Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Grading out the 2016-17 Sabres at the All-Star break

Before we get the Sabres, the NHL celebrated it's 100th anniversary in style. From Snoop Dog to Carly Rae Jepsen, from "The Golden Jet" and "Finnish Flash" to the Biebs and Courtney Daniels, the All-Star extravaganza was well placed in Los Angeles, California this year as we were witness to an all-out Hollywood production. Over sixty of the NHL's top 100 players as voted by a cross-section of executives, media member and players were on hand for the Centennial celebration.

It's too bad the "Mr. Hockey," Gordie Howe, passed on last year. Howe is one of four players whose name is always mentioned as the best ever to play the game. Also mentioned as the greatest ever are Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemeiux. All four were from different eras and in the humble opinion of this blogger, it's those four, in no particular order, and then everybody else.

The NHL did well with this one. They also did very well in finally figuring out a way to keep the game itself interesting. Like the NBA, the NHL All-Stars aren't there to play defense, save for the goalies and the 3-on-3 format provides plenty of  open ice. The players take it for what it is and having a four-team tournament with the semi-final winners meeting for the championship makes for a somewhat competitive atmosphere, especially when there's a check for $1,000,000 waiting for the winning team.

Nice work.

And congratulations goes out to Buffalo's Kyle Okposo who represented the Sabres at the event.

The All-Star break is also a mile-post on the season. Most teams are close to, or at, the 50-game mark on the season and the trade deadline is a month or so away. Where a team is at the break doesn't fully give an indication as to what a team might do at the deadline, but some of chaff is being separated from the wheat.

Parity reigns supreme this season as only two teams are out of the playoff race already--the Colorado Avalanche and the Arizona Coyotes. In the Western Conference there are seven teams in the middle of the pack separated by six points or less while the Eastern Conference, the bottom eight teams are seven points or less out of the second wild-card spot. A good or bad streak will either propel you to the top of that group or send you to the bottom.

Buffalo has 15 games between Tuesday's matchup against the Montreal Canadiens and the March 1 trade deadline and their about to finish up their best month since March of last season. The Sabres are 7-4-1 this month with one game to play.

How they got there is an interesting case study as they've battled injuries and inconsistencies all season. Back in December we covered individual player performances to that point and now we'll look at it from more of a team perspective beginning with the forwards.

The Forwards

Simply put, it's night and day with the return of Jack Eichel on November 29th. Prior to that the team was dead last in the league averaging only 1.81 goals/game. The Sabres stared out well enough averaging 2.50 g/gm in October, but through 13 games in November they managed to score over two goals in a game only once pre-Eichel's return and a total of 18 goals, or 1.81 g/gm, total. Since Eichel's return the Sabres are averaging 2.92 g/gm.

The injury to Eichel (21 games to start the season) as well as injuries and recovery time for Evander Kane and Ryan O'Reilly put a crimp in forward continuity in Buffalo. All three are approaching, or at, full health and with the return of Tyler Ennis from 30-game stint on IR, the Sabres top-nine is rounding into form and producing.

Head coach Dan Bylsma has his forward pairings on the top two lines in O'Reilly/Okposo and Eichel/Sam Reinhart and he has a third line that in Kane, center Zemgus Girgensons, and right wing Brian Gionta that has been giving the opposition fits. Rounding out the top-nine are Marcus Foligno on the Eichel line and Ennis on the "O's" line.

For much of the season the Sabres have been heavily reliant upon their powerplay for production but as the injured returned to the lineup  and with Bylsma finding his forward-pairings, the team has stepped it up 5v5.

Buffalo's top-nine right side is rock solid thanks to Reinhart comfort-level on the wing and elder statesman Gionta's best production in years. The Sabres are strong down the middle with their top-three of O'Reilly, Eichel and Girgensons but the left wing has been a trouble-spot all season. Other than Kane getting it done the last 25 games, there's been spotty production there from Foligno and a host of other players, including rookies, who played top-nine left wing before Ennis' return and even he has been shaky in that role dating back to the beginning of last season. 

The loss of center Johan Larsson to injury and even the loss of Derek Grant to a waiver claim by the Dallas Stars has weakened the fourth line. Not much production was or is expected of them but at least they'd been able to hold their own until those two things happened. Cal O'Reilly has been centering a shaky line as of late that features rookie Will Carrier and former three-time 30-goal scorer Matt Moulson. As mentioned in a previous piece O'Reilly's line has given up three goals in the past five games (1-2-0 record in those games) when prior to that the fourth line gave up only two goals in the previous 22 dating back to Eichel's return to the lineup.

It's not a bad thing with O'Reilly and Eichel as your top two centers and with players like Kane, Okposo and Gionta providing them with top-five scoring on the team, the Sabres have some top-quality anchors and are starting to develop some depth. However they could use an upgrade at top-nine left wing and fourth-line center and neither look to be in the system at this time.

Thanks to the return of the injured this group has come a long way, but still have a long way to go.

Grade:  B-


The Defense

Once again, injuries have taken their toll to the point that Buffalo recalled Canadian junior defenseman Brendan Guhle on an emergency basis. In hindsight, an argument could be made that Guhle should have made the team out of camp but the 19 yr. old didn't have a stand-out camp like he did the prior season.

Injuries to Dmitry Kulikov, Zach Bogosian, Josh Gorges and now Jake McCabe have hurt continuity on the blue line. Kulikov was expected to be on the top-pairing with Rasmus Ristolainen but his back/tail-bone injury completely derailed the first half of his season. Bogosian was also injured and, like Kane, it took him a while to get his large frame doing what it's capable of doing. Gorges was having a typical season in Buffalo as he mostly had trouble keeping up with the speed of the opposition but still managed to use his veteran savvy to hang in there before injury felled him.

Bylsma has relied upon Ristolainen to carry a heavy workload and until his injury, McCabe was on that top pairing shouldering as much as he could. The duo was as solid as could be until it started to take it's toll and they regressed for a few games and McCabe was felled by injury.

The All-Star break is huge for the entire defense-corps as it allows them to rest and heal. On the downside of the break, this group was just starting to come into it's own as they individually and as pairings started to play much better defense and were contributing regularly on offense with two goals and six assists in the last four games. Both the goals came in a stunning 3-2 overtime win against Montreal where Cody Franson scored the game-tying goal in the third period while Bogosian rifled home the game-winner in overtime.

Individually Ristolainen is having a fine year and McCabe has been mostly steady while the rest have had their moment. However, as a group they've struggled mightily throughout much of the season with performances ranging from meh to tire-fire, but as they began to return to health, the began to improve. Taylor Fedun has played extremely well for the Sabres and when McCabe and Gorges return to the lineup they'll have seven NHL defensemen in the lineup for the first time this season with a top-four consisting of Ristolainen/Kulikov and Bogosian/McCabe.

As a group they hit some pretty low, low's but have progressed rather nicely as of late but they still have a little ways to go to approach respectability.

Grade:  C-


Goaltending

Robin Lehner and Anders Nilsson have had their ups and down's this season with the duo being at their most effective in the month of November. As mentioned, the Sabres scored over two goals only once during the 13 games Eichel was out in November yet they managed a 4-6-3 record and that was due to some strong goaltending.

Nilsson especially was a beast during that month but he's since come down to earth and both he and Lehner are feeling the affects of the Sabres pushing for more offense. Both have managed to steal a game or two during the season thus far, but they've not managed to come up with that big in-game save very often. That and some real softies have played big parts in the Sabres not being able to extend a winning streak beyond three games.

Both are good goalies, but the Sabres will need more than that down the stretch.

Grade:  C


The Powerplay

Were it not for the powerplay, we'd probably be talking about another strip-down of roster players for picks and prospects at the trade deadline. That's how important it's been for them.

Although the PP dropped from fifth in November to ninth in December, it's back up to sixth at this point in the season and even when they're not scoring they have some great puck-movement much of the time. In fact it can be so good that they end up making one pass too many instead of putting the puck on goal.

The first unit consists of O'Reilly, Eichel, Okposo, Reinhart and Ristolainen.

Reinhart has once again found his home both in the crease and behind the net which is huge for Buffalo. Ristolainen anchors the point while O'Reilly and Okposo we've in and around the slot and work the corners. For his part, Eichel is most effective while working the half-wall on the left side as he creates space for himself or his team mates or he can finagle his way into the slot to unleash a potent wrister. Unfortunately, Bylsma is using him on the right point either because of strategy or our to necessity which has lead to lower results.

The second unit powerplay has Franson and Fedun at the point with Kane, Gionta and Moulson down low. They rely upon getting the puck to the net for the 40 seconds or so they're on the ice and have contributed.

Buffalo has a potent first unit that can really back off the opposition. It's been the most consistent facet of the team all season long, and as mentioned, tit's the thing that's been keeping this team in a the playoff hunt.

Grade:  A-


The Penalty Kill

Uggghhh.

Up until recently the Sabres penalty kill unit has been last in the league. Whether it's through the loss of former Sabre David Legwand, whom they didn't re-sign or whether it's the scheme, it can get pretty ugly for Buffalo when they're down a man.

The first PK unit has Ristolainen and now Kulikov with R. O'Reilly and Girgensons and they've gotten better which has shown in their recent small successes and a variety of players are woven in to the PK fabric. But at the heart of a real good PK unit is goaltending and as mentioned earlier, they haven't gotten that big stop when they truly needed it very often and they certainly could use more of that on the penalty kill.

There are many teams that use some of their best players on kill but the Sabres aren't using one of their best. I'm of the opinion that by using Eichel, Buffalo will add a whole new dimension to their penalty kill. Amongst stars who receive rather significant PK time are Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon in Colorado, Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter for Los Angeles, Chicago's Marion Hossa, Buffalo's own Ryan O'Reilly and Evander Kane. Even Tampa's Steven Stamkos and Edmonton's Connor McDavid are averaging around 50 seconds of PK time per game so there's really no reason to keep Eichel off the ice. Simply put, you want your best players on the ice as much as possible.

