Published by hockeybuzz.com, 3-27-2017
The Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres are both coming off of decisive wins on Saturday. Despite both teams being out of the playoffs and playing for pride, the Panthers laid a 7-0 shellacking on the Western Conference-leading Chicago Blackhawks while the Sabres beat down the Toronto Maple Leafs by a 5-2 score. Tonight the Panthers and the Sabres will meet for the third time this season with a little spring in their step.
Florida will step on to the KeyBank Center ice with 77 points and in sixth place in the Atlantic Division, three points ahead of Buffalo who are in seventh. The teams have split the season series thus far with the home team winning each time--Buffalo 3-0 and Florida 4-3 in the shootout. Last year when the Panthers were on their way to 103 points atop the division Florida took both games in Buffalo and going 3-1 vs. the Sabres while outscoring them by a combined 17-10 margin.
This year has been disappointing for both clubs as both will be out of the playoffs with the Panthers taking a major step backwards. Injuries to Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad early in the season left the team struggling and was said to be the impetus for the ouster of head coach Gerard Gallant who had a 11-10-1 record when he was fired. That said, philosophical differences were said to be the real reason.
After a somewhat disappointing first-round exit in last year's playoffs, the Panthers moved in earnest towards a more analytics-based philosophy. Old-school GM Dale Tallon who built much of the Chicago Blackhawks three time Stanley Cup winning teams and who was also responsible for the progress of Florida since his hire in 2010 was kicked up to the front office to make room for an analytics oriented GM in Tom Rowe.
The analytics focus had been in swing for months dating back to the prior season and continued came in a Draft-day trade with the Buffalo Sabres when they traded gritty defenseman Dmitry Kulikov for "analytics darling" Mark Pysyk. The two clubs got what they wanted but the team results have been disastrous with the Cats taking a major step back and the Sabres struggling to surpass their points-total from last season.
Then again, the injuries to key players early in the season--Huberdeau and Bjugstad for Florida, Jack Eichel, Kulikov and Evander Kane for Buffalo--really put a crimp in their respective seasons.
So with both teams all but mathematically eliminated from the post season, they'll meet tonight with minimal history but similar rebuild stories.
The Panthers perennial rebuild gained traction with the hiring of Tallon in May, 2010. Kulikov was already in the fold as a 2009, 14th overall pick and at the 2010 draft Tallon took defenseman Eric Gudbranson (3rd) and Bjugstad (19th) in the first round. Huberdeau was selected third-overall the following season and after a brief taste of success coupled with a playoff birth in 2011-12, it was back to the high picks. Alexsander Barkov was selected second-overall in 2013 and in 2014 the Panthers won the lottery over the Sabres and selected defenseman Aaron Ekblad with first overall choice.
Adding Barkov and Ekblad, as well as some key free agent signings like Brian Campbell and Jaromir Jagr, to a strong core got the team from 66 points in 2013-14 to 91 points the following season to 103 points last year and their second playoff birth in five seasons.
Gudbranson was traded away as part of their analytics movement and Campbell was allowed to walk but they still have a ton of talent. However, like the Sabres, the Panthers were unable to put it all together this season.
For Sabres fans who were looking for a quick jump to a playoff birth after years of futility, as shown with the Panthers climb, it doesn't happen overnight.
Tonight's Round-3 between two clubs with different philosophies. Granted, hockey is hockey, but ownership and management dictate how they'll approach their team-building. Buffalo GM Tim Murray began his rebuild in 2014 seemingly with a LA Kings "heavy" philosophy then began altering his views more towards speed as the league got faster. The Panthers moved towards analytics after Tallon built a team with some bigger, grittier hockey players.
It will be a couple years or more before we find out where this all leads, but for tonight we have two teams coming off of impressive wins with similar skill-sets, at least up front, who don't have much to play for.
Hopefully it will be an entertaining game.
Congratulations to Sabres captain Brian Gionta who will be playing in his 1000th NHL game tonight. The 38 yr. old has a 48-goal season under his belt, a Stanley Cup ring (NJD) and can lay claim to being the first American-born player to wear the lone 'C' for the storied Montreal Canadiens franchise.
At 5'7" 178 lbs. Gionta was a longshot to make it but he's managed 585 points (288+297) in his 999 games thus far and looks as if he's got plenty more gas in the tank.
And congratulations to Kulikov who unknowingly played his 500th game on Saturday in Buffalo's 5-2 win over Toronto. The former Panthers pick had a goal and an assist in his first game back from a concussion.
Kulikov has had a brutal season for the Sabres so far this year. He missed most of camp while playing in the World Cup of Hockey then suffered a tough tail-bone/back injury after getting checked into an open bench door in the preseason. He never could get it together as the injury to his back lingered and he suffered under the weight of playing a lot of competitive hockey prior to the season. Perhaps the concussion was a blessing in disguise as he remained away from the ice for nine games which may have finally allowed his body to catch up.
His last game was easily his best game as a Sabre.