Thursday, January 12, 2017

Positive trends may make this run a bit different for Buffalo

Published by, 1-11-2017

We know they are an imperfect team that plays an imperfect game, yet the Buffalo Sabres have managed to pick themselves up off the mat to become relevant again. After last night’s 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, the Sabres find themselves on a four-game point-streak taking seven of a possible eight points and in the process they're beginning to erase a dismal stretch in late December that saw them finish 2016 on a 1-4 slide.

However, new year, new attitude and with the victory last night Buffalo is now 3-0-1 in 2017.

Sabres fans will point out that we've seen this movie before. Twice this season it looked as if they were on the verge of kickin' it in gear only to have them struggle. In late October/early November, without Jack Eichel the Sabres put together a solid three-game win-streak and won four of five before stumbling to the bottom while playing some of the most unwatchable hockey we've ever had the displeasure of watching. They went 0-4-2 during that stretch and were outscored 19-6.

A huge 2-1 shootout victory over Pittsburgh snapped them out of it and the return of Eichel four games later helped propel the Buffalo to a 3-1-1 record in late November. After a third period comeback against the Edmonton Oilers on December 6, the Sabres looked to be on the verge of turning the tables on a rather difficult season. Through the first half of December Buffalo added to their surge and went into a crucial stretch against Eastern Conference foes going 4-2-1, but maybe more importantly, scoring 21 goals in the process.

However, once again it was back down to the bottom.

With the wind at their backs and an opportunity to climb right back into the thick of a playoff spot, the Sabres fell apart. Their 1-4-2 finish to the month sent them back to the bottom of the conference and had Eichel openly showing his disgust with himself and his team.

With that in mind, what should make any Sabres fan feel as if this team has finally turned the corner making them a legitimate playoff team? I don't think anyone should be convinced until Buffalo is actually knocking on the door of a playoff spot. However, there are signs that this one might stick.

Last night the Sabres showed off a ton of team speed and a lot of gumption as they worked through a tight first period to get untracked in the second with three unanswered goals. It's a barrage we've seen before as recent as the third period of their previous game against Winnipeg when they scored three unanswered in the third period for the come-from-behind win.

But the cool part of those three goals last night was how they were scored as they featured the execution and patience of a team that seems to have caught up to the speed around them.

The first goal showcased unstoppable puck-movement that ended with a shot-pass in Sam Reinhart's skate at the goal line. The Sabres went star-pattern on the powerplay with three players touching the puck before they found Reinhart all alone. "The Quiet One" calmly moved the puck from his skate to his stick and quickly deposited his fifth powerplay goal of the season.

Just over three minutes later with the Flyers on their heels, rookie Taylor Fedun hit the Philly blueline with space and waited patiently for Ryan O'Reilly to provide a screen. His low, far-side shot was kicked out by Steve Mason right to fellow rookie Will Carrier. With two Flyers converging on him in the slot, Carrier calmly maneuvered the puck to a sweet spot on his stick and buried it top-shelf.

Buffalo's third goal came courtesy of a forced Philly turnover very late in the second period.

Sabres d-man Zach Bogosian blocked an outlet pass at the Flyers blueline and Reinhart gathered the puck heading towards the net. His pass to O'Reilly went off of a Philly skate right to Evander Kane who was crashing the slot. Kane calmly fished the puck from between his skates and snapped one past Mason with 8.9 seconds left in the period to make the score 3-0. It was Kane's 10th of the season.

That late second period goal is indicative of another trend for Buffalo lately.

We know that when the Sabres score they put the opposition on their heels and can quickly add to that, as shown last night. Yet they've also been able to do a certain thing that all good teams seem to do--score early and/or late in a period. In their last four games they've scored a goal with less than two minutes left in a period (three of them with less than a minute to play) and in two of the last four games they've scored goals just over a minute into a period. How many times over the last decade have we witnessed teams doing that to the Sabres? Conversely, when was the last time we saw Buffalo do it on a consistent basis? 2005-07?

As mentioned earlier, this is an imperfect Sabres team that plays an imperfect game. They have a lot of young players, are still inconsistent and are still learning how to win. But they seem to be getting it. Remember when they blew a three-goal third period lead in Philadelphia earlier in the season? Not a chance this time. Sure, they also have holes in the lineup, most notably on defense, and no goalie in the Blue and Gold should be confused with Tuuka Rask or Devan Dubnyk, but the team-game they're playing is covering up those weaknesses.

What this group of Sabres has right now is plenty of speed and skill and a comfort-level with who they are and what's expected of them in Bylsma's system. They're gaining confidence in knowing what it takes to win and with each win their confidence grows. Will they slide once again? We're not sure, but I don't expect to see any elongated losing stretch.

The win against Philly was huge in the standings as a once out of reach wild card spot is now at least within sight. The Flyers are presently in the last wild card spot with 48 points. Buffalo is seven points behind with three games in hand. Within the Atlantic Division Buffalo is nine points behind the second place Boston Bruins with four games in hand and their six points behind the third place Ottawa Senators having played one more game. But they've been climbing step by step.

Buffalo's next game is at Tampa Bay on Thursday against a Lightning team represents another rung on the ladder. Tampa is one point ahead of Buffalo having played two more games. The Sabres also have a game at Carolina who are five points ahead of them having played in one more game.

Although we've seen this twice before the upward trends the SArbes are showing makes me think that it might be a little different this time.

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