We've been seeing Eichel on the penalty kill group for the transition back to full strength and Bylsma used him on the kill at Dallas when they were down a goal with less than two minutes remaining in the game.

O'Reilly and Girgensons have shown chemistry lately and they'll be expected to carry much of the load against the oppositions first PP unit. After that it's been Kane and Gionta. A duo of Kane and Eichel with their speed against a second powerplay unit with a bit more open ice would certainly be something to think about for the opposition.

The PK unit has been in the dumps all season, but they've gotten ever so slightly better. They need more whether it's from the players or the scheme.

Grade:  D-


Overtime/Shootout

There was a point in this season where Buffalo was 1-6 in the extra sessions going 0-3 in overtime and 1-3 in the shootout but with the recent run of three consecutive overtime wins the Sabres pushed that to 6-9 past regulation.

The overtime session has gotten much better with Bylsma using the best three players available and the return of Eichel. Earlier in the season not only were the Sabres without Eichel, but Bylsma was trying some new system where he tried to change players dependent upon whether they were defending or on the attack. It was a disaster and after it came to an end, the team started performing better 3-on-3 and as of late they're unstoppable. Overall this season Buffalo is 5-4 in overtime.

Shootouts are a completely different story, however, as they're only 1-5 with Nilsson having their only win. This team is poor in the skills competition as not only has goaltending failed them, but their shooters as well. Their goaltending duo has combined for a league-worst .286 save percentage while their shooters are converting on only 20% of their shots (26th in the league.)

Buffalo has had the right attitude in overtime as they seem to be doing everything in their power to avoid the shootout.

Eventually they'll need to overcome their shootout ineptitude as they've lost valuable points because of it. Having to win in the shootout becomes a moot point if they continue winning in regulation or overtime. Regardless, loser points can keep a team afloat but if they want to make a move, they'll need to get that extra point everytime a game goes beyond regulation.


Grade:  D+


Coaching

For as much grief has Bylsma has been getting Overall he's adapted and adjusted well. The early overtime blunder was corrected and he has his team playing more aggressive when they have the lead. He still has a penchant for changing lines and there's a lot of work to be done to fix the penalty kill but considering the number of injuries throughout the lineup, he's done yeoman's work.

Bylsma has the forwards clicking with nearly a full compliment of forwards while his defense is hanging in there despite injuries that have plagued that group since day one.

For the next month Bylsma will probably be expected to enhance Buffalo's strengths while coaching around their flaws as it's highly unlikely that the team will make any major changes to the lineup. He and goalie coach Andrew Allen also need to instill more confidence in his goaltending duo and that might be something as simple as playing to their individual home/road strengths.

In the end, coaching is what might get and keep tem on a long enough run for a shot at the playoffs.


Grade:  B





Monday, January 30, 2017

Justin Bailey added to AHL All-Star roster

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 1-29-2017


Had Justin Bailey not spent nine games in the NHL so far this season, perhaps he would have made the AHL All-Star team the first go-round. With 18 goals in 38 games for Rochester, the Amerks 6'3" 214 lb. right-wing is only four goals behind AHL leader Greg Carey (Lehigh Valley Phantoms/Philadelphia Flyers) having played in five less games. Yesterday the AHL added Bailey to the North Division All-Star team

Bailey broke a three-game goal drought last night with a goal late in the third period. It was the Amerks fifth unanswered goal as Rochester downed the Albany Devils 5-3 in the last game before they break for the AHL All-Star Classic. In net for Rochester was fellow All-Star Linus Ullmark while the Amerks other All-Star, Cole Schneider scored his 16th goal of the season.

The trio will be in Allentown, PA for the AHL Skills Competition tonight followed by the All-Star Challenge tomorrow night.

Bailey was on a hot streak in late December (5 goals in four games) before being recalled to Buffalo on Jan. 3 game vs. the NY Rangers where he scored his first NHL goal. After going point-less in the next five games he was sent back down to Rochester and continued his streak with four more goals in three games for a league-best seven-game goal streak this season. His 18 goals leads the team while his 38 points places him third on the Amerks.

It's the first All-Star appearance for Bailey who was taken by Buffalo with the 52nd-overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sabres should look at fixing the fourth line for now

Published by hockeybuzz.com 1-28-2017


Buffalo head coach Dan Bylsma had himself a bit of a problem when center Johan Larsson crashed into the boards on New Years Eve at the TD Center in Boston. The Sabres had been using Ryan O'Reilly, Jack Eichel, Larsson and Derek Grant down the middle with varying results but having Larsson out, along with O'Reilly, who had an emergency appendectomy on Christmas Day, really complicated matters.

With both O'Reilly and now Larsson out to start the 2017 portion of the season, Bylsma shifted both Sam Reinhart and Zemgus Girgensons back to center for their Jan 3 win over the New York Rangers. O'Reilly would return to the lineup for the following game at Chicago forcing Girgensons back to the wing. That would continue for one more game until Derek Grant was waived and lost to the Dallas Stars prior to a Jan 10 matchup against Philadelphia which put Girgensons was back at center.

After consecutive losses at Tampa and Carolina, and with LW Tyler Ennis returning to the lineup, Reinhart was moved back to the wing, Girgensons was bumped up to third-line center and the Sabres called up Cal O'Reilly to take over fourth-line center duties.

This is the line chart we've seen for the six games since that move minus the second game of Ennis' return when Buffalo was on a back-to-back and chose to keep him out of the lineup:

Ennis-R. O'Reilly-Kyle Okposo
Marcus Foligno-Eichel-Reinhart
Evander Kane-Girgensons-Brian Gionta
Matt Moulson-C. O'Reilly-Will Carrier/Nicolas Deslauriers

The top three lines gelled nicely during that six-game stretch as the team went 4-2, including three consecutive come-from-behind overtime wins, and outscored their opponents by a combined 21-17 score. Were it not for a series of calls that went against them at Dallas in the final game before All-Star break those numbers may have moved slightly more to the positive side.

While the top-nine has been doing their part, the fourth line has been exposed.

Prior to Larsson's injury, Grant's fourth line was on the ice for only one of 46 goals-against during a 15-game span from November 29 when Eichel returned to the lineup until the last game of 2016 when they lost Larsson for the season. In the first six games of 2017, the fourth line was out for one goal against with Girgensons centering and in the last six games Cal O'Reilly's fourth line has been out for two goals-against while he was also on the ice between Okposo and Ennis for a third.

It's not a good trend for the Sabres, especially when they could use every point they can get in the standings.

Cal O'Reilly's a hard-working veteran who, from everything I've read and heard, is a solid all-around person both on and off the ice. He played well for Buffalo last season, but this year it doesn't seem to clicking. After Grant was claimed he was the only call-up option for Buffalo and GM Tim Murray might need inclined to look outside the organization for an upgrade.

With the trade deadline a month away, a lesser move like that might be a one of those under-the-radar moves whose benefits far out weigh the coast. The Sabres, like nearly every team with their eyes on the post season, are in the hunt for an upgrade on defense but it's a seller's market and they probably won't be in the mix. The fourth-line center slot would be an easier fix and much less costly.  A player like New Jersey's Vern Fiddler who's strong on the dot plays on the Devils PK and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer may fit the bill. He was signed as a free agent in the off-season by New Jersey and dependent upon what their plans are, Fiddler might be available for a mid-to-lower round pick or prospect.

It's too bad Buffalo didn't re-sign veteran forward David Legwand. It might sound a little silly pining for a fourth-liner at the very tail-end of his career but last season he was solid in a fourth-line role while playing on the top PK unit. With him in that role the Sabres were ninth in the league on the PK last season and they're presently 29th after spending most of the season last in that department.











Saturday, January 28, 2017

Too much to overcome and a few days to think about it

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 1-27-2017


When will they learn?

This Sabres team has shown the capability to score fast and score early and they've done so dating back to the return of Jack Eichel. Yet as of late, once they're in the lead, they start playing prevent and sure enough, they end up on the wrong end of the score. It happened a home in Boston in late December as they coughed up a two-goal first period lead. The same thing happened in Toronto 10 days ago and last night in Dallas they had a 2-1 lead after one period of play but coughed it up in the second period.

In each case Buffalo lead by two goals in the first period only to have their opponent score four unanswered goals and in the process they ended up losing all three games in regulation. To make matters worse, two of those games, against the Bruins and Maple Leafs, were four-point, Atlantic Division swings which really hurt.

In the game against the Bruins, Buffalo slowly gave away the lead while in Toronto, a poor second period did them in as the Leafs took the lead with three unanswered. Last night it was the Stars turn to score three unanswered in the second period and they were ahead 4-2 before Evander Kane brought the Sabres to within one goal with just over a minute left in the period.

These are menacing results when leading by two goals and a number of factors have lead to Buffalo's downfall. Defensive lapses, weak goaltending and penalties have all played a role as well as the inability to notch that all-important third goal. But not being aggressive on the puck with the lead may be the overriding factor in their demise. On far too many occasions players have sauntered their way to the backcheck, have been a little too casual in battles for the puck and far too often they're taking lazy stick penalties that puts their 30th ranked penalty kill on the ice too often.

Those factors were on display again last night as they allowed the as the Stars back into the game just after going up 2-0 and hey had no answer when Dallas was scoring four in a row. The Sabres made a valiant effort to come back and win the game, as they've done three consecutive times heading into the contest, but there were too many obstacles to overcome last night.

Even though they were outshot by a 35-11 margin after two periods of play, the Sabres were only down 4-3. Buffalo took over in the third period and turned the tables by outshooting the Stars by a 16-2 margin and managed two potential game-tying goals that were disallowed after a review in Toronto, the last of which came with 11 seconds left in regulation.

