Monday, February 6, 2017

Sabres Hockey

Published by, 2-5-2017

Sabres GM Tim Murray has to be pretty pleased with what he witnessed the past two games as he's seen the best of what his team has to offer--size, speed and skill to go along with some pretty impressive goaltending.

The thoroughly embarrassing 5-2 loss in Montreal on Tuesday may have served as the ultimate motivation as the club has put together to strong performances against two upper-level Eastern Conference teams since. On Thursday they once again came from behind in the third period and forced overtime but eventually fell to the NY Rangers 2-1. Last night they pretty much dominated the game when necessary, save for a good chunk of the second period when the Ottawa Senators came on strong and hemmed the Sabres in their own end for long stretches, and got the 4-0 shutout.

The key in both games was Robin Lehner who looked as confident as he has all year. In Thursday's duel with NY's Henrik Lundqvist Lehner stopped 42 of 44 shots and had it not been for a "King Henrik" type performance, the Sabres would have come out on top. Lundqvuist was in top form as he amazed a national audience while making numerous big stops for the Rangers. Lehner followed that performance up with a 37-save shutout against his former team. With the win over Ottawa last night, Lehner is now 3-0-2 in seven appearances against the Senators with a 1.18 goals-against average and a .961 save-percentage, according to Sabres PR.

It's been a weird year for Buffalo as injuries have ravaged their lineup starting with the forward group early in the season then moving to the defensemen as of late, but the return of two regulars--Josh Gorges and Jake McCabe--has helped stabilize the blueline.

Although Gorges isn't the fastest skater, the 32 yr. old veteran knows how to play his angles, can lay out a hit and blocks shots. The much younger McCabe displays those traits but also is a better puck-mover, faster and has more offense to his game. Both were able to come back and slot into their roles--Gorges on the third pairing, McCabe on the second--because defenseman Dmitry Kulikov is as healthy as he's been all season.

Kulikov went down in a preseason game, hasn't been 100% all season and had felt the wrath from media, as well as this blogger, for his extremely poor first-half performance. As of late, however, the 6'1" 204 lb. Lipetsk, Russia native has been a force using his speed and skill to get up ice and get involved in the play while also staying focused on his defensive responsibilities. About the only thing we haven't seen from him is that edge he's been known to play with. Since returning to the lineup on January 24, head coach Dan Bylsma has given Kulikov a heavy work-load second only to d-partner Rasmus Ristolainen.

With the defense returning to health, the Sabres transition game has gotten much better. The last two games the passes have been quicker and more on target allowing the forward group to get rolling faster and with more ice in front of them. Make no mistake, the Sabres are a pretty fast team and they continue to add more speed with the likes of Justin Bailey, who was called up from Rochester and Will Carrier, whom Bailey replaced. Both of those players can flat out fly and they're doing so with both of them packing around 215 lbs. on 6'2"-plus frames.

Everyone's well aware of the speedy and highly skilled young group in Toronto, as well as other places like Montreal (which we witnessed on Tuesday,) Tampa Bay (who lost in the Eastern Conference Finals last year,) the Stanley Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks who all play up-tempo speed-games. We also are familiar with the heavies of the Western Conference like the San Jose' Sharks (who lost to the Penguins in the Cup Finals last year,) Los Angeles Kings (who've won two of the last five Cups,) and St. Louis Blues.

While many of the speed-demons mentioned have a smaller overall team and many of the heavies have trees who can skate and score while the Sabres are looking like a blend of the two.

GM Murray leaned towards acquiring "heavies" early in his tenure but also has added speed while continuing to add size like Kulikov in the off season. On the roster right now are only three players under 6' 0"--captain Brian Gionta, forward Tyler Ennis and the injured Johan Larsson--and only five are under listed as under 200 lbs.--the aforementioned three plus Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart.

Buffalo as a whole would lose a speed skating contest to teams like Toronto and Tampa Bay, but overall they've managed to pick up the pace to the point where they're playing a fast, up-tempo game that's giving the opposition fits. We saw it for spurts like in early December, the beginning of January and later that month where they would hit on all cylinders and shift it to overdrive, but it was rarely sustained for a full game. However you could see what they had going for them when they were in synch.

Buffalo has played two really fast, strong games after the shameful display in Montreal. Against the Rangers, the NBSCN crew marveled at the pace of the game, which was something they were accustomed to seeing from NY, and they gave props to the Sabres for what they did against a very fast and highly skilled Rangers team. Last night against Ottawa the Sabres were in overdrive again and the Senators had a lot of trouble with it. The Sens tried to combat Buffalo with hits and edgy play, but the cool part about the Sabres is that they have top-nine players like Marcus Foligno and Evander Kane who can dish it out and drop 'em at a moment's notice.

The evolution of the Buffalo Sabres continues and as the team gets healthier were starting to get a better indication of what Murray has been building towards. Consistency has been a huge issue this season and injuries are a big part of that while the combination has set them back a few months. They're in a hole right now but another aspect of this team is the leadership that's on the roster. From Ryan O'Reilly to Jake McCabe to present captain Brian Gionta, many on the roster have worn letters and one could bet that they're hell-bent on making a run to the playoffs.

We're starting to see that when this Sabres team gets rolling, they're pretty difficult to stop. Perhaps it might be a little too late or perhaps there just might be enough time to make the playoffs, but regardless of the outcome, if this is "Sabres hockey," sign me up.

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