Saturday, February 18, 2017

Take it for what it is

Published by, 2-17-2017

With their 2-0 win last night over Colorado, the Buffalo Sabres now have 60 points on the season and moved to within four points of the third place in the division and to within three points of a playoff spot in the conference. Buffalo trails Boston in the Atlantic Division and the Toronto Maple Leafs for the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.

That's the feel good part of the equation and it's something that shouldn't be dismissed. Buffalo has been struggling all season long and headed into last night's contest against Colorado having alternated losses and wins dating back to the beginning of the month (4-3-1.) It was the first time that they've won back-to-back games since January 21/24 and they did so on a Thursday which, for some reason, has been a particularly dreadful day of the week for them to play. Prior to the Avalanche game, Buffalo was 1-10-2 on Thursday's, 0-5-2 in their last seven.

With that in mind, the Sabres .517 points-percentage has them a little farther off the playoff pace than their 60 points would indicate and they did play an Avalanche team that is by and large the worst team in the league this season. As of right now Colorado is second only the Atlanta Thrashers for worst season ever in the three-point game era, according to the Buffalo News. And they looked the part last night.

Sabres fans have seen this before. Merely two years ago we witnessed similar futility as Ted Nolan coached a group that finished last in the league and challenged the modern mark for scoring futility. How Nolan got as many wins as he did with what little talent he was given was actually quite remarkable considering the Avalanche boast the likes of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene and are on a much worse trajectory than the Sabres were.

Goaltending is what kept the Sabres in games from 2013-15 and it's what helped the Avalanche stay in this one last night. Colorado's Calvin Pickard was on his game and although Buffalo didn't throw an insane amount of rubber at him last night, they enjoyed quite a few quality scoring chances on the 32 shots they got to the net. Pickard was both stout and lucky as Buffalo whiffed on a number of scoring chances or the score would've been much worse. Reinhart himself could easily have had a hat trick last night but he just couldn't get the handle on the set-ups.

Players and coaches will tell you that there's no easy game in the NHL any more as parity reigns supreme. Even in the case of Colorado, it was no easy task as the great equalizer is the man in front of the 4x6 and a bounce the wrong way can turn the tide. It's what had Sabres fans on the edge of their seats until Evander Kane scored a goal-scorers goal to put Buffalo up by two late in the third period.

What it comes down to is that the Sabres grinded out back-to-back wins and when we opened the paper today, the Sabres are within striking distance of a playoff spot, something we haven't seen in a while.

Take it for what it is.


Quick notes:

--It's amazing how much of a difference Jack Eichel makes as he creates so much space for his teammates. Sure, it was Colorado and they don't exactly have the greatest team, but he does that against every team. I wouldn't be going that far out on a limb in saying that were he in the lineup for at least half of the games he missed earlier in the year, Buffalo would be where Boston and Toronto are in the standings.

--For some reason I get the feeling that Sabres bench boss Dan Bylsma can't wait to get center Zemgus Girgensons back. Girgensons was playing some of his best hockey under Bylsma while anchoring the third line and it left the coach with only one center position to fill which he did with Derek Grant (and even winger Nicolas Deslauriers) on the fourth line. Bylsma may have found himself another bottom-six center in recent call-up Evan Rodrigues, who's blown away Grant at that position. When Girgensons returns, I wouldn't be surprised to see him and Rodrigues down the middle on the bottom lines.

--At one point last night I said to myself, "Rodrigues has got it." Dude has been playing extremely well since his call-up and though his simple stat line of two assists and a plus-1 rating in four games doesn't look like much, he's buzzing around the ice and looks the part of a full-fledged NHL'er with definite up-side. Not bad for a player who had been playing wing for almost all of his AHL career and was known as "Eichel's winger" when the Sabres signed him out of Boston University in 2015.

--Buffalo's Rasmus Ristolainen is known for laying the body on the opposition's best player while generally trying to make their lives miserable. Last night he ran in to a pretty tough customer in Colorado's Landeskog who was running him. A couple of times last night it was like two rams butting heads which was very cool to see.

--The Sabres powerplay looked extremely good for the most part last night with some impressive puck movement but ironically they scored their only powerplay goal on a rebound off a blistering shot from the point. Eichel was instrumental on the play as he had his shot blocked but got the puck cross-ice to Kyle Okposo while falling. Okposo whipped it to Rasmus Ristolainen who fired a cannon at Pickard and Reinhart buried the rebound. Buffalo went 1/3 on the night and moved back into the top spot in the league on the powerplay.

--It's been two games since goalie Robin Lehner called out his team. The Sabres are 2-0-0 having beaten Ottawa and Colorado. Lehner was extremely displeased with his teammates "fancy" play, especially in the second period. Going into last night's game the Sabres had a league-worst minus-23 goal differential in the second period. However, the last two games the Sabres have played extremely well in the second, save for that five minute stretch in Ottawa.

--Lehner himself has backed up his words after the Vancouver loss by stopping all but two of the 62 shots against him the last two games (.968 save percentage.) In his last eight games Lehner has faced 302 shots (38/game) but allowed only 15 goals and he's 4-3-1 despite a very healthy goals-against average of around 1.85 and a very stout .950 Sv % . No wonder he was ticked off after the Vancouver game.

Take it for what it is

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