Of the two that were no-goals, the first one with 8:53 left had to be the one that really got to them.

After Sam Reinhart wheeled and put a backhand on goalie Kari Lehtonen appeared to have stopped the puck but half his body was in the net. Both Reinhart and Eichel ended up behind the goal with Eichel pointing to the puck over the goal line and Reinhart looking pretty confident that he'd just scored the game-tying goal. Even when Lehtonen got up, the puck was standing on end well over the goal line. Even the Dallas announcers thought that it might end up being called a goal. Take a look for yourself via this video from SPORTSNETCANADA:



The play went to the situation room in Toronto where they decided that there was no indisputable evidence to overturn the no-goal call. Nor should anyone in Buffalo expect that circumstantial evidence is enough to overturn a call.

What I, and every one in Sabreland should be barking about is the lazy work of the referee on the play.

Justin St. Pierre was where he should have been when he play was evolving, however most refs would've made a beeline to the net as soon as the shot started to cause a commotion in the crease. Not so with St. Pierre, he casually waltzed into the play with arms stretched out signaling no goal as he had predetermined that Lehtonen had kept the puck out of the net. Yet as the players unwound, there was St. Pierre staring at a puck on it's side well across the goal line. Had he got his butt to the net quicker and leaned over for a proper look, he'd have seen what Eichel saw, the puck over the line.

Would have loved to hear his explanation after Toronto confirmed the on-ice call but he offered a quick and indiscernible explanation.

Both refs had called the game pretty tight on the Sabres with ticky-tacky/questionable calls going against Buffalo all night, but that's not ultimately why they lost.

The St. Pierre gaffe on Reinhart's goal not withstanding, the Sabres lost because they didn't know what to do with a two-goal first period lead and it will need to be addressed during the All-Star break if they want any chance of making a playoff run.

They've done a lot of good things lately, but giving up two-goal leads three times in four weeks deprives them of desperately needed points.

Buffalo has four full days before they hit the ice on Tuesday at Montreal. They need some answers and have some time to think about it.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Is it a mirage? Or is it real?

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 1-26-2017


As of right now, one could make a case for either side as the Buffalo Sabres are in Dallas looking to extend their winning streak to a season-high four games against the Stars. Buffalo dominated a seemingly disinterested and mostly somewhat disengaged Dallas team in a 4-1 matinee win on January 16.

And therein lies the rub.

That solid performance came on the heels of two poor road losses which was proceeded by a 3-0-1 record to begin the 2017 calendar year. After defeating Dallas, the Sabres then travelled to Toronto and ended up losing a winnable game against the Maple Leafs. It was a game in which head coach Dan Bylsma pulled goalie Robin Lehner, the first time Bylsma had made that move all season, in favor of Anders Nilsson.

Nilsson started and won the next game at home vs. the Detroit Red Wings and when Lehner got the nod for the following game at Montreal, no one was sure what to expect from him as they faced off against Carey Price and the division-leading Canadiens. However, Lehner out-dueled Price allowing one less goal on the same 38 shots and also one-upped the former Vezina winner in the highlight department.

Was that a season-defining game for both the Lehner and the Sabres?

For Lehner it wasn't as he allowed four goals in his next outing at Nashville on Tuesday, but the team still has it going as the Sabres erased a two-goal third period deficit and beat the Predators in overtime 5-4. It was the third game in a row where they came from behind in the third period and went on to win the game in overtime.

So here we stand on the precipice of the All-Star break with that as a back-drop to a 7-3-1 January with the Sabres on a three-game winning streak with some positive signs that this team is starting to get its act together.

Amongst the signs:

--a roster that's close to full health, and that includes players who've been ramping their games up since returning from injury
--a defense-corps that's making a difference in the offensive zone with nine points (2g+7a) in the last three games, as John Vogl of the Buffalo News points out
--consistency from the likes of top-liners Ryan O'Reilly (1+3) in the last three and Kyle Okposo (3+1) in his last five games plus four goals and two assists from Jack Eichel in his last five games
--three straight overtime wins, something the Sabres have done only once before in franchise history according to Sabres PR the last of which occurred from Nov. 5-11, 2006
--secondary scoring from players like Brian Gionta (2+2 in his last four games) and Zemgus Girgensons, (1+2 in his last four)

There's an overall sense of confidence with the team right now, and there should be. But they should be wary of letting their guard down.

The Sabres had one three-game winning streak before, back in late Oct./early Nov. and were doing so without Eichel in the lineup. They proceeded to go 1-5-2 after that. Upon Eichel's return they went on a strong 5-2-1 run only to be humbled by a 1-4-2 close to the 2016 portion of the season. The most troubling part of those two down stretches (2-9-4 combined) is that nearly all of those losses and only one win and came against divisional/conference foes. Buffalo was a combined 1-8-4 vs. the east in those two stretches.

That's why their 49 points in 47 games has them tied with six other teams for last in the conference yet only five points from a wild card spot. Parity-extraordinaire.

Do they have the wherewithal to separate themselves from the pack?

They might, but we're not sure. We've been witness to too much inconsistency from this club to say anything definitively. A win tonight will go a long way towards furthering that notion while a loss will bring us back to where we were a couple times already this season. Snagging a point would mean that they'll extend a point streak to four games for the third time this season, which isn't bad save for the fact that we'll be right back where we started from.

Is this team for real? Or not?


*****

Sabres.com has Bylsma saying Nilsson gets the start in net "because we wanted to get him a start with the All-Star game coming up."

Thursday, January 26, 2017

We may have ourselves a pretty good team in Buffalo

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 1-25-2017


I have no idea who was the last team to win three consecutive come-from-behind games in overtime or when it occurred, and perhaps Elias Sports Bureau can come up with that one, but rest assured, it doesn't happen that often.

The Buffalo Sabres just did that and for posterity's sake, here's how it went for them.

After losing a tough one in Toronto, while making it three losses in four games for the Sabres, Buffalo trailed the Detroit Red Wings by one goal with less than five minutes to play before Ryan O'Reilly tied the score at 2-2 with an incredible individual effort. Here's Buffalo's Rich Jeanneret with the call via sabres.com:

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Sabres honky-tonkin' in Nashville tonight vs. the Predators

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 1-24-2017


Looking at the overall numbers between the Sabres and Nashville Predators, Buffalo would rather play Nashville on the road then at home, which is a good thing because hopefully they'll be honky-tonkin' on the ice tonight in the Music City. According to Sabres PR, Buffalo's overall record vs. the Preds is 8-10-3 but their record in Nashville is 7-4-0 all time.

The Sabres have some wind at their backs and are trying to get on a roll heading into the All-Star break. Back-to-back wins have gotten them into the bottom portion of struggling pack of teams in both the division and conference. Their 47 points in 46 games place them seventh in the division via a tie-breaker over the last place Tampa Bay Lightning, six points behind the third place Toronto Maple Leafs with games in hand on the three teams between them. In the Eastern Conference Buffalo is 15th after losing a tie-breaker with the 14th place NY Islanders. Six teams and five points separates the Sabres from the Philadelphia Flyers who are clinging to the second wild card spot in the conference.

With the huge fluctuation in games played, however, a better indication of where the Sabres ultimately stand may be point-percentage. The Sabres are at .511 on the season which places them fifth in the Atlantic (tied with Detroit) behind Boston and Toronto for the third and final playoff spot and they're 12th in the conference.

Regardless of how you chart it, the only thing that matters is winning. With two wins over the weekend, Buffalo is looking for it's first three-game win-streak since late Oct./early Nov., which happens to be their longest winning streak of the season. After defeating two divisional foes last Friday and Saturday, the Sabres face two Western Conference teams in Nashville tonight and the Dallas Stars on Thursday before the All-Star break. Buffalo is 8-3-2 vs. the west this season.

Nashville will be no easy task as they'll be coming back home after a very successful Western Canada swing where they went 3-0-1 and arrived back in Nashville third in the Central Division. According to Adam Vingan of The Tennessean, Nashville got back to playing Preds hockey--"fast and physical with strong puck possession, tight defense and stout goaltending."

Below the blueline the Preds are tough to beat as 6'5" Pekka Rinne stands tall (in more ways than one) behind a defense-corps that has one of the best top-fours in the league. Rinne is sporting a 2.34 goals-against average, which is eighth in the league for goalies who've played in 30 or more games and he has the fifth-best save-percentage (.921) amongst said goalies.

The Predators have had an extremely deep defense-corps over the years, so deep that they were able to trade defenseman Seth Jones (2013, fourth-overall,) to Columbus for top-line center Ryan Johanson last January. In addition to that they also pulled off a blockbuster trade with Montreal to alter the complexion of their blueline. In the off season Nashville traded elite two-way d-man Shea Weber for an elite offensive d-man in the Canadiens PK Subban.

Here's what it did for Nashville, according to TSN's Scott Cullen:

"(Subban’s) one of the best in the game moving the puck in the right direction, which tended to stand out on a Montreal team that tends to get outshot more often than not. Although his shot may not be feared quite like Weber’s, Subban does have a potent one-timer on the power play, so he can fill that spot on the Nashville power play.

“In Nashville, Subban could fit quite nicely alongside Roman Josi on the top pair. Two elite, mobile defensemen that can move the puck and handle big minutes? That’s a dream scenario for any team and since the Predators can back up that pair with Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis, they are really set in their top four.”

The back-end shift hasn't translated to offense yet as their 2.72 goals/game is almost at the exact same rate as last season's 2.73, but they've actually gotten statistically better in goal-against allowing 2.53 per game this year as opposed to 2.60 ga/gm last season.

Nashville, according to Vingan, has been struggling with consistency, something the Sabres know a lot about. "If the Predators were at all consistent," wrote Vingan at the half-way mark of the season, "then they wouldn't be outside of the playoff picture at this juncture. It's not only game-to-game consistency that's an issue, with the team not having won three consecutive games since Nov. 21-25 and also struggle from period to period on most nights to maintain a successful level of play."

