Saturday, December 17, 2016

Sabres get back to the grind with five games in the next eight nights

Published by, 12-16-2016

Having only one game in six night will have Buffalo fans doing weird things like trying to figure out what the Buffalo Bills would or should do with their football team which is never a good thing. For 16 years it's been the great mystery as to what the team will do. Blow it up? Save the coach? Save the GM? Save both?

Groundhog day. And all we're really left with is a big pile of rubber pellets and a headache.

Or we'll find forums filled with questions as to why the Florida Panthers went all-analytical with their hockey department after a hockey guy lead got the team to 103 points and an Atlantic Division crown last season. Florida team president Dale Tallon built most of the 2010 Stanley Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks and even has his name on the Cup as a gesture of gratitude after being cast off into a senior advisor role with the club. He came to the Panthers organization in May, 2010 and proceeded to work magic with a club that hadn't been to the playoffs since the turn of the century. After a full rebuild and two playoff appearances in five seasons, it was with gratitude that he was shoved up to his role while analytics geeks took the reigns and began to turn the team into the floundering piece of mediocrity we now see.

But, alas. It's game-night with Buffalo taking on the NY Islanders tonight at KeyBank Center.

The Sabres have been having their own problems this season centering around injuries and scoring ineptitude which go hand-in-hand.

Do y'all remember the game against the Tampa Bay Lightning back in November featuring AHL'ers Will Carrier, Nick Baptiste, Evan Rodrigues, Taylor Fedun and Justin Falk replacing Jack Eichel, Ryan O'Reilly, Tyler Ennis, Zach Bogosian and Dmitry Kulikov? Of course not as it was one of many games to forget in the first half of that month. It was the fifth time in nine games Buffalo scored one or less goals, the third game in a row they gave up four goals and it was the first time all season that a defenseman scored a goal for Buffalo.

No need to fully rehash that portion of the season but it was brutal to watch and even worse to talk about.

A sliver of light came through the darkness, however, as the Sabres managed a 2-1 shootout win over the defending Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins and through the rest of the month they hung on while the walking wounded slowly returned to the ice. First O'Reilly, then Eichel and as the month turned to December, Buffalo got Kulikov back and Josh Gorges returned after missing a few games with a broken foot. Bogosian and Fedun are ready to return which would give the Sabres their most complete lineup of the season.

What's not so good for the fans has been a God-send for Buffalo as five days off with only one game between allowed for plenty of practice and an opportunity for the players to get to know each other once again. Head coach Dan Bylsma worked on compete earlier this week and the team came away with 6-3 win over the LA Kings. According to reports compete-drills were at the fore again so we'll see if it carries over.

The Sabres play their next five games in eight nights and have an opportunity to make some headway in both the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference if they can get things rolling. The Western Conference did them a huge favor last night as every division or conference foe within the Sabres'
 sights either lost in regulation or the extra session.

Within the division the Boston Bruins lost in regulation and remain seven points ahead of Buffalo but the Sabres have four games in hand. The aforementioned Panthers lost at Winnipeg in the shootout last night and since the analytics regime fired hockey head coach Gerard Gallant, the team is 2-3-4 and only three points ahead of the Sabres having played three more games. Detroit lost last night and are two points ahead having played three more games and the Toronto Maple Leafs moved one point ahead of Buffalo after their fifth shootout loss. The Sabres will make up their one game in hand over Toronto tonight.

The cool part about the 6-3 win over the Kings, other than the desperately needed two points, is that the team stayed out of the box. In fact both teams did which allowed the Sabres to even out ice-time. "Without the special teams - we had one power play and no penalty kills - we really rolled four lines for a big part of that game," Bylsma told the gathered media post-practice yesterday. "That's really kind of how we want to play."

Bylsma's only rocking one line right now but he may have found some pairings up-front in O'Reilly with Sam Reinhart while Kyle Okposo worked extremely well with Eichel. Evander Kane and Matt Moulson did some first line/fourth swapping while Carrier stuck mostly on the top line.

With the defense returning to health Bylsma will have a bit of a conundrum as they'll be overloaded. But it won't happen tonight as both Bogosian and Fedun aren't quite ready to return.

According to Jourdan LaBarber of the projected lineup tonight:



Robin Lehner gets the nod in net.

In a somewhat of a departure from the "one game at a time" approach most coaches tout, Bylsma pointed directly to the importance of this 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," he said yesterday. "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 twice and the New York Islanders twice - but it's just a stretch of time I the season where we really have to bear down and try and get some wins here and go on a roll."

Buffalo has had only one three-game winning streak this season. There are four teams in the Metropolitan Division who are presently on a streak better than that--Philadelphia, 10 games; Pittsburgh and Columbus, 7 each; Washington, 5.

Time to get things rolling. At least the Sabres are almost healthy.

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