demon Pittsburgh Penguins won the Cup in 2016.
Murray and his scouts altered their original plan somewhat by leaning much more towards the speed part of the equation. The Sabres still have some heft but they also have a lot of speed and skill when the forward group is healthy. Eichel is one of the fastest players in the league, Kyle Okposo, who had three assists and was a plus-three last night, is a very good skater with shifty moves while both Evander Kane and William Carrier have intense north/south speed and the tenacity to make a difference.
Last night's game was similar to a western conference heavyweight bout as both teams were laying the body on each other. Both the Kings and the Sabres were credited with 35 hits in the game and although the aggression they showed each other only beget one fight, tensions were high.
Since Eichel's return the Sabres have been able to skate with the Ottawa Senators, NY Rangers and Edmonton Oilers and come away with wins. Last night they beat the Kings at their own game.
It's a big step forward for the club.
Some may put an asterisk next to the win over LA last night as the Kings starting goalie, and two-time Cup-winner, Jonathan Quick., but the Sabres have been having troubles no matter who's been in net for the opposition. As we've seen many times the Sabres have often made a back-up look like a top-10 goalie.
Not so last night, although Eichel's first goal was a softie.
The Kings' Peter Budaj has been respectable in net with a 2.27 goals-against average and a .907 save percentage but the Sabres tortured him.
Jeff Zatkoff, the back-up to back-up Budaj, has not been very good, however. He has a 3.20 GAA and .882 Sv%. Last night he relieved Budaj with the score 3-2, allowed one goal against on three shots last and was quickly yanked by head coach Darryl Sutter. The fourth goal Zatkoff gave up proved to be the winner and he was saddled with the loss in only 6:12 of ice-time.
Zatkoff, as those of us in Sabreland remember, came to a verbal agreement with Buffalo before reneging and signing with the Kings which is a pretty legit move for him hockey-wise, save for backing out of the agreement. The Kings are a perennial powerhouse in the west and how can you argue with living in Los Angeles.
But it had to be very satisfying for Murray and the Sabres to convincingly come out on top in this won. And for a little cherry on the sundae, to have their franchise center in Eichel smoke a wrister past Zatkoff for the eventual game-winner.
Other quick notes:
--How many times do you think Sutter told his charges not to let Eichel into the slot with open ice. It happened and the 19 yr. old Eichel potted his fifth goal in only seven games this season. His assist on Kane's goal late in the third period was his third giving him eight points total.
--The line of Eichel, Kane and Okposo was a formidable one last night but they couldn't hit the scoresheet. Bylsma switched things up by switching Kane and Matt Moulson, who was on the fourth line. Moulson got on the scoresheet with the secondary assist on both Eichel goals. They were Moulson's first two 5v5 assists of the season.
--By the looks of it, Kane wasn't very happy with the switch. His north/south game was in overdrive last night and when he was dropped to the fourth line there was a notable difference. And when he scored Buffalo's fifth goal from the crease, he stood there with an angry, "in your face" reaction. Although it may not have been directed at Bylsma, it sure seemed like it.
--The aforementioned McNabb did not play for the Kings last night as the defenseman is still recovering from a broken collar bone suffered in an October 29 game against the Blues.