My oh my, doesn't that sound familiar?

Unlike the Preds, Buffalo's blueline has been a train wreck at times with injuries crippling any hope of stability. Rasmus Ristolainen remains the workhorse, but he's had some breakdowns, most notably at Tampa Bay and Carolina in mid-January. He's averaging 26:58/game, good for fifth in the league while averaging .61 points/game which ranks him 13th in the league for defensemen while his 17 powerplay points ranks him third.

Ristolainen had numerous d-partners while anchoring the blueline, because of injuries, until Jake McCabe emerged as the best No. 2 on the team. Although McCabe may ultimately end up as a No. 3/4, he acquitted himself well in his role and looked as if he was becoming more comfortable on offense as well. That was until he went awkwardly into the boards on his first shift against Detroit on Friday and messed up his shoulder. No official word has come out as to his recovery time but head coach Dan Bylsma was on WGR Radio this morning saying that the 23 yr. old defenseman is rehabbing and strengthening his shoulder for more range and motion and will be probably be doing so for 10-14 days. Add in some time to get into game-shape and McCabe might be out until the second week of February.

The four remaining defensemen picked up some of the slack against Detroit with Ristolainen playing over 35 minutes. The team called up Casey Nelson from Rochester for the Saturday game against Montreal and Bylsma moved journeyman Justin Falk up to the top pairing with Ristolainen. The Sabres came away with the win and it looks as if those two will comprise the top-pairing for most of the game tonight.

The status of Dmitry Kulikov remains up in the air with Bylsma telling the hosts that "there's a very good chance we'll see him on this trip." Kulikov has missed the last 12 games due to a lingering problem with his back from an injury suffered in the preseason.

In a nutshell, that's the Sabres defense right now--Ristolainen and a bunch injuries and/or question marks.

Despite the injuries and inconsistencies that have plagued an injury-riddled team, those two overtime wins for the Sabres, in light of losing three out of the previous four which included a loss last Tuesday in Toronto, gave them a pretty big boost. Said Bylsma this morning, "It was a big bounce-back. One of the things about the this team this year is that we have ridden some highs and lows. We've won some games, a couple back-to-backs and then lost some big games and we, emotionally, have ridden some highs and gotten too high and they also had to deal with getting too low after some big losses.

"I think this was a good response from our team after the disappointment of the Toronto game and coming back to win those two big games."

Bylsma continued by saying that he like how they beat Detroit and Montreal. "It was a 60-minute game," he continued. "We stayed with it for the entire 60 minutes both games. We had to score late in the game and overtime and we just stuck with it."

The remaining question, however, is can the Sabres keep it rolling?

Based on history and the way the Sabres have played in Nashville, things look good but then again, they've lost three of their last four on the road, so maybe not. They started out the month 3-0-1, then went 1-3-0 and have now won two in a row.

Enough to make me wanna throw on a Hank Williams record or chill with some Willie Nelson.

"Whiskey River take my mind..."


Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Of Lehner/Bylsma, Brian Gionta and Buffalo at the 46-game mark

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 1-23-2017


Goalie Robin Lehner was pulled in last Tuesday's game at Toronto after giving up three goals (one of them and extreme softie) to the Leafs. Back up Anders Nilsson relieved him and eventually gave up a fourth goal to Toronto, which was a matter of very poor positioning on his part, and the Sabres ended up dropping the game by a 4-3 score with Nilsson being the losing goalie of record.

It was a real heartbreaker for Sabres fans as a real promising start to 2017 (3-0-1) all of a sudden turned into a struggle as the team suffered it's third loss in it's last four games.

Naturally, Lehner was ticked at getting the hook and proceeded to act like it. "I'm a competitive guy," said Lehner post-game to the gathered media, "I don't like to give up. I don't like to come out of the game.

"I think I've been pretty good this year at letting (a bad goal) go. There hasn't been many games this year that I've let in more than three."

This much is true.

Lehner hasn't given up more than four goals all season and the last time he gave up four in one game was back in November during a particularly rough five-game stretch. He gave up four goals three times and three goals on another game. The only saving grace was his 2-1 shootout win vs. the Ottawa Senators in Buffalo.

The Toronto game was the first time all season the 19-18-9 Sabres had pulled their starting goalie outside of injury.

Both goalies got the job done last weekend with consecutive overtime victories. Nilsson was in for Buffalo's 3-2 OT win at home over the Detroit Red Wings while Lehner outdueled Montreal's Carey Price for the 3-2 OT win at the Bell Center.

The amount of goals let in by Buffalo goalies hasn't been a sticking point so much this season as the team in front of them just couldn't score. Buffalo finished the month of November averaging a league-low 1.95 goals/game. At one point during the month they went 10 games without scoring more than two goals and hit season low of 1.69 g/gm.

It was brutal and how they got out of that stretch with a 3-5-2 record was a minor miracle.

But the "timeliness of goals allowed" is what prompted head coach Dan Bylsma mentioned as the reasoning behind  giving Lehner the hook. “Our first shift and a bouncer off some shin pads and in," said the coach. "In succession they score again from the bad angle, then the third one we had three guys go behind the net on a bit of a puck retrieval, and they get it out front to Matthews for the third goal.

“Really at that point in time, you just want to stop the momentum that the Leafs have.”

Those were three unanswered goals that gave the Leafs a 3-2 lead. Had Nilsson not allowed a very preventable fourth goal, it may have worked and the Sabres might have gotten out of the Air Canada Center with a point or two. It didn't, but after missing out on points in Toronto,  Buffalo came back to snag four points against Atlantic Division foes and put themselves a schmazel of teams looking at third place in the division.

Perhaps Bylsma's hook of Lehner resonated throughout the team as they pulled out two gutsy wins despite an extremely depleted defense-corps. The tandem of Lehner/Nilsson hadn't been playing particularly bad this season. Through November Buffalo was 10th in the league with a team goals-against average of 2.45 and they're 15th right now as their team GAA rose to 2.67. But sometimes it takes the hook of a goalie and some slamming of equipment to wake a team up.

Buffalo has won two in a row since that game and we'll see just how much it resonates longer-term.


*****

With those two wins and an extremely crowded middle of the division who had teams that lost, the Sabres moved from the basement into sixth place but have since dropped to seventh. Only five points separates the third-place Boston Bruins from the Sabres and the NY Islanders and Buffalo has games in hand on all of those teams except for the Leafs.

The Sabres hit the road for two Western Conference games against the Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively, and those two games may give us a better idea as to where Buffalo stands in the playoff race and in turn it will eventually help them decide whether they'll be buyers or sellers at the March 1 trade deadline.

Sabres GM Tim Murray's major overhaul is anything but complete right now but because of the number of big trades he's made, along with the amount of assets he used in the process, one shouldn't expect anything big at or before the trade deadline either as a buyer or a seller.

Adding a top-four d-man might prove to be too costly in assets and/or cap-room for Murray and while adding a bona fide top-six might cost a little less, one would think that Bylsma pretty much has the roster he'll be working with for the rest of the season.

But that doesn't mean the Sabres won't be involved at the deadline as it's reasonable to think that at least two or three players might be available dependent upon where Buffalo is in the standing and what's coming back. Defensemen Cody Franson and Dmitry Kulikov could be made available as teams (like the Sabres right now) are always looking for defense at the deadline. And although Tyler Ennis might pique the interest of teams in the playoff race, a player like veteran Brian Gionta seems to always be wanted by playoff teams looking to make a deep run.

Gionta is a 38 yr. old veteran who's producing well for Buffalo. He's a captain with a Stanley Cup on his resume and is presently on a pace for a 20-goal season while playing on the third line. Kind of sounds like the type of player a team like Buffalo would like to have. No?

In interview with the Buffalo News, Gionta seems as if he wants to stay in Buffalo, despite the struggles they've had this season. "I want to continue what’s here,” he told John Vogl of the News. “I want to continue the job I thought I’d be a part of.”

The job he walked into nearly three years ago was that of helping the team make it through a bottoming out period and then coming out the other side guiding the new players. He's done that well, despite the obstacles Buffalo has faced.

Gionta is having a very successful season which could prompt a playoff team to offer a significant amount for his services. If the Sabres are clearly out of the playoff picture it could be enough of an offer for Gionta to be moved. If Buffalo's in the playoff hunt, then it's highly unlikely he'd be moved.

Either way, most in Buffalo, and I'd assume Gionta himself, would like to continue playing hockey in Buffalo next season. And the Sabres should welcome him back.


*****

Buffalo is seventh in the division right now with 47 points in 46 games on a 19-18-9 record. The goal for the season, as laid out by Bylsma's mention in the off season, is 95 points, a total that would almost assure a playoff spot. They're a tad less than half-way to their goal four games into the second half of the season.

The Sabres finished with 81 points last season and are ahead of that pace at this juncture. After 46 games last season Buffalo was 19-23-4 good for only 42 points.

Buffalo has a 6-3-1 record for the month of January so far as opposed to the 5-7-0 record they finished the month with last year and in February, 2016 the Sabres went 5-5-3. It wasn't a very good start to the 2016 calendar year for Buffalo but the came on pretty strong with a combined record of 10-5-4 in March and April to finish the season.

With the way this season has gone so far, it's anyone's guess as to whether or not they'll be able to finish with a 14 point gain over last season, but with the way things are unfolding in the Atlantic, they may not need 95 points to land a playoff spot. They're five points ahead of last year and have ample opportunity to finish with a better January/February record than they did in 2016.

Just some food for thought.







