Sabres fans can take heart with the knowledge that it’s not November and that a two-goal deficit for their team is no longer insurmountable. For the better part of last month when the opposition went up by two goals, for all intents and purposes the game was over.
That’s not been the case lately as the Sabres have shown the propensity to storm back from behind in a game, something they proved again last night as they scored three unanswered goals against the Florida Panthers to take a 3-2 lead into the third period. It’s a huge positive that the team can do that, especially against a goalie like Florida's Roberto Louongo who's had their number for years, but there are still a couple of troubling traits.
The first one is slow starts.
For the fifth game in a row Buffalo allowed the first goal of the game and in three of the five they found themselves down by two after allowing the second. However, the Sabres did manage to come back and get points in the last four games while coming away with a 2-0-2 record. After falling behind 2-0 they stormed back with a four-goal explosion in the second period against the LA Kings and won 6-3. The following game against the NY Islanders a Matt Moulson third period goal tied the game at 2-2 and they won it in overtime. Against Carolina over the weekend Evander Kane saved the day with a late third period goal but they lost in the shootout 2-1. And last night against the Panthers they gave up a late third period goal and lost in the skills competition.
There's the second troubling trait--the shootout. Simply put, the Sabres are horrible at it and they proved it again last night against Florida.
We can start with goalie Robin Lehner.
Lehner played a very strong game last night in regulation and overtime stopping 36 of 39 shots sent his way. He was particularly strong during the first period when the team in front of him was being overwhelmed by an extremely quick Panthers club and getting outshot by a 16-4 margin. It took Florida most of the first to finally break through, but the score could have easily been 2-0 or 3-0 heading into the first intermission.
Eventually regulation ended in a tie and after some hair-raising moments in the overtime session, Sabreland shivered at the words, "We are going to the shootout."
Heading into the game last night Buffalo was 1-4 in the shootout and save for one game neither goalies or skaters instilled any sense of confidence amongst the faithful. Lehner has been particularly brutal in the shootout as he entered the game with zero saves on four attempts resulting in an 0-2 shootout record. That trend would continue as he allowed two goals on two shots. Granted, Buffalo's shooters have scored only once in seven attempts with Lehner in goal, but fact is the opposition's just blowing the puck by him.
Sabres goalie coach Andrew Allen has his hands full with this one. Lehner's more than capable in regulation and overtime. In his three shootout losses he gave up five goals on 92 shots good for a .946 save percentage, but when it comes to the skills competition, the 6'5" 220lb. Swede looks small in net. So small that he's not even getting the benefit of a missed shot or a fumbling of the puck as shooters come in, see gaping holes and fire it home.
Slow starts and the shootout are the two biggies for Buffalo and they're frittering away points in the process. Sure they managed to snag two loser points in the last two games but giving away one point to a Florida team they're chasing in the standings won't cut it. As it stands the Sabres have 32 points placing them sixth in the division three points behind the Panthers with two games in hand and five points behind the third place Boston Bruins with three games in hand.
Much maligned Sabres winger Evander Kane has really been bringing it lately. Kane scored again last night and upped his season totals to six goals and five assists in 20 games. He's on a four-game point-streak with three goals and one assist and he has nine points (6g+3a) in his last 10 games. It's a far cry from when he first returned from the broken ribs he suffered in the season opener as he managed only two assist in those 10 games.
Kane is in Dr, Jekyll-mode right now as his play reveals the powerforward GM Tim Murray traded for back in 2014. He's skating hard, quick on the puck and is constantly in the dirty areas of the ice, which is where he has scored his last three goals. No longer are we seeing a perimeter Kane throwing pucks aimlessly at the net like he did in his first 10 games back with 20 shots on goal and nothing to show for it. In his last 10 he's scored six goals on 35 shots and in the process he's upped his shooting percentage to 10.3% on the season. Last year he had a career low of 7.4%.
Head coach Dan Bylsma sent Kane down to the fourth line dating back to the Los Angeles game and a ticked-off Kane has responded with his best hockey of the season. He's been on the third line lately and last night his line applied the most consistent pressure of any Buffalo line resulting in the Sabres second goal. The line of Kane, Johan Larsson and Brian Gionta had one egregious shift in the first where a Gionta turnover and weak Larsson back-check resulted in the 'Cats first goal but other than that they were solid.
As with all things Kane, we're not sure where he'll end up next, but as of late he's been a joy to watch.
Speaking of players being a joy to watch, Florida's Jaromir Jagr tied Mark Messier for career points last night. Unfortunately for the Sabres, the point that Jagr got to reach Messier was on the game-tying goal late in the third period. At 1,887 career points the two trail only Wayne Gretzky's unbreakable 2,857 career points.
Jagr and his line gave the Sabres fits all night and at 44 yrs. old the only thing he lacks is the speed of youth. His two assists displayed vintage Jagr stick work and vision and were it not for losing a step because of his age, he'd have beaten Buffalo's Jake McCabe to a loose puck in overtime and taken it in from the neutral zone.
I'm going to miss watching him play. As a Sabres fan I hated what he did last night but as a hockey fan it was marvelous.