Published by hockeybuzz.com 1-13-2017
For the third time in two weeks the Buffalo Sabres had an opportunity to make up some ground in the division. In late December they lost two games to the Boston Bruins and saw their deficit go from six points to 10. Last night Buffalo went into Tampa behind by one point in the standings and now find themselves three points behind as the Lightning beat them 4-2 and in the process the Sabres four-game points streak came to an end.
Overall Buffalo didn't play a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, but a number of little things added up, as they usually do, leading to their demise.
Buffalo is 41 games into the season and if they haven't it out yet, they need to keep their butts out of the penalty box. All they need to do is look at the team stats page to be reminded that they're last in the league on the penalty kill. And had they gone to the powerplay side they'd have found out that coming into last night's game, the Lightning had the second best powerplay in the league. Guess what? Tampa Bay went 2/5 with the man advantage.
There are a couple of qualifiers to that stat, however. First off, it looked like Evgeny Romakso got wind of the rumor that Sabres GM Tim Murray had an aversion to Russians as he called a very questionable penalty in the first period to give Tampa a 5-on-3. With Kyle Okposo in the box for a fairly reasonable slashing call, Romasko got Evander Kane for a phantom hooking call :44 seconds later. Tampa converted and tied the game at 1-1.
Late in the third period with the Sabres down 3-2 and charging hard, Romasko nailed Buffalo Kane with a high-sticking call against Lightning goalie Ben Bishop who gave an Oscar-worthy performance on the play. Kane got two minutes for high-sticking and after throwing some expletives Romasko's way got two for unsportsmanlike conduct and a 10-minute misconduct. The Sabres pulled the goalie while short-handed and Tampa added an empty-netter for the final score.
Speaking of Bishop, as outlined yesterday, the Sabres have had trouble winning against top goalies and outside of Tuukka Rask, who has a spell cast over them, Bishop has been a major problem for Buffalo. Bishop is 10-0-1 against the Sabres with a 1.57 goals-against average and a .942 save-percentage. Two goals against him last night wasn't good enough and Buffalo's best players didn't help in the matter.
Sam Reinhart was on a good run with 12 points in his last 10 games, but he was held without a shot last night. Ryan O'Reilly had six points (1g+5a) in three games since returning from his appendectomy. He had three shots on goal last night, was a minus-1 and was on the ice for three of Tampa's goals last night (including both pp goals.) Defensemen Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe, the Sabres top defense pairing, were on the ice for both of Tampa's 5v5 goals and finished the game at minus-2 each. It wasn't just the numbers for those to, but they looked a little off and have been for a couple of games now.
To those whom the most is given, the most is expected and Jack Eichel hasn't lived up to his billing in the last three divisional games. Last night he had the primary assist on Kane's goal but Zemgus Girgensons also had a primary assist his was more worthy of acknowledgement than Eichel's. In Buffalo's last three divisional games (vs Boston twice and vs. Tampa) Eichel has three assists. Not good enough.
Eichel had his moments, he always has his moments, and he has moxie, which is a good thing. He has all the markings of an elite player but if he wants to reach that level, and stay there, he won't get there dangling the puck until he turns it over or throwing blind, backhand passes like we saw last night. I don't know about the rest of Sabreland, but speaking for myself, I saw enough of that type of play from 2007 to 2013 to last a lifetime.
Sometimes it seems as if Eichel is too focused upon living up to Connor McDavid and his style of play, but they're two totally different players. Hell, even their names--Jack and Connor--conjure up different images. So why should a player like Eichel with a long reach, incredible bursts of speed and a fiercely wicked shot try to be a smoove operator like McDavid?
Exactly. He shouldn't.
The loss last night shouldn't totally be pinned on the players, or the refs for that matter, as head coach Dan Bylsma made some curious decisions. Why Eichel started the game with Marcus Foligno and Brian Gionta on his wings was a head-scratcher as was having Eichel moved from the left half-wall to the right point on the powerplay (0/3 with that set-up.) "Disco" Dan was also juggling his lines again and at one point had fourth-line/reserve forward on the ice with O'Reilly and Okposo. Situational line juggling is one thing but it seemed to go well beyond that last night, as it often does in a loss
The Sabres have yet another opportunity tonight as they face a Carolina Hurricanes team that is four points ahead of them in the Eastern Conference. It's another four point game against a team they're chasing. Buffalo's already blown three opportunities and they can't afford to miss too many more.
We're at the half-way point of the season and the Sabres are 16-16-9 for a nice, tidy, 41 points. If they keep that pace they'll have a nice, tidy 82 points in 82 games which isn't good enough.
Last year the Sabres were 15-22-4 at this juncture of the season, good for 34 points. They finished on a 20-14-7 run which was good for 81 points and if they finish the season at the same pace, Buffalo will come up with 88 points. That's an improvement over last season, and some would say that it's about where they expected them to finish, but if their intention was to make the playoffs, 88 points won't be good enough.
They'll need to find a way to add five points to last year's second half finish.
Last season the Sabres had a rough month of January going 5-7-0 but finished with a win which lead to the first of three, four-game point streaks which was their longest such streak all season. After January they never had more than two regulation losses in a row.