Monday, January 23, 2017

Lehner, Bogosian star in Revenge of the Whipping Boys

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 1-22-2017


Perhaps only Robin Lehner knew what to expect from himself heading into last night's game against the Montreal Canadiens. Lehner was pulled in his last game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday after giving up three goals on 16 shots and wasn't happy about it. As he left the Air Canada Center ice in favor of backup Anders Nilsson, he said something to his coach then proceeded to take out his frustrations on his equipment, most notably his goalie mask, and unleash his death stare.

All the right words were said the next two days between games with Lehner saying he was upset because he's a competitor and Bylsma in turn stating that a pulled goalie should be upset. Lehner was on the bench for Friday's home game against the Detroit Red Wings as Bylsma went with Nilsson's 5-1-1 home record with a sparkling 1.84 goals-against average and .948 save percentage. It worked. Not without drama, however, as the Sabres came from behind to win the game with :26 seconds left in overtime.

Lehner faced the unenviable task of starting against the top team in the division after getting pulled his previous start. Not only were the Canadiens comfortably ahead by 10 points in the division, but 200' from Lehner stood one of the best goalies in the league in Montreal's Carey Price. Add in that the Sabres already weakened defense-corps sustained another blow with the loss of No. 2 d-man Jake McCabe in the Detroit game of Friday, and their top d-man, Rasmus Ristolainen, was coming off of a 35 minute game the previous night, and odds weren't in Buffalo's favor.

Everything was set for Lehner and the Sabres to fail, but he didn't fail his team and his team came through.

Lehner looked calm, cool and collected in net for Buffalo early on and after the Sabres fell behind 2-1, he made numerous saves to keep it close until defenseman Cody Franson tied the score 11:53 into the third period. And then there was this "Save of the Year" candidate in overtime (via sabres.com):




That was huge and he actually managed to outshine Price who had received a standing ovation for completely robbing Ristolainen with 6.3 seconds left in regulation with this stop (via HabsTV):



Of all the whipping boys on this team, Lehner has consistently gotten the most grief. No matter what he does, someone will find something wrong with his play or how he ended up in Buffalo. It's either he's not good enough despite his solid numbers or he just doesn't look like a true No. 1 goalie and if all else fails the fall-back barb comes in the form of the first round pick GM Tim Murray gave up for him.

He's in a no win situation for a lot of fans, similar to what Ryan Miller went through when he was in Buffalo, but for one night at least, the hecklers and negative Nancy's were kept at bay as he without a doubt stole this one for the Sabres.


*****

Also on the list of top whipping boys these days is defenseman Zach Bogosian who came to Buffalo in Evander Kane/Tyler Myers blockbuster trade in February, 2014.

Bogosian plays a big, heavy game who's flaws include giving up a scoring opportunity after missing on a big check. With the game hitting another gear over the past two seasons, Bogosian has struggled to match that gear despite his wheels and at times he looks more like a muscle car in a Formula-1 race. It's not his fault for that, nor is it his fault that his time in Buffalo has been plagued by injuries and with every injury it seems like it takes him weeks to get up to speed.

But what's been forgotten and/or lost in his inconsistent play on an inconsistent team is one of the attributes that made him the fourth-overall pick in the 2008 NHL Draft--his shot--and he uncorked one last night that just blew by one of the best goalies in the league (via sabres.com):


Ping! In off the post, blocker side for his first of the season. Bogosian finished with the goal and was a plus-1 in 25:12 of work last night. Perhaps this will get


*****

At on time Kane was the preeminent whipping boy on the Sabres as injuries, sketchy production and off-ice issues made him reviled and a rumored trade-bait candidate for anyone who had a bag of pucks to offer.

Kane was injured in the season opener against these same Canadiens and came back from four broken ribs to an 11-game goal-less drought. One would think he wasn't fully healed as he wasn't playing his powerforward game then beginning December 3, Kane started heating up. He has 12 goals in his last 23 games, 11 of them at even strength which places him near the top of the league in that category during that stretch.

Although he didn't score last night, he and linemate Zemgus Girgensons did the dirty work on Brian Gionta's goal.

Girgensons and Gionta are two other players who've been on the crap list for Buffalo fans. It was rather easy to hate on Girgensons as the former first-rounder has struggled mightily with Bylsma's system, but the hate on 38 yr. old captain Gionta is very curious. In addition to his 10 goals (tied for third on the team) he makes his linemates better. Just ask Johan Larsson who was having his best season as a Sabre before being lost for the season, and Marcus Foligno who played so well on Gionta's line that he now skates alongside Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, two second-overall draft picks.

Kane finished with two assists last night and if you noticed in the Lehner video above, he was the player putting his body in front of Alex Galchenyuk's overtime shot.


****

Franson is another player that's been whipped about in Sabreland. Analytics fans go a bit easier on him while the eye-test often reveals a defenseman with a propensity for a brain fart that ends up in the back of the Sabres net. One thing both sides heartily agree upon is that Franson is slow. Very slow.

Yet last night he sent a seeing-eye shot through four players and past Price blocker side to tie the game at 2-2. It was Franson's second goal of the season and there was a little poetic justice involved.

Early in the third period Galchenyuk worked his way into the Buffalo zone with a head of steam. As he was trying to get around Franson, Galchenyuk got his stick up and butt-ended Franson in the face. Neither ref saw it and play went on with Franson obviously in pain with no penalty called.

Franson scored six minutes later and Galchenyuk was robbed in overtime by Lehner.

Touche', Monsieur.


*****

And finally, we can't forget Bylsma.

Bylsma has been vilified left and right for his tactics, especially late in the game when he "parks the bus" while trying to hold the lead. After Franson tied the game last night he put the Ryan O'Reilly-Tyler Ennis-Kyle Okposo line on the ice and had the Sabres playing on their toes which lead to a delay of game penalty less than two minutes later.

Although I still don't understand why Jack Eichel is on the point on the powerplay, especially on the right side when a goalie like Price has such a wicked glove, Bylsma's team has now won two games in a row, in overtime with a severely depleted defense-corps.

Playing Nilsson against the Wings at home and Lehner in Montreal after pulling him worked to perfection and the four points Buffalo earned got them out of the basement of the Atlantic Division.

Today the team has a day off before they get ready for Tuesday's tilt at Nashville against the Predators. Buffalo then heads to Dallas to take on the Stars in their last game before the All-Star break.

After the big win against Montreal, what will they do for an encore?


Sunday, January 22, 2017

Habs must be drooling at thought of facing Sabres defense

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 1-21-2017


And so it goes.

The Buffalo Sabres, who are already missing two defensemen, lost another one just minutes into last night's game as Jake McCabe slammed into the boards and suffered a shoulder injury. As of right now there's no word on it's severity although we do know that he came back to the bench in the first period and saw one shift late in the first period but went to the dressing room and the last we saw of McCabe was a tweeted photo of him leaving KeyBank Center with his arm in a sling.

With McCabe out, Zach Bogosian became Buffalo's No. 2 defenseman and logged 29:51 minutes of ice-time, a number he hadn't seen since late-March, 2015 while in Winnipeg. The wily veteran of over 500 NHL games held his own and finished a plus-1 in Buffalo's 3-2 overtime win against the Detroit Red Wings last night.

McCabe's absence also meant increased ice-time for Cody Franson (22:36,) Justin Falk (18:23) and Taylor Fedun (16:33) but the lion's share went to top Sabres' d-man Rasmus Ristolainen who played a whopping 35:24 in the overtime affair. According to sabres.com, no defenseman had seen that amount of ice-time since Ottawa's Erik Karlsson logged over 36 minutes on December 20, 2015. Ristolainen finished the night with an assist and was a plus-1.

With McCabe out, the Sabres called up rookie Casey Nelson who was in the lineup for the season opener and also had a stint in November as well..

Nelson was on the ice in the 4-1 season-opening loss for the Sabres while Dmitry Kulikov recovered from a back/tail-bone injury but was on the bench for the Sabres ensuing four-game road-trip and was returned to Rochester. When injuries hit again he was called up and played in a rather forgettable seven games for the Sabres with zero points and a minus-3 rating. It was quite the departure from what he was able to accomplish for Buffalo last season. Nelson was signed after leaving Minnesota State and began his career with a three-game point streak registering four assists. He finished with a line of zero goals, four assists and was a plus-1.

The Montreal Canadiens more than likely have their knife and fork in hand and are ready to feast. Les Habitants are running away with the division with an NHL seventh best goals/game average at 3.00.

Fedun and Falk have done yeoman's work in Buffalo while trying to hold the fort for regulars Kulikov and Josh Gorges. They're not without their fair share of miscues, however, but generally speaking they're performing well for the Sabres.

Both play different styles and the chemistry they had as a paring in Rochester has transferred well to Buffalo. Falk is a rugged defensive-defenseman who has three assists and has an even plus/minus rating while the puck-moving Fedun has six assists (three on the second powerplay unit) and is a plus-3. Fedun has not looked out of place and the 28 yr. old who's played in only 29 NHL games for four different organizations in the past four years may have earned himself a spot on the Sabres roster when all's said and done.

But having yet another rookie in the lineup on the back end could in Nelson be troublesome for the Sabres, especially when they're playing the second of a back-to-back, and head coach Dan Bylsma will probably, once again, lean heavily on his vets.

Ristolainen seems to have gotten over a mini-slump that came to the fore just over a week ago when the Sabres played at Carolina and at Tampa back-to-back. He's been a workhorse for the club all season and will be asked to provide a herculean performance once again. Bogosian will need to step up as well and so will Franson, who needs to ditch the one crucial goal-against gaffe he seems to give up on an almost nightly basis.

Up-front the Sabres are getting back to full health. Tyler Ennis came back on Monday but didn't play in the second of a back-to-back on Tuesday. The Sabres beat Dallas with him and lost to Toronto without him. Ennis is not 100% but even so Buffalo's team-speed has increased noticeably. Center Jack Eichel looks as if he's moving past the affects of the high-ankle sprain he suffered the day before the season opener and is skating real well. He had two assists last night to go along with six shots on goal he logged last night. With any decent passing from the other four players with him on the ice last night he could have upped those numbers.

