Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A look back at the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres season--February

Published by hockeybuzz.com 8-14-2017

Former Sabres GM Tim Murray was a great listen during interviews because he was colorful, yet clean, and was pretty much a straight-shooter. His attitude basically said, "here you go, this is how I see it." He also guided the Sabres through two tank seasons in a scorched-earth rebuild with the 2015 Arizona/Buffalo race to the bottom in the "McEichel Sweepstakes" reaching embarrassing lows for both the organization and the NHL.

It's something that the league probably didn't look too kindly upon as their image was taking a hit, but it was his job and he was going to do it. After all, who said it was going to be all "rainbows, unicorns and jujus."

Was there retribution for the Murray and the Sabres because of all that transpired in 2015? Maybe, but if there was, it wasn't anything that could be traceable. Buffalo did miss out on the first-overall pick two years running after finishing in last place in the league but that was more than likely a severe case of Buffaluck as opposed to rigged Ping-Pong balls.

However, one thing the league could do is make the Sabres' lives a little more difficult by placing them last on the list when it came to scheduling priorities. In 2015-16 amongst the things they piled on Buffalo was the new Sabres with a new coach having to play the defending Eastern Conference Champion Tampa Bay Lightning four times in a 30-day span at the beginning of the season. Last year the Sabres had a league leading 19 sets of back-to-back games (tied with Columbus) but they included three in January (all within a 10-day span,) four in the short month of February and five in March.

An overall condensed NHL schedule in 2016-17 was a necessary evil for all teams because the regular season started a week late due to the inaugural World Cup of Hockey. If that wasn't enough, the league's schedule maker really laid the hammer down on the Sabres as they also put Buffalo's mandated five-day bye week in February meaning that an already condensed schedule would be compacted even further for them.

Prior to Buffalo's mandated five-day break (February 20-24) the Sabres packed in 11 games in 19 days including two back-to-back sets as part of five games in seven nights stint. Their final game before the break was at home against the Chicago Blackhawks which, of course, was the second game of a back-to-back. They had just finished playing 10 games in 18 days including three of their back-to-back sets and looked every bit the part of a team playing a ton of hockey in a short amount of time. They got steamrolled 5-1 by Chicago. Despite those scheduling difficulties, the Sabres got themselves on a little roll by going 6-3-1 before their bye week and it looked as if the playoffs were still a possibility.

Coming out of their bye week the Sabres were looking at a golden opportunity to grab four important points as they would play two bottom-dwelling teams--the Colorado Avalanche and the Arizona Coyotes--albeit with both games on the road.

Any thoughts of a possible playoff push vanished when the Sabres dropped both games. In Colorado, a defense slowly returning to health ultimately showed glaring weaknesses as Buffalo lost 5-3. Even with the loss the Sabers headed to Arizona still within seven points of the third place Toronto Maple Leafs in the division and five points behind the Boston Bruins who were in the second wild card spot.

In Arizona (to no Sabres' fan's surprise) Buffalo had a 2-0 lead in the third period before allowing three unanswered goals  and ended up on the wrong side of a 3-2 score. With back-to-back losses to the two worst teams in the league, the season was done for all intents and purposes and with the trade deadline but a few days away the "For Sale" sign went up .

The trend for head coach Dan Bylsma and his Sabres team was folding when it mattered most. It became predominant in December and really came to light as they dropped both games of a home-and-home with the Boston Bruins when they could've really closed the gap against the Atlantic Division's third place team. But even before that they lost ground to Carolina, Tampa Bay, Florida and Toronto either in the division or conference as they went a combined 1-4-2 versus those teams from mid-December through February and their record against those four teams plus Boston in that span was 2-8-2.

The Sabres finished a very busy month of February with an overtime loss at home against the Nashville Predators. They compiled a 6-6-2 record for the month which wasn't close to what they needed to be in the playoff chase. They were 0-3-1 headed into the NHL's Trade Deadline and the playoffs were a miracle away with the only question now being, "Who's on their way out?"

For their January team stats, click here, individual stats click here.

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