Friday, January 13, 2017

Tampa represents a rung for the Sabres, plus a look at Buffalo vs. top goalies

Published by, 1-12-2017

The Buffalo Sabres have a shot at redemption tonight with an chance to leap-frog a team that's directly ahead of them in the division standings. The Tampa Bay Lightning are one point ahead of the Sabres in the Atlantic Division having played two more games so any win by Buffalo will move them up a rung and into sixth place.

It marks the second time in two weeks the Sabres will have had the opportunity to make their mark in the division. Buffalo closed out 2016 with a home-and-home versus the Boston Bruins and the opportunity to slice a six-point deficit down to only two with regulation wins, but fell flat on their face. Boston took both games and increased their lead over Buffalo to 10 points leaving Jack Eichel and many of his teammates steaming over that missed opportunity.

The good news is that those two losses against the Bruins seemed to wake them up, save for the first two periods against the Winnipeg Jets where head coach Dan Bylsma's eruption during a TV timeout snapped them out of a matinee siesta. In all the Sabres are 3-0-1 in 2017 and could have been 4-0-0 were it not for a blown lead late in the third period against the Chicago Blackhawks. That was another loss that left Eichel, and presumably his teammates, unhappy.

We get why Eichel was particularly stung by those Boston losses. In addition to falling off of a cliff after taking a 2-0 first period lead in the first game as well as losing crucial divisional points to a team they were trying to catch, he was playing against his hometown team. That said, Eichel didn't help the cause all that much as he was only able to garner two assists in those two games.

Simply put, after Buffalo scored those first two goals in Game-1, Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask shut the door for the next four periods while the skaters in front of him scored four unanswered in the first game for the 4-2 win then scored the first three en route to a 3-1 win in the second game as Buffalo didn't score their goal until very late in the second period. Rask was dominant once again and he's been giving the Eichel and the Sabres fits for the last two seasons.

Against Buffalo, Rask is 6-0-0 over the last two seasons allowing only seven goals on 194 Sabres shots for an astounding .964 save percentage. This season he's 4-0-0 allowing four goals on 128 shots for an even better .969 Sv%. And right now Rask epitomizes a struggle the Sabres haven't been able to overcome for a decade--beating a top-notch goalie.

The 2006-07 "Ferrari" Sabres could score on anybody at any time but once they were broken up the remaining "Core" couldn't beat a tough goalie and after that group was blown up the players from 2013-15 had trouble beating any goalie, period. Last year's edition of the Sabres was better than the tank years, but was still struggling against some of the best goalies in the leagues.

Here's how Buffalo fared against the top five goalies in save percentage from 2015-16 who played in 50 or more games:

Ben Bishop, TBL:  0-2-0;  2 goals-47 shots on goal
Corey Crawford, CHI:  0-1-1:  3-56
Cory Schneider, NJD:  1-2-0;  5-71
Brayden Holtby, WSH:  1-2-0;  5-74
Roberto Luongo, FLA:  1-3-0;  10-111

Buffalo went 3-10-1 in those games while scoring 25 goals on 359 shots. Those five goalies had a combined .930 Sv%.

So far in 2016-17 here's what the Sabres have done so far against goalies they've faced who are atop the league in save percentage (25 games or more):

Devan Dubnyk, MIN:  1-1-0;  2 goals-62 shots on goal
Brayden Holtby, WSH:  0-1-0;  2-33
Sergei Bobrovsky, CLB:  N/A (have not played)
Carey Price, MTL:  N/A (have not played)
Tuukka Rask, BOS:  0-4-0;  4-128
Crawford, CHI:  0-0-1;  3-20
Luongo, FLA:  1-0-1;  6-61

This year they've gone 2-6-2 while those goalies have allowed 17 Buffalo goals on 304 shots for a .944 Sv%.

Tonight the Sabres will face Bishop who has been sidelined the last nine games due to an injury. He gave them some problems last season. Only two Sabres were able to beat him in 2015-16--Nicolas Deslauriers in a 4-1 Sabres loss at Buffalo and Sam Reinhart in a 2-1 loss at Tampa. Although he has rather pedestrian stats this season (9-10-2;  2.79 GAA;  .907 Sv%,) the 6'7" 217 lb. Bishop shouldn't be taken lightly. Even though he didn't make the above list this season, Bishop was in net for a 4-1 win against the Sabres back in November, stopping 32 of 33 shots including this save of the year nominee against Buffalo's Kyle Okposo (via Samboke on YouTube):

Some Sabres have been able to score against some of the best goalies in the league, but obviously they and their teammates haven't bee able to do it enough. Here's a list of who has scored for Buffalo against the goalies listed above:

2015-16 (25 goals total):

Ryan O'Reilly-5
Cody Franson-2
Tyler Ennis-2
Brian Gionta-2
Evander Kane-2

Deslauriers, Eichel, Johan Larsson, Zemgus Girgensons, Jake McCabe, Phil Varone, Tim Schaller and Mike Weber had one goal each.

2016-17 (17 goals total):

Marcus Foligno-2
Matt Moulson-2

O'Reilly, Girgensons, Eichel, Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen had one goal each.

There are outliers to this formula as the Sabres have smoked NY Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist for eight goals in two wins this season, yet they've also made backups look like Vezina winners. But for the most part, if you're going to be a playoff team, as a team you need to beat a top-notch goalie for however many goals it takes to win a game and it begins tonight against Bishop and the Lightning.

Tampa is looking to reverse an 0-4-0 losing streak while Buffalo is trying to extend their four-game point-streak (3-0-1.) This is one of those four-point road markers which will end up affecting how this season plays out for both clubs and you can bet your bottom dollar the Lightning will throw everything they have at Buffalo. Hopefully the Sabres do the same.

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