Thursday, December 8, 2016

Maturation process continues in win over McDavid and the Oilers

Published by, 12-07-2016

Last night's 4-3 overtime win over the Edmonton Oilers wasn't without tension, and maybe that's why it must be extremely gratifying for the Buffalo Sabres to come away with two points.

After blowing a third period lead in Washington Monday night and losing in overtime 3-2 to the Capitals, the Sabres came home to face Connor McDavid and the high-flying Edmonton Oilers with built-in excuses ready--it was the second game of a back-to-back, the Oilers were rested, the defense has two rookies on it with a combined three games of NHL experience, back-up goalie Anders Nilsson was in net, Jack Eichel is not 100%, etc., etc. etc. And they almost needed to use them.

But a funny thing happened on the way to another possible loss at KeyBank Center--they snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Buffalo's Evander Kane tied the game with the goalie pulled and less than :30 seconds left in the third period after a fortuitous bounce put the puck on his stick in the crease, and Rasmus Ristolainen chimed in (literally) with his first goal of the season on the powerplay in overtime.

Looking at the two back-to-back games as a whole may constitute a turning point in the season when all's said and done. The Sabres went all-in for two points against Washington and fell short expending a ton of energy in the process, then did what many teams do on the second of a back-to-back--the adrenaline kicks in early, reality hits in the middle leaving the team to battle back at the end. On many occasions said team runs out of gas and/or luck and they end up in the loser's locker room talking about a missed opportunity for the team and missed opportunities individually.

Not so last night.

It's good to be on the winning side of this one as the maturation process for this young Buffalo Sabres team seems to have taken a big step forward these last two nights. As a Sabres fan you gotta love how they attacked the net in Washington as often times more than a couple of Sabres players were in the crease battling for the puck and looking for a rebound against a top-notch goalie and a veteran Capitals team.

In coming back the next night versus Edmonton the Sabres faced an Oilers team that's very similar to their own in a battle of peers. Edmonton's  a fast team with a premier player in McDavid while the Sabres counter with speed of their own and a premier player in Eichel. Edmonton has vets guiding their youngins as do the Sabres. Although the Oilers defense isn't as strong as Buffalo's, the Sabres are missing three top-four d-men which knocks them down a notch overall. And both teams have very capable coaches in the Oilers Todd McLellan and the Sabres Dan Bylsma.

Buffalo, however, pulled one over on their contemporary and it's the second win for the Sabres over the Oilers this season as Buffalo blasted Edmonton 6-2 at Rexall Place in early October. "You gotta win hockey games in a lot of different ways," Bylsma told the gathered media post-game last night. "Tonight we claw back and get one 6-on-5 at the end of the game to tie it up and we came up big 4-on-3 post-regulation to get the win."

The Sabres are on a pretty good run right now. They're playing good, solid hockey and, thank God, are beginning to score some goals. Dating back a big 2-1 shootout win over the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, Buffalo's compiled a 5-2-2 record facing the likes of Washington, Boston, the NY Rangers and last night the Edmonton Oilers who came into the game tied for the Pacific Division lead.

Buffalo's drive to the playoffs is anything but dead right now and should they be able to overcome the many hurdles thrown their way in the first quarter of the season, this stretch of nine games, highlighted by this back-to-back, may be looked upon as a turning point. Individually and as a group the Sabres seem to be maturing before our eyes. Although far from perfect they're forming their identity and learning what it takes to win games. Consistency is the next big step overall, and health may be a huge factor once again, but you gotta give this group a bunch of credit for being able to do work their way back towards relevancy.


Whipping boy Evander Kane was one of the hero's last night. Perhaps he finally feels healthy again after cracking four ribs in the first game of the season. Or maybe it's the return of Jack Eichel. Or maybe it's divine intervention or he's been getting proper sleep or he wants to quash the trade rumors that have surrounded him since last summer. Who knows? But the Kane we've been witnessing over the past few games is the Evander Kane GM Tim Murray traded for when he pulled off the blockbuster with Winnipeg--the power forward with speed and skill who plays a north/south game with definitive edge.

Kane had two goals last night, one from a quick snap shot that caught Oilers goalie Cam Talbot a little off guard and one off a rebound while parked in Talbot's crease with :29 seconds to go in the third period. About the only thing missing from his repertoire is a fight.

Maturation has been a big problem for the 25 yr. old with 441 NHL games under his belt and if this is the Kane we'll be seeing from here on in, he's the type of player that can really help drive the team forward. That said, it always seems to be something with him and in the back of our minds we're thinking "it's only a matter of time."

For now, however, I choose to marvel at the tools he has on the ice and the force he can be when he uses them.


So much for Rasmus Ristolainen playing less this season.

According to head coach Dan Bylsma in the preseason, he planned on using Ristolainen less this year but that all fell to the wayside with each injury on defense. Ristolainen has topped 29 minutes three games in a row, five out of the last nine. His lowest time on ice was 24:57.

Ristolainen ranks fifth in the league right now with an ATOI/Game of 26:41 but it doesn't seem to bother him. In the last nine games he has eight points and scored his first goal of the season in overtime. He had 29:58 of ice-time last night and 29:51 vs. the Capitals the night before.

That's the definition of a workhorse.


Connor McDavid cross-checked Sabres d-man Jake McCabe into the boards last night early in the second period which didn't sit well with McCabe. Later in the game McCabe saw an opportunity for payback at center ice and came very close to knocking McDavid into tomorrow. McDavid barely avoided the hit.

McCabe, who's known for very physical play which includes standing all players up at the blueline and generally making life difficult for the opposition was on McDavid all night. After the game a reporter asked McDavid about the incidents and if he was surprised at McCabe's physicality. "You know. I kinda brought it upon myself taking that penalty on him," McDavid said to the reporters, "and he responded. I thought we had a 2-on-1 and he kinda caught me off guard nut I thought I did a pretty good job of getting out of the way."

It's too bad these two teams only meet twice a ye

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