Last night it looked as if the back spasms Ryan O'Reilly that have been bothering him for most of the season have abated. O'Reilly abused Wings defenseman Danny Dekeyser on the game-tying goal just minutes after Detroit took the lead. He entered the zone with a head of steam and out-battled Dekeyser in the corner by throwing him aside. After corralling the puck he circled around the net and lofted a sharp backhand to tie the score 2-2.  It's worth another look (thx, sabres.com):


O'Reilly has the ability to will a goal or a play and in-turn change the nature of a game. Back in December with the Sabres down 2-0 against Los Angeles, he single-handedly changed the momentum with a play that said "I won't be denied." (thx, samboke):



It was the first of four unanswered goals in a span of 6:13 that propelled Buffalo to a 6-3 win.

Last night's win against Detroit was Buffalo's fifth of the month, which ties both November and December for season-high and was their fourth in a row at home which extends a season high. With the two points the Sabres inched to within two points and two other teams (Tampa and New Jersey) clumped in the middle of the division and Buffalo has games in hand on all three. Unfortunately the Sabres have been a mess on the road this month going 1-3-1 so far.

Yesterday's win was the first one over a team in the division that the Sabres were chasing since defeating Detroit on December 27. Since then they dropped four in a row to divisional foes and it's one of the main reasons they haven't been able to get out of the basement.

Tonight represents a huge challenge for the club as they face the Atlantic Division-leading Montreal Canadiens that surely has noticed the challenges Buffalo is facing on defense and it will take a herculean effort from every player including Robin Lehner, who should be in goal for Buffalo tonight.


Saturday, January 21, 2017

Are the Buffalo Sabres a bad team, as some have intimated?

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 1-20-2017


There was a strong feeling amongst some in the Buffalo media, as well as some Sabres faithful, that the Sabres were a bad team after their loss at Toronto on Tuesday night. With that loss the Sabres found themselves sitting alone at the bottom of the Eastern Conference.

Injuries and inconsistencies have marked Buffalo's season right now and as they head into tonight's matchup against the Detroit Red Wings a team that is three points ahead of them in the standings having played one more game. With many of the walking wounded returning including the return of Tyler Ennis to the line up for the win on Monday prior to the Leafs game, injuries are no longer a crutch. Rather inconsistencies, as shown in those back-to-back games as well as from period to period, seems to be the focus du jour as to why this team can't get out of the basement.

The theory emanating from one particular media member stated that and inconsistent team is a convenient excuse for a bad team. "Anyone that says one day they're good, one day they're not, that's what it's like to be very bad," said the member who then followed it up with a golf analogy, "that's what a bad golfer does, they get bogies one on whole and the it's like 'hey, I got a birdie here!'

"Consistency is a word failing teams use," he said before concluding that, although the Sabres have Jack Eichel back in the lineup and they now score more, they continue to lose. Which can be construed as a bad team

Not so fast there, Ranger Rick. It may seem as if the Sabres are as bad with Eichel back in the lineup, especially after some tough losses including against Toronto, but it's not the case. Pre-Eichel the Sabres were 7-9-5 for a .452 win percentage and after his return they're 10-9-4 or a .521 points-percentage. Although it doesn't look like that much of a difference, it's a matter of 11 points over an 82-game season and the difference between a 74 point pace and 85 point pace. Granted, finishing with 85 points isn't good enough to get you into the playoffs but it's a helluva lot closer than 74 points.

So words like "very bad" and "failure" when talking about the Sabres at this juncture are not true and may even be considered a bipolar overreaction from following Buffalo sports for too long.

There are only two "very bad" teams in the NHL right now--the Colorado Avalanche and the Arizona Coyotes. The 'Lanche have 27 points and the 'Yotes 32. In 28th place are the Buffalo Sabres with 43 points and the difference between the Sabres with the 17th place Carolina Hurricanes is six points. Some of the teams that are in that pack include western teams like the 20th place Los Angeles Kings (48 points) and the 18th place Nashville Predators (49) and nobody in hockey would consider them bad.

In the Eastern Conference the bottom-half is separated by seven points. The Philadelphia Flyers are in ninth place, but they're not a bad hockey team. Bipolar, maybe, as the Fly Boys followed a 10-game winning streak with a 3-8-3 record, but they shouldn't be considered a bad team. Same with the 13th place Tampa Bay Lightning. This is almost the exact same Lightning team that made it to the conference finals last year without Steven Stamkos, whom they're without again right now. Are they a "bad" team? Only one point separates Tampa from Buffalo in percentage of points earned. Or Buffalo's opponent tonight, the Detroit Red Wings. They might be a team in decline and may miss the playoffs for the first time in two-and-a-half decades, but nobody would consider them bad. They're three points ahead of the Sabres in the standings having played one more game.

The Sabres are clumped in a group of average to above average teams and happen to be at the bottom right now. Of all the teams in the bottom half of the conference only one--Carolina--is in the plus column in goal differential (+1) while all the rest are in negative double-digits save for the NY Islanders who are 15th in the conference. The determining factor between who's in, or near, a playoff spot seems to center around streaks at this point in the season.

As mentioned, the Flyers went on a 10-game winning streak but have since fallen back and are now out of a playoff spot. Conversely, the Toronto Maple Leafs went on a five-game winning streak and went 4-1-1 in their next six to bolt up the standings and into a wild card spot. Those are the good streaks.

Although the Red Wings went on a season-high six game winning-streak at the beginning of the season and a five-game points streak in Nov./Dec. they also had a four-game losing streak and two winless streaks of five and four games. The 12th place New Jersey Devils had a five-game points streak and five game winning streak earlier in the year but suffered a seven-game winless streak (which included a five-game losing streak) in December and a four game winless streak in January.

The Sabres had a six-game winless streak in November without Eichel and a four-game winless streak in December with him. They also had two season-high four-game points streaks, one in December and one to start out 2017 and they're 4-3-1 in January, which puts them slightly behind where they were last month.

This is not a bad Sabres hockey team. Eichel makes a difference and he's surrounded by some upper-end talent. Anyone that remembers two seasons of unwatchable hockey by Buffalo should know what a bad team is and this one isn't even close two those teams. Are the Sabres inconsistent? Yup. Frustrating to watch? uh-huh. Flawed? You betcha.

But bad?

Nah.


*****

The Sabres face the Red Wings tonight for the second time this season. Back in November Buffalo dropped a 2-1 decision to Detroit in the shootout, two games before Eichel's return to action. Former Sabre Thomas Vanek scored the game-winning shootout goal for the Wings.

We talked about streaks above but another main reason why the Sabres are where they are is the shootout. Buffalo has been atrocious in the skills competition going 1-5 while compiling a league-worst .286 save percentage (10 goals-against on 14 shots) and a fifth-worst 20% shooting percentage (three goals on 15 shots.)

Detroit, on the other hand, is a perfect 6-0 in shootouts. They've scored the most shootout goals (11) and have the fifth best shooting percentage (.476%) while allowing only five goals on 24 shots for a seventh-best .792 Sv.%.

Buffalo goalie Anders Nilsson gets the nod in net tonight which was a surprise because he missed yesterday's practice because of illness. Head coach Dan Bylsma tabbed Nilsson for the first of a back-to-back presumably because of his home record of 5-1-1 and sparkling 1.84 goals-against average on a .9487 Sv%.

Nilsson also has the only Buffalo shootout win this year as he stopped Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins to help end the Sabres six-game winless streak. Cal O'Reilly, who's with the club now, scored the lone shootout goal for the Sabres.


*****

According to the media, Ennis will return to the lineup after taking the second game of the Monday/Tuesday back-to-back off. Ennis was a precautionary scratch having just returned from groin/hernia surgery that kept him out of the lineup for 30 games. Bylsma intimated that this was the plan--have Ennis play Monday, off Tuesday and return tonight. Tomorrow Buffalo travels to Montreal and if everything goes well, Ennis should be in the lineup vs. the Canadiens.

With that in mind and an optional skate this morning, we'll be looking for the following lineup, the same as they had when they defeated the Dallas Stars on Monday afternoon:

Tyler Ennis-Ryan O'Reilly-Kyle Okposo
Marcus Foligno-Jack Eichel-Sam Reinhart
Evander Kane-Zemgus Girgensons-Brian Gionta
Will Carrier-Cal O'Reilly-Matt Moulson

Jake McCabe-Rasmus Ristolainen
Zach Bogosian-Cody Franson
Justin Falk-Taylor Fedun

Anders Nilsson




Friday, January 20, 2017

Sabres loss to the Leafs should be looked at as an organizational defeat

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 1-18-2017


The headline could be, "Bylsma's team can't win the big one," as in Buffalo head coach Dan Bylsma's Buffalo Sabres dropped another big divisional game last night when it counted. Or it could've read something like "The team Tim Murray built is severely flawed despite high-stakes efforts to speed up the rebuild process." Or it could read "Eichel was yet again bottled up by another divisional foe while a superstar counterpart shines."

Simple fact is, Dan Bylsma is a good head coach, GM Tim Murray's scouting background gives him a keen eye for talent, and Eichel has what it takes to be amongst the elite in the sport. So why are the Sabres floundering? And why did a Toronto Maple Leafs team that spent only one year at the bottom of the league defeat a Sabres team last night that was supposedly two years ahead of the Leafs in the rebuilding process? It keeps coming back to how the organization is built and a tale of two ownership groups.

