Published by hockeybuzz.com, 1-4-2017
Let me preface this by saying the Buffalo Sabres have been maddeningly inconsistent this season and although their 4-1 win at Madison Square Garden vs. the NY Rangers on national TV was impressive in many ways, one game won't be indicative of future results. Buffalo has an incredibly tough matchup on Thursday as they travel to the Madhouse on Madison to take on the Chicago Blackhawks, a team that's about as close to a dynasty as on can get in the cap-era.
Injuries have been the main contributor to the Sabres inconsistencies this season as they've not only been injury riddled, but the IR for Buffalo has been filled with significant injuries to some of their top players. Most recently, their top two-way center in Ryan O'Reilly was sidelined due to an emergency appendectomy on Christmas day while third-line center Johan Larsson went heavily into the boards against the Boston Bruins on Saturday dislocating both his elbow and wrist and is out for the season.
The Larsson injury compelled head coach Dan Bylsma to revamp his forward group and move another forward back to his natural center position as Zemgus Girgensons joined Sam Reinhart in the middle. Both players were drafted as centers but with Buffalo's depth their ended up on the wing. Reinhart took O'Reilly's spot as No. 2 center while Girgensons was moved into Larsson's spot as the team's No. 3.
Both Reinhart and Girgensons had been on the same line for much of the three games post Christmas break, with not much happening. Larsson had been centering a pretty successful trio Evander Kane and Brian Gionta on his wing but his injury would open the door for Girgensons to move back to center. Last night Reinhart was between Kane and rookie Justin Bailey who'd been called up for the Boston game on Saturday to replace injured rookie Will Carrier. Bylsma put Reinhart between the bookend powerforwards and formed a line of Girgensons centering Carrier and Gionta.
It proved to be very successful on the scoresheet for the Sabres. Girgensons (from Carrier and Gionta) put the team on the board just under eight minutes into the first period and the Sabres went up 2-0 on as Kane buried a rebound off of a Reinhart shot very late in the period. In all every player from both lines would hit the scoresheet with Bailey scoring the first goal of his NHL career just over a minute into the second period to put the Sabres up 3-0. Of note, it was officially an unassisted goal but both Reinhart and Kane got unofficial assists as shown in this from NHL.
Just as important for the Sabres, however, is that this group as constructed held the Rangers without a shot for almost a full 10 minutes to begin the game and held them without a shot through almost 15 minutes to begin the third period. The Rangers had one good period where they produced 15 shots but had very few premium opportunites. This was by far the most complete game of Girgensons season as his strong skating and two-way acumen were on display all game while every player on the team skated hard and this time, unlike the Boston game on December 29, they didn't blow a 2-0 lead.
The big thing for Buffalo, of course, is consistency and playing the same game against the Blackhawks would be a huge step in that direction. One game does not make a season nor does it mean they'll go on any kind of run, but every run begins with one game and often times it can begin with the lines clicking.
They sure did so last night.
O'Reilly was expected to miss at least two to three weeks after the appendectomy and it looks as if he'll be missing at least the next three Sabres games. After the Chicago game on Thursday Buffalo heads back home for to face Winnipeg on Saturday and Philadelphia on Tuesday next week. After that they travel for a quick southern sojourn for a back-to-back against the Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes beginning next Thursday.
Buffalo will have three to five more games to see if the lineup Bylsma constructed is one that he'll move forward with.
The make-up of a playmaker in Reinhart between two fast powerforwards with skill is very intriguing. With his two assists last night Reinhart upped his total to 15 on the season and only trails Rasmus Ristolainen (22) on the team. Kane has been hot lately with six goals in his last 10 games and looks every bit the player GM Tim Murray traded for nearly two years ago. Bailey had 20 goals in his first pro season in Rochester and he finally broke through in his 12th NHL game. He'd have had two last night but the rocket he beat Henrik Lundqvist with in the third period chimed off of the post.
Girgensons at third-line center brings the same two-way traits as Larsson did but with much more speed and a bit more skill. Couple that with the extremely fast Carrier and the veteran saavy of Gionta and the trio showed they could both create and find open spaces.
