Friday, December 9, 2016

Despite rash of injuries, Sabres slightly ahead of last year's pace

Published by, 12-08-2016

Two days off between games is a welcome reprieve for the Buffalo Sabres and their walking wounded. No, it won't mean their depleted defense-corps will become whole again as top-four defensemen Zach Bogosian and Josh Gorges are still on a week-to-week basis, but d-man Dmitry Kulikov looks ready to return and forward Jack Eichel will get an extra day to work out the kinks of a tweaked ankle and funky hip.

For those who haven't been following, the Sabres have been decimated by long-term injuries beginning with Eichel the day before Buffalo opened their season. From thence top-six forward Evander Kane went down in the opener and the defense started getting wrecked while sprinkled in were injuries to Tyler Ennis (long-term) and Ryan O'Reilly. It's been one after the other for Buffalo and as the forward ranks began to get healthier d-men started falling to the point where the Sabres elected to recall junior defenseman Brendan Guhle from Prince George of the WHL.

And so it has been for the 2016-17 season thus far.

However, for as rough as it's been for the club, especially in the goal-scoring department, Buffalo has managed to stay afloat and is at the .500-point mark with a record of 10-10-6 sporting identical home and road records of 5-5-3.

Although the Sabres left some points on the table, which includes blown third period leads at Calgary and Philadelphia in October as well as one at Washington on Monday night, they managed to snare a loser-point in each of those games. All told the team has six OT/SO losses this season and it's the reason they're ahead of last year's pace. In 2015-16 the Sabres managed 23 points after 26 games on an a 10-13-3 record. Buffalo went 5-9-1 at home and 5-4-2 on the road.

As we dig a little deeper into the numbers we find that through 26 games Buffalo has scored 54 goals so far this season, a total which has been bolstered by scoring at a pretty good clip with the return of Eichel (16 goals in five games.) Last season through the same number of games the Sabres scored 60 goals. On the defensive side Buffalo has allowed 67 goals this season as opposed to 66 last.

Timely goaltending has keep the Sabres treading water prior to Eichel's return on November 29th.. In 21 games before his return, the Sabres scored only 38 goals (1.81 goals/game) and their defense allowed 51 goals (2.43 goals-against/game.) With offensive production as low as that, head coach Dan Bylsma tightened things up, especially in the month of November when the team scored only 18 goals in 13 games (1.38 g/gm.) Yet they somehow managed to come away with a 4-6-3 record.

Buffalo's tightening on defense was backstopped by the goalie tandem of starter Robin Lehner and back up Anders Nilsson in net. Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News pointed out in an article yesterday that the tandem ranks fourth in the league in save percentage (.924%) and ninth in goals against (2.46.) He also uses statistics that point to a possible goalie controversy, but in looking at the last five games for each goalie, goal-support was the determining factor in the win-loss column. Nilsson has given up three goals or more in his last four of his last five, including the last four in a row, and has a 4-1-0 record. Lehner allowed three goals only once in his last five decisions and is 1-1-3.

Go figure.

Buffalo has been playing very well as of late going 5-2-2 in their last nine games. They seem to be getting into a much better flow on offense while the defense is holding their own. The Sabres probably won't have a full compliment of defensemen prior to Christmas so holding the fort and at least equaling last year's seven points (3-4-1) between now and the Christmas break will keep them ahead of last year's pace. How one looks at it the season up to this point is a half-empty/half-full debate, but with all that's been going on so far, it could be a lot worse.

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