Published by hockeybuzz.com, 2-11-2017
Your guess is as good as mine as to which Sabres team will show up tonight. In fact I'm not even sure the team that shows up early in the game will be the same one that finishes it. Buffalo has have a few strong 60 minute games and quite a few clunkers as well, but mostly the team has been Jekyll and Hyde from game to game, period to period.
The result is a team that has 54 points on the season and is left to bounce around the bottom of the conference with just enough points to keep them from the cellar but not enough to move them up the standings.
With 61 points on the season the Toronto Leafs are presently third in the Atlantic Division and have done a couple of things the Sabres have yet to do--go on an extended points-streak and control their own destiny within the division and conference.
The Leafs won five in a row in late December/early January, stretched it to points in seven straight and points in 10 of 11 games. The Sabres longest points-streak this season is four games and because of it Buffalo watched as Toronto climbed up the standings and into their present playoff position. They're also 12-4-2 in the division, 17-9-5 in the conference and have beaten Buffalo both times this season.
Winning even one of the games against the Leafs in regulation would have closed the gap by a significant margin as the Toronto would now be at 59 points while the Sabres would be at 56. That, of course, is coming from the perspective of the hunter with the two head coaches viewing the significance of the game a bit differently as well. Most would consider a divisional matchup a "four-point game" or in the very least a regulation outcome being a four point swing, as laid out above, but Toronto head coach Mike Babcock views it simply as two points.
"They say it’s a four-pointer," Babcock told the gathered Toronto media yesterday after practice.
"I have been in the league a long time, (points) only go up two at a time. I know that. We just keep trying to get our two each night."
Bylsma looked at it a bit differently, "They’re four-point games, still working on that math …,” Bylsma said. “You got a chance to grab two and prevent them from getting two. That’s something we really haven’t done a good job of within our division."
Which is correct. In fact they've struggled against the conference as a whole and it's one of the reasons why they're near the bottom of both the Eastern Conference as well as their own Atlantic Division. The Sabres are only 12-17-8 in the East, 7-10-3 in the Atlantic. Against the West, they're 10-5-2. Buffalo has only have three games against east teams this month and all three are within the division. They beat Ottawa 4-0 in Buffalo last Saturday, play the Leafs tonight, then play at Ottawa again on Valentine's Day.
The Sabres are presently doing what they've been doing all season, treading water with a 2-2-1 record for the month of February. They'll head into Air Canada Centre tonight with decent 5-4-1 record in their last 10 and they're 9-7-2 in the 2017 calendar year thus far.
Injuries continue to play a role in Buffalo's overall 22-22-10 record and they'll be without three regulars once again tonight. Head coach Dan Bylsma said that defenseman Cody Franson will be out of the lineup as he took a shot off the foot against Anaheim and was in a walking boot. Franson will join fellow d-man Zach Bogosian who will miss his fifth game with a rib injury. Buffalo will also be without center Zemgus Girgensons will miss his second in a row with what Bylsma termed as a mid-body injury.
The Sabres lost third-line center Johan Larsson for the year back in December and all of a sudden they're incredibly thin down the middle. With Girgensons out, Bylsma moved Sam Reinhart away from Jack Eichel's wing to center the third line while Derek Grant, who was waived and claimed twice within a month, is back at fourth-line center. Bylsma has used both Justin Faulk and Taylor Fedun in place of the injured Bogosian but now both will be in the lineup after having Franson go down.
Buffalo has been incredibly inconsistent this season, for a number of reasons, but when they're on their game you'll see plenty of support from everyone in every zone, something Ryan O'Reilly touched upon yesterday after practice as he was asked what his message for the team was. "We've got to make each other look good, take ourselves out of the equation," he said to the media yesterday, before turning that response in on himself.
"For example, it's like myself," he continued. "If I'm tracking the puck hard and making it easy for the defense to have a good gap, it makes them look good, it makes them feel good. And that's the stuff we can build around."
The Leafs have been slowed as of late going 2-2-2 since the All-Star break and are 4-3-3 in their last 10 games. Toronto, like Buffalo, has been allowing a ton of shots, something which Babcock was asked about yesterday and he gave this rather anti-analytics reply. “Someone next game, this is what I would like you to do,” he said. “When the shot (actually) hits the net, I would like you to mark it down," before admitting that the shots against stat has some value.
“You want to keep the shots down the best you possibly can, but I also think scoring chances are important," he continued. "When we do a good job like we have the last two games, and be on the inside and check real well, I think it really helps the goaltending. Some nights you give up not very many shots but you give up back-door opportunities, and that’s hard on the goalie. The other thing is shots from the outside, if you’re inside, aren’t as big a deal.”
Toronto has given up the third-most shot on goal against in the league at 32.6 SA/GM to this point while Buffalo has given up the most at 34.0 and it's something also on the mind of Bylsma. When asked what he needs from his team right now, Bylsma delved into a Sabres club that's been giving up way too many scoring chances. Although they managed to win some pretty special games prior to the All-Star break and recently as well, "we've given up an average of 20-21 scoring chances over that stretch," said the coach, "and that's really got to come down.
"The Ottawa game where we won 4-0 was a 14-scoring chance game," he continued, "that's really where we've been lacking, getting those scoring chances under 15 pre game. At this point in time the games we're playing we're giving up too many scoring chances and a lot of times it means we're coming from behind."
There have been a myriad of scenarios in the 10 games Bylsma mentioned with the Sabres both leading and trailing while also scoring in bunches and giving up goals in bunches. They've gotten good goaltending most of the time but they've also had a little trouble in net. Some days the forwards are good and the defense is a mess while others it's the opposite.
With that in mind, it's probably best to go into tonight with no preconceived notions and just let the game unfold as it may because now one knows which Sabres team will show up.
Thanks to Terry Koshen of the Toronto Sun for the Babcock quotes.
It was sad hearing of the passing of Detroit Red Wings (and Tigers) owner Mike Illitch yesterday. Much respect and condolences.