Published by hockeybuzz.com, 2-8-2017
There's just no other way to describe it.
In the last 18 seasons the San Jose Sharks have made the playoffs 16 times while the Buffalo Sabres have made them eight, yet with Buffalo's win last night, the Sabres are now 10-0-1 in their last 11 games vs. San Jose', 17-1-1 all-time at home vs. the Sharks. Even during "the tank years" when the Sabres were at the bottom of the league from 2013-15 the Sabres won all four meetings.
For those who left early, they missed an impressive comeback from a Sabres team that seemingly feeds off momentum. As Buffalo has shown time and again, when they get their feet moving playing a North game, they're fast and relentless, have the ability to finish and can blitzkrieg their way to a come-from-behind win. The problem with Buffalo at this stage of the game, however, is that they put themselves in this position because of huge in-game stretches where it looks as if they've either forgotten how to play or they're sipping Margarita's at a country club and on many occasions they don't come out of it.
Something always seems to get in the way. Their forwards aren't scoring, their defense resembles the Keystone Cops, or their goaltending puts them in a hole.
Sabres backup goalie Anders Nilsson was the talk of the town earlier in the season, especially after pulling out a 2-1 shootout victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins to help stop the team from falling into a deep abyss. Starter Robin Lehner was playing well, but not fully locked in, and at the time neither was getting much goal support. When the goals did start coming for Buffalo, it seemed as if Nilsson was the beneficiary.
Despite some haughty number at KeyBank Center coming into the game (6-1-1 this season, 1.84 GAA, .946 Sv%,) Nilsson wasn't as sharp as the Sabres needed him to be. After Buffalo took a 1-0 lead on a powerplay goal by Matt Moulson, the Sharks countered with four unanswered and although Nilsson wasn't totally to blame, he could have been better. Yet in the end it didn't matter in this one because Buffalo was at home playing the San Jose' Sharks and, for some reason, the Sabres own the Sharks.
Mike Harrington of The Buffalo compiled some interesting facts concerning last night's comeback from three goals down. It was the Sabres first win when trailing by three since December, 2014 was first off the list and Harrington also used Elias Sports Bureau writing, "it was the latest the Sabres had started a three-goal comeback since a 5-4 shootout win at Boston on Nov. 2, 2006." He continued with the Elias stat stating it's only the second non-shootout win for Buffalo when trailing by three goals with less than 11 minutes left in the game.
"The other came at Pittsburgh on March 10, 1976," wrote Harrington, "when the Sabres reversed a 6-2 deficit with five goals in the final 8:35 to pull out a 7-6 win. Gilbert Perreault notched the tying and winning goals in that one."
Although he didn't score the game-tying goal, Evander Kane had two goals including the game-winner for Buffalo. He and Jack Eichel kicked in the afterburners in overtime and streaked in on a 2-on-1. Eichel feathered a pass to Kane on the door step and he made no mistake with the puck before crashing hard into the boards. Kane lay on the ice with his teammates gathering around him and the crowd in a frenzy.
Hopefully it's nothing too serious as Kane has been playing elite-level hockey as of late. He broke a three-game point-drought last night with his two goals but prior to that he had 10 points (5+5) in his last 10 games and was a plus-four.
Buffalo took the game to overtime with three third period goals in a span of 3:28.
With his team down 4-1 in the third head coach Dan Bylsma relied on a shortened bench while trying to get back into the game. Fourth-line forward Nicolas Deslauriers never touched the ice in the third period and never saw it after the 13:01 mark of the second while Moulson saw only one shift in the third period with most of it while the Sabres were on the powerplay. Prior to that he hadn't been on the ice for a regular shift since the 12:53 mark of the second.
Moulson did, however, make the most of the single shift he played in the third period. With Buffalo down 4-2 and on the second of two consecutive powerplays, his second PP unit kept the pressure on San Jose until eventually Kane scored a wrap-around goal to cut the deficit to 4-3. Although it wasn't considered a powerplay goal, it might as well have been because it came just 32 seconds after the Sharks returned to full strength with the puck never leaving the San Jose' zone.
Bylsma used an array of line combos in the third almost as if he was simply putting on whichever players seemed to have the most gas and once they got the momentum, they didn't slow down. Sabres fans are quick to point out that the defense is weak, and they may have a valid point, but Buffalo's fourth line is extremely troublesome. Deslauriers can't score, Moulson is slow (yet effective on the powerplay,) and whomever is on the other wing just gets lost.
Bylsma has done some winger rotation as of late and had Tyler Ennis on the fourth line, which is no place for him. He also used rookie Justin Bailey there upon his call up. It's no place for him either. Ennis seems to be getting up to game-speed and despite his propensity to dangle until he turns the puck over, when he's on he's a pretty slick customer. Bailey was moved from the fourth-line abyss and put in a prime "rejuvenation" spot on the third line last night with center Zemgus Girgensons and captain Brian Gionta.
There's something going on with the veteran captain as everyone who plays with Gionta on that third line seems to find themselves. It started last season with Johan Larsson and Marcus Foligno and it continued with Foligno this year as he played well enough in Bylsma's eyes to get a long crack at the top-six. Evander Kane had all kinds of troubles returning from four cracked ribs earlier this season but began finding himself on a consistent basis while playing on the third line with Gionta.
Girgensons was the face on a milk carton for the entirety of Bylsma's tenure before Larsson was injured and he was moved to third-line center next to Gionta. It totally turned his game around and he's starting to look more and more like the hard-charging, two-way center he was drafted for. While watching the game last night, I wondered how long it will take before Bailey finds his NHL game on that line.
Last night was a good win but it's only as good as their performance in the next one. The Sabres can't seem to get on a roll for one reason or another and it's left them bouncing around the bottom of a rather large group of teams trying to get close to a playoff spot. Buffalo hasn't been able to get it right and/or keep it going for any prolonged length of time as something either gets in the way or breaks down.
Perhaps he formula for the Sabres to get into the upper level of the schmozzle that is the eastern conference wild-card playoff race can be found in the best of what they had to offer over the last four games or so. It would start with solid goaltending, which Lehner has provided plenty of, and a return to health for the defense-corps, which is one piece away from a full compliment of starting defensemen. Maybe the biggest part, which came from the last 25 minutes of the San Jose' game, would be a heavy reliance upon a top-nine that features Eichel, Ryan O'Reilly, Kyle Okposo, Sam Reinhart, Kane, Girgensons, Gionta, Ennis and the speed of Bailey or Will Carrier. As shown throughout the season, Buffalo doesn't have forward depth to stretch down to the fourth line and their defense takes an extreme hit every time a starter goes down, but they've managed to stay afloat despite their shortcomings.
As they've proven time and again virtually nothing's out of reach for this club. Conversely they've also show a propensity to shoot themselves in the foot when they have the opportunity to go on an extended run. It's maddening, yet explainable. Unlike the Sabres success against the Sharks.