Bylsma and Murray are good hockey people but between the two they only have one Stanley Cup to their credit while in their present positions. Toronto head coach Mike Babcock has one Cup to his name while GM Lou Lamoriello has three and prior to coming to Toronto the two combined for 33 playoff appearances in 36 years plus another three Cup Finals' appearances with their respective teams. Babcock and Lamoriello have almost as many Cup Finals appearances as Bylsma and Murray have had years in their respective roles. Add in that Leafs team president Brendan Shanahan was a three-time Cup Champion as a player while his counterpart in Buffalo, Russ Brandon, is a marketing guy who's never tasted the playoffs in a high-ranking front office role with the Buffalo Bills and Sabres and the gulf between the two hockey operations is rather large.

Sabres' owner Terry Pegula might want to take a look at the Leafs structure and seriously reconsider his front office approach. Pegula has been asked about bringing in football and hockey czars before, but every time the question is raised he balks saying that he's fine with the present structure as is. Flying in the face of the Pegula wisdom is that every hockey team worth it's salt has a hockey guy in charge of hockey operations, yet he and those at Pegula Sports and Entertainment seem to feel that they can buck the trend and have marketing guy as team president.

It doesn't matter that the official word out of PSE is that Brandon has nothing to do with hockey ops, true or not, Brandon's title of Team President /Alternate Governor puts him in a position of power and influence and until he's replaced by a real hockey guy at the head of the hockey department, this team could very well be spinning it's wheels for a long time as evidenced by Pegula's other franchise--the Buffalo Bills. Brandon has been in the organization for every year of the team's 17-year playoff drought, the last 10 of which had him in a position of power directly under the owner. As two-time Superbowl winner Bill Parcells once famously stated, "You are what your record says you are" and the Bills record over the last 10 years with Brandon in that spot is 66-94.

Pegula had an opportunity to bring in a football czar last year but he balked again and the team went 7-9 to once again finish below .500 for the eighth time in the last 10 years with Brandon in his position.

We're not reinventing the wheel here. It's a simple truism in any business that the best owners hire the best people and it usually leads to success. Great owners know how to find (or are lucky enough to find) these men. Terry Pegula was obviously adept at doing so in the oil and gas industry as he built his East Resources company from scratch into a multi-billion dollar operation. Pegula knew the oil and gas industry and that knowledge lead to competent hires for top spots which lead to comptent hire in important positions throughout his company. Running a sports team is different than other running other organizations but at the heart of it they're all the same as it's a matter of entrusting the business to qualified, competent individuals at the top.

Trust is tough to come by, especially for someone like Pegula who has deep pockets but little knowledge of the business he sunk a fortune into. Like all multi-billion dollar industries, professional sports is filled with pariahs, incompetents and snake oil salesmen who smooth-talk their way into positions of power and influence. It happened in Toronto for years with the Leafs and in Buffalo we need to look no further that the last couple of decades. Larry Quinn was fired by one Buffalo Sabres ownership group but nuzzled his way back into the organization and eventually became managing partner of new Sabres owner Tom Golisano. Long-time Buffalo GM Darcy Regier smooth-talked his way into a lucrative extension with new owner Pegula which turned into a golden parachute. Neither are involved with professional hockey at this juncture.

And most recently, Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan not only flim-flammed his way into a five-year, $25 million contract from Pegula and Brandon, but he also had enough pizzazz to bring along his brother and 27 other assistants last year for the ride. The Ryan circus was a bombastic display worthy of the Brian Burke Award for ostentatious rhetoric and supreme snake oil salesmanship.

The gate-keeper in all of this is the owner's right-hand man or team president. Golisano's right-hand man was businessman Quinn and the Pegula's right-hand man is Brandon. Since 1999 both teams have combined for six playoff appearances, all from the Sabres. Yet, incredulously, the Pegulas refuse to hire czars to head both operations and instead are entrusting both organizations to a marketer who supposedly is giving full authority to first-time GM's Doug Whaley of the Bills and Murray of the Sabres. And it hasn't been working.

If the Pegulas ever needed an example of just how fruitless their approach is, last night provided a clear-cut example of two different paths taken by two organizations who are both coming out of a rebuild. The Leafs who've been trying for years to get it right put together an envious power structure at the top of the organization with the some of the best minds in hockey while the Sabres are trying to reinvent the wheel. Toronto is in a playoff spot seven points ahead of the Sabres with eight rookies on the roster and it's only been one season since they bottomed out. The Sabres spent two years at the bottom, last year in limbo and their on their way to a sixth consecutive season outside the playoffs.

This was supposed to be a blog about Buffalo's 4-3 loss last night and how the Sabres once again blew a two-goal lead against a team they were chasing in the division. It was supposed to be about how they're 0-4 when it truly mattered recently with a coach who can't seem to get this team moving in the same direction for any pronounced length of time. It was supposed to be about a GM who's hand-picked goalie got pulled in the second period after stopping only 13 of 16 shots and looks anything but a franchise-type goalie. And it was supposed to be about a star player in Buffalo who once again was outshone by his contemporary.

However, it just kept coming back to organizational structure and how hubris seems to be blocking the synapses of ownership's collective head. You can eventually overcome players, coaches and gm's who aren't up to snuff, but you cannot overcome ineptitude by ownership or high-ranking front office personnel. Sure, the Sabres or Bills may buck the trend and win a championship with a marketer in charge, but history has shown that it doesn't really work that way.

If it all comes to fruition for Pegula and the Sabres (or Bills) are able to reach the promised land with this front office as constructed, this piece will constitute nothing more than senseless drivel from a two-bit blogger. But as the old saying goes, "it starts at the top," and those at the top in Buffalo have teams that are middle of the road while young teams like the Leafs are blowing past them. Until some definitive changes are made they'll amble along saying, "we know better," while the Bills/Sabres playoff drought hits 23 years and counting between the two.

That constitutes organizational failure and it's wrong to place the weight of the blame on coaches, GM's or players.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Game 44--Buffalo at Toronto. Can't ask for much more right now

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 1-17-2017


You couldn't ask for much more at this point in the season as two would-be rivals with young cores and differing levels of confidence face off tonight in a divisional battle. On the one side, the Buffalo Sabres have struggled mightily with consistency and in turn have struggled to rise from the bottom of the division with an 17-17-9 record. On the other, the 20-13-8 Toronto Maple Leafs are brimming with confidence having reached a playoff position at the half-way point of their season, which was much quicker than almost anyone anticipated.

This will be the third time in three weeks that the Sabres will be facing a team they're chasing in the division. The first was a home-and-home with the Boston Bruins to close the 2016 portion of the schedule. After two regulation losses versus the B's Buffalo found themselves 10 points behind them. Last week they had the opportunity to jump the Tampa Bay Lightning in the standings, but proceeded to lay an egg and in the process fell three points behind them. The Sabres laid another egg in a loss against the Hurricanes in Carolina the following night, but started off this week with an impressive win against the Dallas Stars in yesterday's matinee.

The 4-1 win at home vs. the Stars marked the return of Tyler Ennis who wasted no time in his first game back as he scored a mere :19 seconds in. Ennis had been out of the lineup for 30 games after undergoing groin/hernia surgery but yesterday he corralled a loose puck and ripped it home.

Much to the dismay of head coach Dan Bylsma, the Sabres got into a game of shinny in the first period but they skated themselves to a 2-0 lead, courtesy of Jake McCabe's first goal of the season before the Stars scored with five minute left in the period. A disallowed goal for a Dallas offside early in the second period kept the score at 2-1 until Jack Eichel restored Buffalo's two-goal lead at the 7:07 mark of the period. The Sabres would hang on and Eichel would add the empty netter with nine seconds left.

Bylsma has been preaching defense first all season especially against fast teams like Dallas and his club will face another fast and highly skilled team in the Toronto Maple Leafs who are brimming with confidence. The very young Leafs are hot having catapulted into a playoff spot by going 8-1-1 in their last 10 games. It's a run that has head coach Mike Babcock raising expectations and fans in Toronto once again falling for their beloved Leafs.

Mark Zeisberger of the National Post notes with wonderment that although this very young Leafs team doesn't have enough physical maturity to even grow discernable stubble, much less a playoff beard, their rapid development and "phoenix-like ascension" from the beginning of the season through Game-41 is a complete "transformation" leading to different expectations than in the past. He quotes Babcock as saying of his team right now, “I think a big thing is you’re expecting to win and that’s a big difference.”

A quote like that leads Zeisberger to surmise, "There’s a big distinction between 'wanting' and 'expecting' to win," he wrote. "For too long — dating back to the end of the late Pat Quinn’s reign a decade ago — this franchise settled for the former. Now, they are focused on the latter, with Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment chairman Larry Tanenbaum in a recent interview with Postmedia suggesting a Stanley Cup in the not-so-distant future isn’t such a farfetched concept anymore."

And there you have it. The inconsistent Buffalo Sabres head into Toronto tonight to take on a very confident Maple Leafs team. It's a four-point divisional game and the Sabres are 0-3 in situations like that as of late. It's Buffalo/Toronto. Bylsma/Babcock. Jack Eichel/Auston Matthews and it's a four point game that will have possible playoff implications down the road.

Really, for Game-44 on Buffalo's 82-game schedule, this is about as good as it gets.





Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Today's matinee: Sybil, or which Sabres team will show up today?

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 1-16-2017


For those unfamiliar with the movie Sybil, it's the story of a woman with 16 different personalities, which is pretty much the way the Sabres have played all season and we're not sure which one will show up today vs. the Dallas Stars. Game to game, period to period, shift to shift, Buffalo's inconsistencies on the ice are frustrating and it's left a fairly talented group of players looking at the playoffs from a great distance. About the only things we can count on is Rasmus Ristolainen carrying the load on defense and head coach Dan Bylsma juggling his lines.

But Bylsma will have an reason to do some line juggling today as Tyler Ennis will return to the lineup after early November from groin/hernia surgery. Ennis played in 12 games but was insignificant to the point where I had to back-track and edit a previous blog because I had him as being out all season. I was wrong. He had a goal and an assist and was a minus-6 in 12 games this season.

