Monday, January 9, 2017

Sabres beginning to figure things out

Published by, 1-8-2017

Yesterday's home game against the Winnipeg Jets was a tale of two games for the Sabres as the first half was about as poor a performance as we've seen since the tank days while the second half produced a rush of speed, skill and tenacity worthy of a playoff team.

We're not exactly sure what the catalyst was for their transformation, but we do know that at one point during a TV timeout, it was reported that Sabres bench-boss Dan Bylsma verbally unloaded on his team for an incredibly embarrassing performance up to that point. It was quite a departure from the usually calm demeanor we've seen from Bylsma since he came to Buffalo. Bylsma has always seemed to be above any passionate outbursts like the one described yesterday and good for him that he finally got so angered that he found it within himself to let it rip and openly display his disgust with the way the team was playing.

The Sabres left the ice after the second period down 3-1 with boos raining down from the hometown crowd as the sold out KeyBank Center not only witnessed an incredibly depressing display of hockey, but to add insult to injury, two former players--Drew Stafford and Joel Armia--both scored for the Jets. While we fans at home were busy clicking and tapping away about the horrors we witnessed and the moves we'd make to fix all the problems, the Sabres were about to embark on a journey of self-discovery. They came out in the third period and completely turned things around during a one-minute span.

It started with Marcus Foligno muscling the puck over the goal line (barely) just over five minutes into the third and Zemgus Girgensons barreling to the net for his fifth of the season only :26 seconds later. With KeyBank Center still buzzing after the Sabres tied things up, Jake McCabe unloaded on Jets premier rookie Patrick Laine with a bone-jarring body check that had aftershocks reaching all the way to Winnipeg. McCabe got jumped after the hit, his teammates came to his rescue and although the Sabres didn't score on the ensuing powerplay, they had gathered all the momentum. Brian Gionta scored the game-winner with just under 10 minutes to go in the game and the Sabres came away with a 4-3 win.

While the victory was huge in a number of ways, not the least of which was two important points in the standings, this game may be looked upon as one where the team may have really started to figure things out. Is it a watershed moment as Bylsma alluded to at his post-game press conference? Maybe, maybe not. But the come from behind win should be construed as nothing less than a big step forward in both individual and team growth.

This is a team that can win games despite having a flawed roster. They should be well aware that they're not four lines deep, their defense still has issues and that they're not getting Hall of Fame type goaltending from their duo of Robin Lehner and Anders Nilsson. Yet, if the fourth line is capable of holding the fort, the defense has enough in it to be considered mostly adequate and their goalies can keep the game from getting too far out of hand, they can pull out a victory like they did yesterday as they're not totally bereft of skill. The Sabres have stars that can play like stars, a superstar who's starting to come into his own at 20 yrs. old and a host of complimentary players who have used their individual skills to make an impact at various times throughout the season.

The Sabres struggled through some very difficult times with this lineup but they've found out that they do have enough talent right now overcome much of their deficiencies. That's not to say that a top winger or defenseman wouldn't be welcome, but what they have is what they'll be moving forward with in the near future and they may have figured out how they all fit into the equation.

In terms of a human life, this Sabres team is that of a young adult having just passed through the angst of being a teenager. Although they'll still have serious bouts with adolescence, they seem to be maturing. With that growth should be less of a need for supervision.

Bylsma has done a lot of coaching with this team to the point where it's been mentioned often that he over-coaches/ Perhaps he's at the point where he figured out that there comes a time where you need to let go. This is not to say that guidance is unnecessary, because it always is, but micro-managing every move his players make on the ice could, and usually does, backfire. He's coached the hell out of this team for 1 1/2 seasons and most, if not all, players know what needs to be done in most situations. Sure, new things pop up and adjustments will need to be made, but the foundation has been laid and it's up to the players to execute. Conversely, he needs to allow them the freedom to execute his game plan while using their personal strengths and intuitions as hockey players.

And so it grows.

The Sabres are 2-0-1 in their last three games. They dominated a sleeping NY Rangers team, lost a lead in the third period and the game in overtime to the Western Conference leading Chicago Blackhawks and they managed to turn the tables on a good Winnipeg Jets team and pull out a win. In three games they've begun to erase an incredibly inept stretch where they plummeted to the bottom of the conference, yet in the process they may have begun to figure things out..

Does this mean they'll go on a magical run? No. It guarantees nothing. However, these last three games have shown that they're gaining confidence and that there seems to be more upside than we may have thought.

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