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




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