While watching last night, I couldn't help but wonder what this team might be like if O'Reilly was moved to the wing on the Eichel/Kyle Okposo line.
I get that a lot of the hub-bub in Colorado came from O'Reilly playing on the wing as he prefers to play center, but O'Reilly/Eichel/Okposo would be a formidable trio. Nothing against Marcus Foligno who's played admirably in the top-six this season, but he's not a top-line winger.
There are plenty of games between the Ranger game and O'Reilly's return to find out if last night's game was an aberration or something to build upon, but that's an intriguing line if Bylsma ever decides to give it a whirl.
It seems as if Gionta gets a lot of grief from many on these boards, but much of it is unwarranted. Sure, at 37 yrs. old he's not the same speedy goal-scorer he was in New Jersey and the early part of his Montreal tenure, but the dude has some serious veteran savvy that he doesn't get credit for.
Last season with the Sabres struggling, Bylsma formed the line of Larsson with Foligno and Gionta. Both Larsson and Foligno proceeded to have strong finishes to the season. This season Bylsma moved Kane out of the top-six and onto a line with Larsson and Gionta. Kane proceeded to come out of his post-injury funk and now has six goals in his last 10 games and is second on the team with nine goals overall. His eight goals at full strength is by far the most on the team.
Last night Girgensons lit the lamp and Carrier got on of the assists with Gionta the other on some real nice work on the forecheck. It was the first time this trio had skated on the same line.
It remains to be seen how long the present forward make-up lasts, but it doesn't seem to matter who is on Gionta's line, he just quietly gets them in the proper place on the ice playing the proper game to create opportunities.
Eichel's frustrations after the back-to-back Bruins losses is well documented and he may have needed to find some new equipment after slammed it around in Boston. As they said on the NBCSN telecast last night, Eichel is a proud guy. Having the team and himself lay an egg in his hometown didn't sit well with the feisty 20 yr. old and he wasn't afraid to let it out after the game.
As mentioned before, I wish the whole team had his passion and hatred for losing.
After scoring Buffalo's fourth goal last night Eichel skated towards the corner not with his usual one-leg up goal scoring celebration, but with fists in front of him and a fierce look of resolution. It was redemption for him and the Sabres as he was on the ice for the Rangers late second period goal that narrowed Buffalo's lead to 3-1.
The Rangers goal came on a delayed penalty to Cody Franson as he tripped up a Rangers player in their own zone. Franson immediately put his arms up proclaiming innocence as the play continued and you could see a frustration in Eichel as he pouted on the play. The Rangers whipped around the puck and defenseman Nick Holden blasted on past Buffalo goalie Anders Nilsson while Eichel provided a screen.
It was the type of sequence we've seen all to often as harbinger of things to come in a Buffalo loss.
Not unlike the Boston games, Eichel had a personal connection to this game against the Rangers as he was playing against his off-season workout buddy, Jimmy Vesey. If you'll recall , the Sabres traded for Vesey's rights after the college player decided he wouldn't be playing for the team that drafted him, the Nashville Predators. Buffalo made it's case over the summer but Vesey signed with the NY Rangers.
Most assuredly Eichel did not want to lose this game and that late second period goal by the Rangers could've been a disaster. Fortunately for Eichel and the Sabres, Vesey went off for hooking only :18 seconds into the third period and Eichel would score less than a minute later.
Yeah, there was definitely some added incentive in Eichel's goal as his buddy's penalty and the resulting goal pretty much sealed the Rangers fate. To add injury to insult, Buffalo's Derek Grant caught Vesey looking at the puck in his skates and flattened him with a bone-jarring check. One would think Eichel had a bit of a smile watching that one.
Nilsson is 2-0 against the Rangers this season allowing four goals on 50 shots against for a .920 save percentage.
His countryman counterpart Lundqvist is 0-2 against Buffalo giving up eight goals on 53 shots for a .849 Sv%.
The teams meet one more time at Buffalo on February 2.
Wonder who'll get the start for the Sabres?