Published by hockeybuzz.com, 3-4-2017
We've seen this a few times before. There sits a team directly in front of Buffalo and a playoff spot. They meet head-to-head in a "four point game." Sure, coach Babcock, you only get two points for a win, but in preventing the other team from getting two points means it's a four-point swing.
Tonight the Tampa Bay Lightning come to town fresh off a 5-2 defeat last night in Pittsburgh. That's good news for the Sabres as the Lightning remained only one point ahead of Buffalo in the standings while burning up one of their two games in hand on the Sabres. A regulation win by Buffalo puts them ahead of Tampa by one point whereas a regulation loss puts them behind by three points. Of course the "loser point" could come into play in which the Sabres would remain behind Tampa no matter who gets the extra point.
It's a broken record but it should be repeated. The Sabres had an opportunity back in December with games against divisional/conference foes and came up woefully short going 1-4. In January they dropped three of four with losses to Tampa, Carolina and Toronto.
However, since those losses the Sabres are 5-1-0 within the Atlantic Division, 5-2-1 in the Eastern Conference. If we can glean anything positive from a four-game winless streak (0-3-1) around their bye week, it was that those losses all came against the Western Conference.
All of Buffalo's remaining games save for a three-game Western Coast swing (SJS, ANA, LAK) are within the Eastern Conference--eight games within the division and seven more vs. the Metropolitan Division.
The Sabres have only four games this month against teams that they're battling for a playoff spot with--Tampa Bay tonight, Philadelphia (March 7,) Toronto (March 25) and Florida (March 27.) The rest of the month includes the aforementioned West Coast road trip, three games vs. Columbus, two vs. Pittsburgh and one against Detroit.
However, it all begins tonight for Buffalo against a team they've been having all sorts of trouble against.
Last year the Sabres faced Tampa, who were the defending Eastern Conference Champions, four times within the first 15 games of the season with Tampa taking the first three games by a combined 10-3 score. Perhaps the Lightning were tired of beating the Sabres and in the final game of the season series Buffalo prevailed 4-1.
That win last year against the Lightning was right in the middle of a four-game point-streak back in November, 2015. Buffalo would match that point-streak four more times last season and do it twice this season. However, they've not been able to surpass that which is one of the reasons they're stuck near the bottom of a clump of teams fighting for their playoff lives.
This season the Tampa has beaten Buffalo both times by a combined 8-3 score with only Cody Franson (powerplay,) Matt Moulson and Evander Kane lighting the lamp for the Sabres.
With RW Kyle Okposo out of the lineup, head coach Dan Bylsma did a little line shuffling at practice yesterday. According to sarbes.com these were the lines:
Evander Kane-Ryan O'Reilly-Brian Gionta
Marcus Foligno-Jack Eichel-Sam Reinhart
Tyler Ennis-Evan Rodrigues-Matt Moulson
Nicolas Deslauriers-Zemgus Girgensons-Justin Bailey
And according to WGR550's Paul Hamilton, goalie Robin Lehner is taking part in today's optional skate.
Hamilton also said that the word on Okposo is cracked ribs and he'll be week-to-week. It should be noted that Kane cracked his ribs in the opening game of the season, missed 11 games and it took another 10 games for him to feel like himself again.
There's been a lot of talk in the NHL concerning and impressive group of youngins that are setting the league on fire. At the top of the list, no doubt, is Edmonton Oilers phenom Connor McDavid who, at the age of 20, leads the league with 72 points (21g + 51a.) Next on the most revered list is Toronto's Auston Matthews who sent Leaf Nation into a tizzy with a four-goal NHL debut and is presently tied for the lead in rookie goals with 31.
The other rookie with 31 goals is Winnipeg's Patrick Laine who leads the rooks in scoring with 56 points, one point ahead of Matthews. Behind those two on the rookie scoring list are a couple of pretty talented Maple Leafs in Mitch Marner (50 Points) and William Nylander (45.)
Lost in all of this is Buffalo's Jack Eichel, who spent the first 21 games of the season on IR with a high-ankle sprain.
Highly touted as a player ever so slightly below McDavid at the 2015 draft, Eichel had an inconsistent rookie campaign last season but still managed to finish second to 24 yr. old Chicago Blackhawks rookie Artemi Panarin in scoring. With Matthews debut, McDavid's dominance, the Leafs unexpectedly sniffing the playoffs and Laine looking like the second coming of Mike Bossy, Eichel sat on the sidlelines while the rest grabbed the headlines during the first half of the season.
Eichel would make waves upon his return while still suffering the effects of his high-ankle sprain and as of late has really kicked it in gear. He's on an eight-game point-streak (2+9,) has points in 12 of 13 (3+14) while upping his scoring rate to .93 pts./game, good for 14th in the league for those playing in 50 or more games. He also lead the Sabres last month with 14 assists, eight of them primary.
For the first time in a while I heard a member of the Canadian media mention Eichel's name within that group of burgeoning superstars as Ray Ferraro mentioned him while the Leafs were playing Anaheim.
No doubt it's been a struggle for the Sabres, and Eichel as well at times, but for those of us lucky enough to watch "Jack Flash" on a constant basis, there's no denying he's in that top group of McDavid, Matthews and Laine. With the NHL celebrating it's 100th birthday and the Birthplace of Hockey looking at some of it's own making the playoffs this season (as opposed to no Canadian team making it last season,) a heavy focus upon early successes and supreme talent in the Great White North is certainly apropos.
But, don't for get about Jack.
He's comin' for ya.