Published by hockeybuzz.com, 12-31-2016
The Sabres are in Boston today for the second game of a home and home with the rival Bruins at TD Garden. This marks the fourth and final time these two Atlantic Division foes will meet this season and Boston has already made it's mark by winning the other three games all in regulation. Nary a point was gathered by Buffalo in this season series and as they head into this afternoon's 1 p.m. matinee, the Sabres find themselves behind the Bruins by eight points.
In Thursday's meeting Buffalo stormed out with a dominating first period to take a 2-0 lead only to have Boston slowly turn the tide before scoring the game-winning goal with less than four minutes left in regulation. The Bruins tacked on an empty net goal for the 4-2 final score.
An interesting analogy was put forth by one of the mainstream media members who likened the last game as one between a lesser D-1 school with a game against power conference. In it the lesser team plays a perfect quarter or half but doesn't have the horses to hang with a powerhouse and eventually they're defeated. Quite apropos, actually, dependent upon how one views Buffalo's talent as compared to Boston.
From a talent perspective, I don't think there's a huge gap although the absence of Ryan O'Reilly didn't help matters for Buffalo. The Bruins aren't the Blackhawks or Penguins nor are the Sabres the AHL-level team they were two years ago. Boston, however, has a style that's engrained in the Spoked-B and they played it to a 'T', youngsters and veterans alike. Conversely, the Sabres found themselves in the first period, but got thrown off their game by the Bruins early in the second and had very few answers the rest of the game. Even when they did, Boston goalie Tuukka Rask would have none of it as he stymied the Sabres at every turn.
Head coach Dan Bylsma said it felt as if these two games was like a playoff series with Boston and in a way it is, at least for Buffalo. The Sabres can't afford to lose this one. If so the season will be in great peril as they'll fall 10 points behind Boston and numerous points behind the other four teams they're staring up at in the division.
It will be interesting to see who has the mettle for this one.
If you can take anything from blowing that Boston game it's that the Sabres were pissed afterwards. During a post-game interview with Marcus Foligno in the Buffalo locker room, you could hear a player in the background, screaming obscenities in frustration.
From Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News:
"The players and staff were angrier than they have been after any game all season -- and probably after any game in several seasons.
"The anger after Thursday's meltdown against Boston was palpable. There was Jack Eichel pounding his stick on the ice at the final buzzer and sitting steely eyed in the locker room while shaking his head and talking to captain Brian Gionta. There was the screaming voice of an unidentified player in a restricted area of the room letting the profanity fly. And there was the clenched jaw of coach Dan Bylsma as he appeared for his post-game news conference, trying to decipher what had happened."
This is a good thing.
Eichel, a Boston suburb native, hadn't played his hometown team yet this season and he came out flying in the first period. But to have it end like it did? Maybe it's a good thing he wasn't available for the post-game interview although I really would have liked to have heard what he thought went wrong. Buffalo played the final two periods with much less aggression than it did in the first and it eventually got to them.
Passion has been lacking on this team for a long time. Perhaps they can bring those emotions into this game today.
The Sabres recalled forward Justin Bailey for the trip to Beantown as forward Will Carrier is sidelined with a hand injury. It's the second stint for Bailey this season having played in two games earlier. Bailey has played in 10 games total for Buffalo but has yet to hit the scoresheet.
The Williamsville, NY native earned the call up on the strength of a four-game goal streak and a five game point-streak overall (5g +1a.)
At one point in the off season I'd gotten wind that some within the Sabres organization weren't too keen on the big winger who could fly up and down the ice. In my season preview I had Bailey filling a hole on the third line based upon the strides he made in Rochester and his strong, albeit pointless eight games with the Sabres last season. But he was amongst the first cuts at camp and when he did get a shot in Buffalo, it was for just two games.
Bailey said he's ready to make the most of this opportunity and if he can get into the flow a little bit, just maybe he can break through for a goal thereby tying what Carrier was able to accomplish in 24 games while playing a good chunk on the top line. And if Bailey can light the lamp at least once, it will put him ahead of Derek Grant who has yet to score a goal in 71 NHL games.
Bailey needs to be a force and he'll need to do so while at least starting on the fourth line with Grant and Nicolas Deslauriers who has yet to score a goal in 14 games this season. If the scoring winger plays to Bylsma's liking he may work his way up to playing with a top-six talent like Eichel, so says Bylsma. If he doesn't, it might be a couple of games on the fourth line and then back down.
Rochester winger Nick Baptiste had a good stint with Buffalo earlier in the season scoring two goals in his first 12 NHL games. He was sent back down the Amerks and proceeded to tear it up before he fell into a five-game funk prior to last night's game against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms (PHI.)
Perhaps Baptiste was a bit ticked because Bailey got the call to Buffalo on Friday and not him but whatever the case, the 6'1" 205 lb. winger assisted on three of the Amerks four goals last night in their 4-3 win over the Phantoms in overtime. Two of Baptiste's assists were primary ones. The first came when he powered the puck into the offensive zone and fed a hard-charging Cal O'Reilly for a tap-in at the crease for the opening goal. His other primary assist came in overtime as he and Taylor Fedun controlled the puck during an Amerks 4-on-3 powerplay before Fedun wristed home the game winner on a feed from Baptiste.
Post-game he told Amerks TV that he "was just playing his game." Baptiste noted that he had seven shots on goal and didn't score but that he was also "doing his thing, trying to play confident."
"I was in a bit of a lull for a few games," he continued, "but [this game] was obviously a builder for me and I just have to keep things going."
Lehigh Valley is one of the top teams in the AHL and like the Sabres, Rochester left after the first period with a 2-0 lead only to have the Phantoms tie it up just over six minutes into the second period. But unlike Buffalo, the Amerks were able to score goal No. 3 when Baptiste's heavy shot fell into the Phantoms crease and was eventually buried by Cole Schneider. Baptiste was credited with the secondary assist. Lehigh Valley tied it in the third but the Amerks prevailed in overtime.
The learning curve for Baptiste has been a fairly long one with many pitfalls along the way. But after 98 professional games it looks as if he's rounding into form. As mentioned in the previous blog, there's room on the Sabres roster right now for the size, speed and skill that both Bailey and Baptiste have to offer. If those in charge care to make the room.
Simply put, those two can't do much worse than a couple of roster players who've yet to score this year.
And the Sabres need scoring.
New Year's Eve 2016 has plenty of sports on the docket which includes the beginning of the college football playoffs today at 3:00 p.m.
The Sabres play at 1 p.m. while Team USA faces off against Team Canada in the IIHF World Junior Championship at 3:30 p.m. No problem there as fans can just make the switch after the Sabres game. However, they may need to do some jumping around if the want to catch two Sabres prospects who are playing for Team Sweden.
The Swedes take on the Czech Republic at 1 p.m. as well and it features a red-hot Alexander Nylander, the eighth-overall pick in last year's draft by Buffalo. Nylander is tied for second in scoring at the tournament with seven points (3+4) in three games and he's leading a tourney favorite into the final game of the preliminary round.
Also on Team Sweden is center Rasmus Asplund whom the Sabres traded up for in the Mark Pysyk/Dmitry Kulikov trade with the Florida Panthers at the 2016 NHL Draft. Asplund was taken with the 33rd-overall pick last year.
Defenseman Casey Fitzgerald (NCAA) plays for the U.S.