Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Sabres honky-tonkin' in Nashville tonight vs. the Predators

Published by, 1-24-2017

Looking at the overall numbers between the Sabres and Nashville Predators, Buffalo would rather play Nashville on the road then at home, which is a good thing because hopefully they'll be honky-tonkin' on the ice tonight in the Music City. According to Sabres PR, Buffalo's overall record vs. the Preds is 8-10-3 but their record in Nashville is 7-4-0 all time.

The Sabres have some wind at their backs and are trying to get on a roll heading into the All-Star break. Back-to-back wins have gotten them into the bottom portion of struggling pack of teams in both the division and conference. Their 47 points in 46 games place them seventh in the division via a tie-breaker over the last place Tampa Bay Lightning, six points behind the third place Toronto Maple Leafs with games in hand on the three teams between them. In the Eastern Conference Buffalo is 15th after losing a tie-breaker with the 14th place NY Islanders. Six teams and five points separates the Sabres from the Philadelphia Flyers who are clinging to the second wild card spot in the conference.

With the huge fluctuation in games played, however, a better indication of where the Sabres ultimately stand may be point-percentage. The Sabres are at .511 on the season which places them fifth in the Atlantic (tied with Detroit) behind Boston and Toronto for the third and final playoff spot and they're 12th in the conference.

Regardless of how you chart it, the only thing that matters is winning. With two wins over the weekend, Buffalo is looking for it's first three-game win-streak since late Oct./early Nov., which happens to be their longest winning streak of the season. After defeating two divisional foes last Friday and Saturday, the Sabres face two Western Conference teams in Nashville tonight and the Dallas Stars on Thursday before the All-Star break. Buffalo is 8-3-2 vs. the west this season.

Nashville will be no easy task as they'll be coming back home after a very successful Western Canada swing where they went 3-0-1 and arrived back in Nashville third in the Central Division. According to Adam Vingan of The Tennessean, Nashville got back to playing Preds hockey--"fast and physical with strong puck possession, tight defense and stout goaltending."

Below the blueline the Preds are tough to beat as 6'5" Pekka Rinne stands tall (in more ways than one) behind a defense-corps that has one of the best top-fours in the league. Rinne is sporting a 2.34 goals-against average, which is eighth in the league for goalies who've played in 30 or more games and he has the fifth-best save-percentage (.921) amongst said goalies.

The Predators have had an extremely deep defense-corps over the years, so deep that they were able to trade defenseman Seth Jones (2013, fourth-overall,) to Columbus for top-line center Ryan Johanson last January. In addition to that they also pulled off a blockbuster trade with Montreal to alter the complexion of their blueline. In the off season Nashville traded elite two-way d-man Shea Weber for an elite offensive d-man in the Canadiens PK Subban.

Here's what it did for Nashville, according to TSN's Scott Cullen:

"(Subban’s) one of the best in the game moving the puck in the right direction, which tended to stand out on a Montreal team that tends to get outshot more often than not. Although his shot may not be feared quite like Weber’s, Subban does have a potent one-timer on the power play, so he can fill that spot on the Nashville power play.

“In Nashville, Subban could fit quite nicely alongside Roman Josi on the top pair. Two elite, mobile defensemen that can move the puck and handle big minutes? That’s a dream scenario for any team and since the Predators can back up that pair with Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis, they are really set in their top four.”

The back-end shift hasn't translated to offense yet as their 2.72 goals/game is almost at the exact same rate as last season's 2.73, but they've actually gotten statistically better in goal-against allowing 2.53 per game this year as opposed to 2.60 ga/gm last season.

Nashville, according to Vingan, has been struggling with consistency, something the Sabres know a lot about. "If the Predators were at all consistent," wrote Vingan at the half-way mark of the season, "then they wouldn't be outside of the playoff picture at this juncture. It's not only game-to-game consistency that's an issue, with the team not having won three consecutive games since Nov. 21-25 and also struggle from period to period on most nights to maintain a successful level of play."

My oh my, doesn't that sound familiar?

Unlike the Preds, Buffalo's blueline has been a train wreck at times with injuries crippling any hope of stability. Rasmus Ristolainen remains the workhorse, but he's had some breakdowns, most notably at Tampa Bay and Carolina in mid-January. He's averaging 26:58/game, good for fifth in the league while averaging .61 points/game which ranks him 13th in the league for defensemen while his 17 powerplay points ranks him third.

Ristolainen had numerous d-partners while anchoring the blueline, because of injuries, until Jake McCabe emerged as the best No. 2 on the team. Although McCabe may ultimately end up as a No. 3/4, he acquitted himself well in his role and looked as if he was becoming more comfortable on offense as well. That was until he went awkwardly into the boards on his first shift against Detroit on Friday and messed up his shoulder. No official word has come out as to his recovery time but head coach Dan Bylsma was on WGR Radio this morning saying that the 23 yr. old defenseman is rehabbing and strengthening his shoulder for more range and motion and will be probably be doing so for 10-14 days. Add in some time to get into game-shape and McCabe might be out until the second week of February.

The four remaining defensemen picked up some of the slack against Detroit with Ristolainen playing over 35 minutes. The team called up Casey Nelson from Rochester for the Saturday game against Montreal and Bylsma moved journeyman Justin Falk up to the top pairing with Ristolainen. The Sabres came away with the win and it looks as if those two will comprise the top-pairing for most of the game tonight.

The status of Dmitry Kulikov remains up in the air with Bylsma telling the hosts that "there's a very good chance we'll see him on this trip." Kulikov has missed the last 12 games due to a lingering problem with his back from an injury suffered in the preseason.

In a nutshell, that's the Sabres defense right now--Ristolainen and a bunch injuries and/or question marks.

Despite the injuries and inconsistencies that have plagued an injury-riddled team, those two overtime wins for the Sabres, in light of losing three out of the previous four which included a loss last Tuesday in Toronto, gave them a pretty big boost. Said Bylsma this morning, "It was a big bounce-back. One of the things about the this team this year is that we have ridden some highs and lows. We've won some games, a couple back-to-backs and then lost some big games and we, emotionally, have ridden some highs and gotten too high and they also had to deal with getting too low after some big losses.

"I think this was a good response from our team after the disappointment of the Toronto game and coming back to win those two big games."

Bylsma continued by saying that he like how they beat Detroit and Montreal. "It was a 60-minute game," he continued. "We stayed with it for the entire 60 minutes both games. We had to score late in the game and overtime and we just stuck with it."

The remaining question, however, is can the Sabres keep it rolling?

Based on history and the way the Sabres have played in Nashville, things look good but then again, they've lost three of their last four on the road, so maybe not. They started out the month 3-0-1, then went 1-3-0 and have now won two in a row.

Enough to make me wanna throw on a Hank Williams record or chill with some Willie Nelson.

"Whiskey River take my mind..."

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