Saturday, December 10, 2016

Sabres penalty kill is atrocious or; David Legwand, where are you?

Published by, 12-9-2016

Ok. So it wasn't all David Legwand last year leading the Sabres to the league's ninth best penalty kill rate of 82.6%, but you gotta believe that when the 35 yr. old veteran of 17 NHL seasons was on the kill for Buffalo, that experience and dedication.affected the entire unit. Outside of the first month of the season, it's something that hasn't been replicated yet this year and it's making life difficult for the Sabres.

Buffalo heads into tonight's matchup with the Washington Capitals with the league's second-worst penalty kill at 75.6%. They went from an 86.7% kill rate at the end of October (seventh-overall) to 78.7% at the end of last month (25th) and as John Vogl of the Buffalo News points out, "Buffalo has given up a power-play goal in eight of the past 11 games while going just 17 for 29 (58.6 percent)" dropping them to 29th.

Legwand was a fourth-liner for the Sabres last year, but he was rock-solid on the top PK. After fits and starts to last season where the PK was near the bottom of the league, the Sabres eventually found their top unit of Legwand with Ryan O'Reilly, Rasmus Ristolainen and Josh Gorges. The second unit was anchored by defensemen Zach Bogosian and Jake McCabe with a myriad of forwards including Brian Gionta, Marcus Foligno, Zemgus Girgensons and Evander Kane. Gradually they went from 29th in the league to 17th to ninth after the month of February and it coincided with a strong finish to the regular season.

This year they're slipping very fast and it's causing them to walk a tight rope. In three of their last four games Buffalo has allowed two powerplay goals. Fortunately for them, they've scored four or more goals in each leading to three wins with the most recent being against the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday.  Kane's cross checking penalty at the midway point of the third period against Edmonton allowed the Oilers to take the lead on their third unanswered goal. Luckily the Sabres were able to tie it on Kane's goal with :29 seconds left in the third and then win it in overtime, but they can't afford stupid penalties with a second to last PK.

“The goals are good. The penalties are bad,” summarized head coach Dan Bylsma yesterday after practice. The gathered media got a chuckle, according to Vogl, but the Sabres aren't a team like the Chicago Blackhawks who have the fire power to overcome a poor powerplay. The Hawks are dead last on the kill (71.4%) but are tied for second overall in the league standings and are sixth with a +10 point differential.

Bylsma's philosophy is pretty simple right now, penalties taken while being aggressive is one thing, dumb penalties, and he points to Kane in particular, is another. “The penalties away from the puck, the cross-checking last game, those are not good situations to put yourself in, put your team in," he told the media yesterday. "That’s really been a big part of us giving other teams opportunities in the last few games, the Edmonton game in particular."

In defense of the penalty kill units, continuity has been a problem due to the rash of injuries the Sabres have incurred. Bogosian and McCabe developed a lot of chemistry last season and they had it again this season until the former went down with an MCL sprain on November 1. That affected the second PK unit. O'Reilly missed five games in the middle of November while Gorges suffered and played through a broken foot against the NY Rangers and has missed the last two games. That affected the top unit.

Going back five game to the return of Jack Eichel to the lineup, the Sabres have allowed seven powerplay goals in 15 attempts for a kill-rate of just over 50%. They gave up two PP goals in three of those games and one in another but came away with a 3-1-1 record. Ironically, Buffalo's only regulation loss was against Boston where the Bruins went 0-2 on the powerplay. It's a tightrope walk right now with the Sabres deservedly having bounces go in their favor but it's something that can end at any minute.

The Sabres are at home against the Washington Capitals tonight, a team that boasts a top powerplay unit featuring the likes of Alexander Ovechkin, Ryan Johansson, and Nicolas Backstrom. This the third and final meeting between the two clubs this season and so far Buffalo is 0-1-1. The Caps have had seven powerplay opportunities and scored twice. But one of them really hurt.

With the Sabres clinging to a 2-1 lead late in the third period, Kane went off for a hooking penalty. It took the Caps all of five seconds to tie the score and they proceeded to win in overtime. It was a bad penalty to take at a bad time with a PK unit that wasn't ready to bail him out. At this point in the season, it's hard for Buffalo to overcome stupid penalties like that.  After all, they don't have Legwand.

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