Published by hockeybuzz.com, 11-29-2016
It's been just about seven weeks since Buffalo Sabres forward Jack Eichel was sidelined with a high ankle sprain the day before the season opener. For the Sabres, there were times where it had to feel like seven months.
Buffalo is in Ottawa to take on the Senators tonight. The Sabres have compiled a 7-9-5 record in Eichel's absence and despite slogging through the schedule and finding themselves last in the division at the quarter-pole, hold the forks as there's enough flux in both the division and the conference to keep hope alive.
Although Eichel's injury wasn't' the only major injury to the Sabres, it had the most affect. In his absence the ice tightened up and Buffalo finds themselves scoring at a rate that's below the tank years. Their 1.81 goals/game is dead last in the league while their minus-14 goal differential is last in the conference. Kyle Okposo is the team's leading point producer with 13 ranking him tied for 92nd in the league while Matt Moulson leads the Sabres in goals with seven placing him tied for 43rd.
On a positive note offensively, the Sabres have the 11th best powerplay in the league converting at a 20% clip while Moulson's six powerplay goals rank him second in the league, one behind Montreal's Shea Weber.
The difference between the 5v5 doldrums and an efficient powerplay? Space. And that's where Eichel will help immensely 5v5 as teams will need to accommodate for his speed and skill and are forced to back off when Eichel on the ice. Buffalo should find a little more space in the offensive zone. What they do with it remains to be seen, but it can't get much worse, can it?
No one player makes a team, but in the case of Eichel rejoining the Sabres, his presence makes a huge difference as the forward ranks fall into place. With him back in the lineup, Sam Reinhart goes to his right wing with Evander Kane opposite forming a scoring line that opponents will need to focus upon. Not many teams have two stout checking lines so while the best checkers are occupied with the Eichel line, Ryan O'Reilly, Kyle Okposo and Matt Moulson should draw an easier assignment. And visa versa.
In fact, there's a whole line that's been playing a notch or so above where they should have been the entire season. The two-way line of Johan Larsson, Brian Gionta and Marcus Foligno have been in the top six either as a line or as individual components all season because of the Eichel injury (and the Kane injury as well.) They drop down to a more comfortable slot as the third line.
There are still issues facing the club, however, and much of it stems from the back end. Top-four defensemen Zach Bogosian and Dmitry Kulikov are still out with injuries leaving Justin Falk and Taylor Fedun, both Rochester call-ups, trying to hold the fort as a third pairing. Although they've acquitted themselves quite well, with a full compliment of defensemen, only one would be in Buffalo in a reserve role.
As with the offensive zone, just a little extra space in the d-zone will help the defensemen with their outlet passes. Although it hasn't been a disaster by any stretch of the imagination, any speed this team can get through the neutral zone will be a big plus.
The team is still not saying Eichel's a 100% go, even though Eichel has declared himself ready, but all indications are that he will be in the lineup tonight. Head coach Dan Bylsma was on WGR550 this morning saying that it's "a possibility." Everything has gone well so far and if Eichel wakes up this morning without any ill effects, he should be a go. Or as Kris Baker of sabresprospects.com/sabres.com tweeted, "99% yes. 1% if he wakes up missing a limb."
Some other notes for tonight:
--Buffalo's fourth line looks to be Derek Grant centering rookie Will Carrier and Zemgus Girgensons on the right side. Girgensons has been struggling mightily ever since Byslma took over last season and the coach was very sympathetic with his plight. "He's a player who's looking for ways to have success," he told WGR host's Howard Simon and Jeremy White. "Zemgus is one of our hardest workers, he'll go right through the endboards for you. I almost feel he needs a break, a puck off a shin pad to relieve some of the pressure he feels."
--Eichel's injury occurred during practice in front of the net while tangling with Girgensons. It was a weird injury that Girgensons really didn't have a lot to do with. They weren't grappling or anything like that, but Eichel was in an awkward position when his skate got caught in the ice and his ankle twisted. Although fairy tale endings rarely come true, it would be cool to see Girgensons get off the schneid (no goals in 18 games, one all season) with a goal in Eichel's return not only for himself, but for the team as well.
--The Ottawa Senators presently sit second in the Atlantic Division with 29 points on a 14-7-1 record which is 10 points above Buffalo but the Sabres have fared well against their rivals going 1-0-1 so far this season. Buffalo beat Ottawa 2-1 at Canadian Tire Center on November 5 and four days later lost 2-1 in a shootout at KeyBank Center. Sabres goaltender Robin Lehner was in net for both games and is now 2-0-2 in five career appearances against his former club with a .956 save percentage and a 1.30 goals-against average, according to Sabres PR.
In the shootout loss to Ottawa, Lehner gave up two goals on two shots while Buffalo went 1-3 on a goal by Sam Reinhart. Lehner's troubles in the shootout have been well documented here, but the Sabres shooters have been struggling as well.
Only five Buffalo players have scored in the shootout since the beginning of last season. Reinhart leads the team with three goals in five total attempts (60%,) Cal O'Reilly is one for two (both this season,) Matt Moulson and the injured Tyler Ennis are both one for three and have yet to shoot this season while Jack Eichel is one for six (all coming last season.)
Ryan O'Reilly (0/6) and Evander Kane (0/4) have yet to take a shot this season while Kyle Okposo has four shots in four shootouts for Buffalo this season but has yet to score a goal.
The Sabres are 1-3 in the shootout this season after finishing only 2-7 last season. Oddly enough, in the two season's prior to Bylsma, the team went a combined 15-5, while the year prior Buffalo was 7-4.