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.