The 5'9, 180 lb. Ennis has had injury problems dating back to last season when he only appeared in 23 games registering 11 points (3g+8a) and was a minus-9. As one of three holdovers from the tank years who lead the team in scoring, Ennis was expected to at least continue contributing to the Sabres offense but he's been struggling with injuries and the propensity to play an east/west game instead of going north/south. Granted, he's one greazy son-of-a-gun, but too much dipsy-doodling leads too many turnovers and too many odd-man rushes the other way.

Regardless of his struggles the Sabres are welcoming the top-six help as a reinforcement for the left side. Ennis is slated to be on the top line with center Ryan O'Reilly and right wing Kyle Okposo while Marcus Foligno and Evander move to the next two lines. Rookie Will Carrier, who at one time was playing up top, is on the fourth line bumping Nicolas Deslauriers to center or to the press box.

Reports have Cal O'Reilly being recalled from Rochester but the projected lineup from Jourdan LaBarber doesn't have him in the lineup.

The Sabres defense should remain the same with Ristolainen/Jake McCabe, Zach Bogosian/Cody Franson and Taylor Fedun/Justin Falk.

Robin Lehner gets the start vs. the Stars.

Yesterday's blog had some eastern vs. western conference comparisons and despite being in the West, the Stars play an extremely fast Eastern-style game so it will be interesting to see how the Sabres fare. Buffalo is 7-3-2 vs. the West but only 9-14-7 vs. the East which creates a problem since they reside in the Eastern Conference.

That said, we'll see which personality presents itself today. “Consistency is the answer. Consistently doing the small things, consistently doing the simple plays because that opens things up," said Lehner to the gathered media yesterday after watching the team on TV while recovering from an illness. “It’s easier for the team to get better and see where pieces are missing and what we need to do to go forward if we do what we’re supposed to. Right now some games when it goes wrong, everyone is kind of all over the place and it’s kind of hard to pinpoint.”

Tell us about it. We've been watching a schizophrenic Sabres team all season.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Sabres GM Tim Murray's in a bit of a conundrum

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 1-15-2017


The excuses aren't there anymore. Maybe one could point out that defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen has been playing the last few games looking as if he's been run into the ground in the first half of the season while his top-pairing d-partner, Jake McCabe is looking as if he's still feeling the affects of his bone-jarring hit on Winnipeg Jets forward Patrick Laine. The duo of Ristolainen and McCabe have been a train wreck lately leaving head coach Dan Bylsma with a huge kink in an already weak defense-corps.

Up front you could say that Jack Eichel hasn't recovered fully from his high ankle sprain, or that Ryan O'Reilly wasn't fully healthy prior to undergoing an emergency appendectomy on Christmas Day. It was probably the best thing that could've happened to O'Reilly as he was finally sidelined long enough for his spasmatic back to recover.

You could also maybe point to bottom-six players like Zemgus Girgensons, Nicolas Deslauriers as adversely affecting the team or even say that  Derek Grant was a real drag  until he was waived (and claimed.) You could look at man-games lost with Eichel (21 games,) Evander Kane (11 games,)  Zach Bogosian (20 games,) Dmitry Kulikov (22 games total) or any number of players from Josh Gorges to Robin Lehner who's bumps and bruises have kept them out for a few games at a time. And you could even add in Tyler Ennis who's season-long absence has kept the Sabres from having a complete lineup this season.

But we're one game into the second half of the season, and those excuses really don't hold water anymore. Although injuries have contributed mightily to an extremely inconsistent season for Buffalo thus far, maybe a lack of chemistry and/or even a lack of identity has contributed more to their struggles than anything else.

When GM Tim Murray took the reigns of the Sabres in January, 2014 he seemed to be laying a foundation that leaned towards a Western Conference style of play featuring big, skilled players who could skate and were hard on the puck. As director of player development for the Anaheim Ducks from 2002-07, he was part of a group that drafted and developed two players who fit that mold to a 'T'--Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Both played big roles in helping the Ducks capture their first-ever Stanley Cup in 2007.

Furthereing that notion was how Murray acquired and described the two Los Angeles Kings prospects he received in a trade very early in his tenure. When called Hudson Fasching and Nicolas Deslauriers, as well as William Carrier (acquired from St. Louis) as "heavies," as in they play a hard, heavy game. One would think that the recent Cup wins for the Kings in 2012, as well as the Boston Bruins in 2011, had something to do with how he viewed winning in the NHL and the Kings winning their second Stanley Cup in three years at the end of the 2014 season seemed to confirm this notion.

But while Murray was building a team with hard to play against heavies, the already fast NHL was getting faster and quicker, especially in the east. Teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning flew to the Cup Finals in 2015 and a retooled, lightning-quick Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the big, heavies of San Jose' last season. This year you can add the Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes into the mix as they're both filled with fast and highly-skilled players who have puck-possession and shooting on their minds. The Leafs are in a playoff spot right now with eight rookies playing, while the Hurricanes seem to be on the rise.

The Sabres have had trouble keeping up with the east as shown by their 9-14-7 record in the conference. Against the west, however, the Sabres are 7-3-2. Conversely, Tampa is 18-12-3 vs. the east, 2-8-1 vs. the west; Pittsburgh is 19-8-2 vs. the east, 7-3-3 vs. the west, Toronto is 14-7-3 vs. the east, 6-6-5 vs. the west and Carolina is 13-11-4 vs. the east, 8-4-3 vs. the west.

So while the Sabres have been faring well with a heavier style against the heavies of the Western Conference, they're regularly getting outskated and flustered by the quicker, faster teams in the Eastern Conference. Versus the aforementioned teams--Tampa, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Carolina--the Sabres are a combined 1-5-1 and have been outscored by a 21-10 margin.

This is not to say that the Sabres don't have speed, they do, but managing what the opposition throws at them seems to be far more difficult against foes from the eastern conference.

Nor is this to say that injuries haven't played a role in how the season has unfolded thus far, because they have. Eichel especially. Without him they weren't scoring and tried to win 2-1 games while with him they were scoring but are allowing more goals. In both portions they're near the bottom. It's been like a comedic skit where someone punches you in the gut when you're covering your face, then when you protect your belly you get smacked in the face. And so on and so on. But for Sabres fans, and one would assume everyone under the Pegula Sports and Entertainment umbrella, it's not that funny being on the receiving end.

There are disconnects all over the place with this team right now. Murray looks to be behind the team-building curve, Bylsma seems to be having trouble finding chemistry or he's quick to change things when said chemistry briefly evaporates and there are stretches where his players look either uninterested or overwhelmed or worse yet, both.

WGR's Paul Hamilton had a piece on what goalie Robin Lehner saw on TV recovering in Buffalo while the Sabres played the last two games on the road. "I think controlling momentum is the biggest thing for me sitting watching on the couch," Lehner told Hamilton and the rest of the media today.

“If we score a goal maybe we need to play a little simple, not take any risks for a little bit and it’s the same when we get scored on, maybe we just chip it in a little bit and play real simple because it feels like when we score goals, we score in bunches, but when they start scoring on us, we’re scrambling.” he added, “We have a couple of good games and then we get away from it. It’s one step forward and two steps back. It’s not going to come from one guy, it’s not going to come from 10 guys, every single guy has got to get on the same page and we’ve got to totally buy-in to the system.”

And when buying into the system it helps to have some familiarity with your linemates. Bylsma, who's notorious for juggling his lines will probably do so again after the Sabres dropped two in a row. From today's practice Hamilton had these lines:

Ennis-O'Reilly-Okposo
Foligno -Eichel -Reinhart
Kane -Girgensons -Gionta
Carrier -Deslauriers -Moulson

Hamilton also stated that Ennis isn't a 100% go and that the team hasn't ruled out bringing up a center for tomorrow's matinee against Dallas.

Unfortunately for us Sabres fans, it looks as if we'll be on a roller coaster for the rest of this season with the team alternating between good and bad stretches. Case in point. Since Eichel's return Buffalo went 5-2-3 then 1-4 followed by 3-0-1 and now 0-2-0. Could they end up going on a prolonged win streak? Sure, plenty of teams do. Could they go on a prolonged winless streak as well? You betcha. Will either happen? Hopefully the former for a much longer stretch than any of the latter.

Buffalo has six games left before the All-Star break and 20 games before the February 28 NHL trade deadline. Although some would wish to blow things up and tank again, it's hard to imagine because a.) ownership and management probably aren't on board with that and b.) they have a little too much talent to finish at or near the bottom.

Right now we're not even sure whether Murray will be a buyer or seller at the deadline. One would think that even if he were in the position to become a buyer, it's highly doubtful he could acquire anything more than a plug-in rental for his lineup as it would seem as if his team-building will continue moreso in the off season. On the seller side, save for defenseman Cody Franson and Dmitry Kulikov, and maybe forward Girgensons, the Sabres are probably intent upon keeping players other teams may want. So what we see is, for the most part, what we'll be getting for the rest of the season.

Murray is in a bit of a pickle unless this team as constructed can right itself. He's been trying to build on the premise of bigger, faster and harder to play against but the eastern conference has been akin to bees swarming a large intruder and they haven't been able to overcome that. Murray could do any number of things, including firing Bylsma, and he could also make a trade for a desperately needed top-four defenseman, but it would cost scoring up front which will probably end up being counter productive.

Or he could just stick to his plan and let Bylsma and the players work through this.

Murray has the players and although team-building isn't without flaws, it's never a bad idea to build a team with size, speed and skill coupled with intangibles like hard work and leadership. The team may be behind the curve a bit in a quick, fast-paced eastern conference but defenses always catch up to offenses and we'll probably see that happen relatively soon, perhaps as early as this season. Staying the course for this season might be painful for us to watch at times however it might be best for him to let this season play out as it will.