Published by hockeybuzz.com, 2-20-2017
The Buffalo Sabres were able to hang with the Chicago Blackhawks for at least one period last night. Actually we should say that goalie Robin Lehner was instrumental in keeping things from getting out of hand in the first period as he allowed only one goal on 17 Chicago shots in the first 16 minutes of the game. The only thing that stemmed the flow of Hawks buzzing around in the Buffalo end was a series of penalties by Chicago that put Buffalo on the powerplay later in the first.
After Buffalo's Dmitry Kulikov went off for hooking at the 14:28 mark, the Blackhawks took consecutive high sticking penalties that had Buffalo on a 4-on-3 then a 5-on-3 for the nearly a full two minutes. That could have been the elixir for the Sabres' ailments but they came up short. All was not lost for Buffalo in the first period as Evander Kane scored his 21st goal of the season with :05 seconds left in the period, however, that 5-on-3 could have turned the tide.
"I thought our opportunity was that 5-on-3, to get not just one goal, maybe two," said coach Dan Bylsma to the gathered media post game. "We gave them too much. That's a good team."
The Blackhawks came on a like a storm in the second period and added two more goals to push the lead to 3-1 as two talented vets worked hard and worked a little bit of magic to put the choke-hold on the Sabres. Marian Hossa schooled rookie Evan Rodrigues on the half-wall and sent a precision shot through a small crack in Lehner's pads to put Chicago ahead then Johnathan Toews broke free of Jack Eichel along the goal line and caught the 20 yr. old off guard as he went to the net to bury a rebound to put the Hawks up by two goals late in the second period.
Early in the third period the Sabres were out of gas and were steamrolled as Buffalo-native Patrick Kane set up goal No. 4 for Chicago early in the third then scored the final tally a few minutes later as the Hawks left Buffalo with a 5-1 win.
Despite the lone fan that was booing near the end of the game, the Sabres had a massive challenge ahead of them heading into the contest and just didn't have nearly enough in the tank. It was their seventh game in the last 11 days the second game of a back-to-back, and their second set of back-to-backs during that stretch. Although Chicago was playing a back-to-back as well, theirs came after their bye week and they used a 3-1 loss vs. Edmonton to get their hockey legs back.
Chicago also has pure talent in their core but unlike the Sabres, they're deep and have good talent up and down the lineup. Every line scored a goal last night for Chicago while Bylsma, once again was forced to double shift centers to give the fourth line some ice-time. Winger Nicolas Deslauriers, who was forced into the fourth-line center role, had 3:41 of ice-time last night and was a minus-1 after four shifts covering 2:02 in the first half of the game. He was on the ice for 54 seconds in the second period and 45 seconds of the third.
His linemates Tyler Ennis and Matt Moulson didn't fare much better as the line was exploited on Chicago's first goal. Ennis didn't have the speed or the defensive acumen to keep up with Chicago fourth-liner Ryan Hartman as he circled the zone and sent a laser past Lehner while Deslauriers looked lead-footed and lost. Ennis and Moulson were a combined minus-2 in 15:36 total even-strength ice-time and had one shot on goal which came from Moulson on the 5-on-3 powerplay. Who covered most of their even strength ice-time with Deslauriers on the bench? Eichel, and he's been doing that for the a lot lately.
Bylsma has been double shifting Eichel because he has no choice. Third line center Zemgus Girgensons has been out the last seven games with a mid-body injury while fourth-line center Derek Grant has missed the last two games because of a shoulder injury and probably shouldn't even be there in the first place. Rodrigues has performed admirably on the third line replacing Girgensons but the team was stuck with Deslauriers on the fourth line.
Eichel has averaged nearly 22 minutes of ice time over the last five games and anyone who's watched him play knows that his shifts are full of quick sprints and lots of skating covering much of the ice. And last night he had a very difficult task battling with Toews who's compete-level is amongst the best the NHL has to offer. It didn't turn out well as Toews eventually beat him and by the third period Eichel was gassed as Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane put the nails in the coffin with him on the ice.
In the end, the Hawks looked like a three-time Stanley Cup Champion as they were rested and hitting on all cylinders while the Sabres looked the part of a team with too many holes and not enough gas in the tank.
So it goes.
To the guy who was booing late in the third. Really?
Of all the things to boo, last night's game was not one of them and it was proven as his lone voice was largely ignored by the remaining fans in the building.
A lot of attention was paid to a compressed schedule because of the bye week and the Sabres having it in the shortest month of the year made it even worse. Reactions from players and the coach varied somewhat when WGR550's Paul Hamilton asked about the compressed schedule and the upcoming bye week. The Sabres will be away from the ice for five days beginning today after playing 11 games in 18 days (6-4-1 record) and will play three games in four nights to end the month, beginning with a back-to-back on the road.
"Having played the amount of games we've played, I think you need a break," said Bylsma to the media. "At the same time, five games is an eternity in the hockey season. It's a long time and it's a break you don't want at this point [with] the way we're playing and the wins we've put together.
"You maybe want to forgo the five games and keep playing."
Evander Kane, who's been on a tear since December 3 with 21 goals in 36 games is welcoming the break. "Hopefully we can get some good rest, get some relaxation, get our minds away from hockey, kind of refocus and regroup," said Kane rather surprisingly considering how hot he is right now. But he seemed to look at it as a way to get revitalized for the final stretch of 21 post-break games. He called it "a much needed break" and followed it up by saying that "a little rest can go a long way."
"Stepping away for a couple of days can help individual and a group and hopefully it will be positive," he concluded.
Sabres captain Brian Gionta, a veteran of 984 regular season games told Hamilton post-game, via WGR550 radio, that the six-game pre-break stretch "seems like a lot" and that it was "a tough push" up to the bye. He also said he wished it was more spread out.
Regardless of what anyone thinks of the bye week and the schedule, which was compressed even more because the World Cup of Hockey lopped off a week at the beginning of the season, it's here and the Sabres, like every other team, need to deal with it.
With five days off GM Tim Murray will have plenty of time to examine where his team is and which direction he intends to take it for the stretch run as the March 1 NHL Trade Deadline is coming fast.