December was a tale of two halves although one thing continued to dog the Sabres--injuries. Unlike the prior two months where injuries were taking a toll on the forwards, they were dropping like flies on defense. Josh Gorges took a shot that broke his foot and kept him out weeks while Taylor Fedun, who joined Justin Falk as call-ups to replace the injured Dmitry Kulikov and Zach Bogosian, went down with a shoulder injury.
Buffalo tapped junior defenseman Brendan Guhle, playing in his first NHL game, to replace Gorges while Fedun was replaced by another Rochester call-up in Eric Burgdoerfer, who also played in his first ever NHL game. It was strangely reminiscent of the 2006 Eastern Conference Finals where a rash of injuries devastated the defense corps. Burgdoerfer's first game was against the Washington Capitals and this was the defense:
Rasmus Ristolainen-Jake McCabe
Cody Franson-Brendan Guhle
Justin Falk-Eric Burgdoerfer
They lost 3-2 in overtime at Washington.
That same group would be together again as the Sabres hosted Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers. Buffalo would defeat the Oilers for the second time with Evander Kane's two goals powering the Sabres and Ristolainen scoring "the loudest goal in Buffalo this year," according to legendary announcer Rick Jeanneret, in overtime.
Despite the injury problems to start the month, the Sabres still got off to a good start as they played six of seven inside the friendly confines of the KeyBank Center and went 4-2-1 during that stretch. They started out December by beating a high-powered NY Rangers team (with their league-leading 3.67 g/gm.) by a score of 4-3. Despite a loss in the next game against Boston for the second time this season, the Sabres would get points in seven of the first nine games of December (4-2-3.) It was a stretch that pulled them to within five points of the third place in the division.
Amongst the wins for the Sabres was a high-flying game at home against the Los Angeles Kings. Buffalo was looking to get back into the win column after another loss vs. Washington and they found themselves down 2-0 at the 7:34 mark of the second period. However, the Sabres would find their legs in a big way as they rocked the Kings for four unanswered goals in 6:15 span of the second period and finished with a 6-3 win. It was another exciting game for the fans to watch and yet another game where Eichel (2g, 1a) and O'Reilly (1g) ignited the team.
Yet, despite the success vs. Ottawa the previous month and vs. LA, the team couldn't find it's soul and the bottom began to fall out. After the Kings game they dropped two in the shootout, two in regulation then beat Detroit to stop the bleeding. Yet however dismal this last stretch was, redemption was there as they'd be playing the Bruins in a home-and-home to finish out the 2016 portion of the schedule and were still only six points behind them of the third spot in the division. “They’re within earshot,” Bylsma said at the time. “You have a chance of sweeping these two games and gaining four points on them, putting yourself right near them.”
But, it was the Bruins that did all the sweeping.
The Sabres tried to sit on an early 2-0 lead in the first game and got beat 4-2 at home then didn't show up in Boston as the Bruins beat them 3-1. From a possible two points behind Boston to 10 points back. Eichel had his disgust on display after the second game. "After a 3-1 loss to the Boston Bruins in TD Garden that wasn't nearly as close as the score might say, a red-faced Eichel went berserk," wrote Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News from Boston. "He fired some pieces of equipment into his duffel bag, pounded others on his locker seat and drove the bag hard into the rubberized floor at one point.
"There were also some choice four-letter words spliced into the outburst of Eichel, who stormed out of the room without speaking to reporters."
Perhaps subconsciously he knew the inevitable, that after blowing this golden opportunity they'd probably miss the playoffs again.
To keep with the injury theme that haunted the Sabres for the first three months of the season, O'Reilly underwent an emergency appendectomy on Christmas Eve and was out until January and third-line center Johan Larsson was lost for the year after crashing into the boards in Boston.
In all the Sabres finished the month with the same 5-6-3 record they had in November.
For their December team stats, click here, individual stats click here.