Published by hockeybuzz.com, 10-17-2017
If we in Sabreland want to believe that this team is ready to step out of the abyss and begin to rise, then tonight is a must win.
The Sabres have been playing much better than the two stinkers they put together at Brooklyn against the NY Islanders and at home vs. the New Jersey Devils. A West Coast road trip has shaken them out of their collective slumber and got them focusing upon playing as a team on the entire sheet of ice.
Buffalo started their four-game trip at San Jose' to take on a winless Sharks' team at the SAP Center and proceeded to drop a 3-2 decision. The Sabres headed south to Los Angeles where they hadn't beaten the Kings since 2010 and worse yet hadn't scored a goal in four tries as they lost each of them by the exact 2-0 score. Zemgus Girgensons ended that scoring drought in the first and the team was looking to grab at least a point until an Evander Kane penalty with 2:04 left in the game squashed those dreams. The Kings scored :04 seconds later, added an empty-netter and sent Buffalo to a 4-2 defeat.
Sunday night in Anaheim the Sabres got off the schneid and won their first game of the season against a depleted Ducks lineup by the score of 3-1. Perhaps the most endearing quality of that win was that they finally got some secondary scoring as call-up Justin Bailey, Sam Reinhart and Johan Larsson (empty-net) all scored for the Sabres.
As we've watched this team through the last three games we seen them progress nicely as a team while individually some players have started to come to life.
Tonight they face the expansion Vegas Golden Knights to wrap up their road trip.
Vegas has been pretty feisty in their surprising 4-1-0 start and coach Gerald Gallant has them playing smart, team hockey. “Anytime you’re going to have success in this league it’s about your forwards working hard with your defensemen,” Gallant told the local media yesterday. “We always talk about five-man connection; it’s a big word for our team. When you play five men in the D-zone, you play five men in the neutral zone and you play five men offensively you’re going to have a chance to win most nights.”
The Golden Knights don't have the horses to play a speed game as shown in their 6-3 defeat at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings. But they followed that up with a win vs. the Boston Bruins. "We played a good, solid, hard-working game (against Boston,)" said the coach. "It wasn’t a game like the other night where it was a lot faster paced. (Sunday) was more of a checkers match; there wasn’t a whole lot of scoring chances either way. I thought we played a good, solid game and it was a good, solid defensive effort for sure.”
That's what the Sabres will be up against tonight, an effort by Vegas to play a tight-checking game. Which is fine. But regardless of what they're up against, the fact is that they're facing an expansion team with a backup goalie in net who has three starts under his belt.
There's no excuse for Buffalo not to come away with two points. That is, if they want us to believe that the ship is righted and moving ahead.
Justin Bailey was a force against Anaheim. He scored his first goal of the season in the first shift of his first game this year. For the rest of the game he was as advertised, a big, fast powerforward who can play a rambunctious yet controlled style of play and get to the puck quickly.
Bailey's been able to score at the AHL-level but has yet to see that transfer to the NHL. Prior to last nights game he had four points (2+2) in 40 NHL games and although much of the time he played well, the fact that he wasn't hitting the scoresheet was troubling.
This is Bailey's best shot at sticking with the team and to do so he'll not only need to play exactly the way he did against Anaheim, but he'll also need to hit the score sheet with some regularity.
Sabres defenseman Josh Gorges has taken a beating in social media hockey circles because his advanced stats are press box worthy. Yet Gorges did something for this club that doesn't show up in Corsi, Fenwick, puck possession or any other fancy stat--he helped stabilize the defense.
Prior to him getting the start in San Jose', the Buffalo defense was a trainwreck as that corps, as well as the forward group, were thinking all offense. In looking to jump into the play and create offense they forgot about their own zone and gave up six goals in back-to-back games.
Gorges will never be an analytics darling much less a scorer, but having someone back their locked into defensive assignments has helped the team refocus their energies a bit. The Sabres have gotten progressively better on this road trip and despite Gorges' known shortcomings, he's a big part of why they've been able to pull it together on defense.
Jack Eichel was named the game's first star in Anaheim on Sunday, yet he didn't hit the scoresheet. Just goes to show that he was a strong presence the entire game, most notably in the d-zone where he backchecked hard and was on constantly on the puck making it difficult for the Ducks players.
Eichel needs to continue doing what he's been doing and that includes a focus on defense.
Perhaps he's learning what it's like to be a leader and he's finally discovering that the great player that lies within him can lift those around him. Seven points (2+6) in six games was expected although some may have thought that the goal-total would be a bit higher, but regardless, he's showing why many had him close to Connor McDavid heading into the 2015 NHL Draft.
Both Ryan O'Reilly and Sam Reinhart finally seem to be engaged and played probably their best games of the season on Sunday. Too bad it took so long, but it's good to see them coming to life.
Reinhart scored the game-winner late in the second period against Anaheim. After losing credit for the goal to Benoit Pouliot the NHL reversed their reversal and credited Reinhart with his first goal of the season. You could see the relief in his face at the huge monkey was lifted off of his back.
O'Reilly's yet to score a goal, but he's a professional and has been through this before. The big thing for the two-way center was to be fully engaged in a two-way game, something that was missing through the first three games. He's been progressively better throughout this road trip and it's no wonder that the team has gotten better as he has.
Gorges has played well in a third-pairing role but up top the duo of Rasmus Ristolainen and Marco Scandella have picked up their game as well. It was mentioned by WGR550 Radio's Paul Hamilton that their focus has been on the defensive zone and that once their more comfortable, Ristolainen will be able to join the rush a little more.
Although they haven't been perfect, they've only been together for three games. It seems as if they've developed some chemistry already and furthering that means that they'll only get better.
Chad Johnson will reportedly be in net for Buffalo tonight. It's something he earned with an extremely strong performance in Anaheim.
It's a rather bold move by coach Phil Housley, but they won their first game of the season with Johnson so why change?
However, it's also been reported that Housley has changed up his powerplay units a bit in an effort to bring them to life. The Sabres are only 2 for 22 (9.1%) with the man advantage this year and worse yet, they've given up a league-leading five shorthanded goals.
O'Reilly was moved to the second unit to make room for Kyle Okposo who's returning from illness.
The PP units from the morning skate according to the local media in attendance:
PP1--Eichel, Okposo, Reinhart, Pominville, Ristolainen
PP2--O'Reilly, Kane, Moulson, Beaulieu, Tennyson
And, finally, Dear Evander Kane. Please stay out of the penalty box. Not only does it hurt your team, but you can't score from there either.