Thursday, November 16, 2017

Game night--Pittsburgh. News and notes

Published by, 11-14-2017

“That’s my job, my job is to produce and I haven’t produced in the fashion I would’ve liked in the beginning of the year.”--Sabres center, Jack Eichel after practice yesterday.

Such is the case for the soon to be $10 million a year franchise center. In fact not only has he been in a scoring slump, the entire team has, to the tune of six goals (including on empty net) in the last four games. Were it not for some pretty stout goaltending, this team would be on a losing streak instead of being 1-2-1 in their last four.

What's so exasperating with this club right now is that they're playing well. Sabres coach Phil Housley has pulled things back in an effort to try and move the team forward. The Sabres started out with a fine game against the Montreal Canadiens to open the season, but lost 3-2 in overtime. They followed that up with two disasters as they tried to run before learning how to walk. Although Buffalo did suffer a few lopsided defeats game-to-game, and even within games, they've been playing the kind of aggressive hockey that leads to good things.

Unfortunately for this team good things have been happening, but not enough good things to get them more goals and more victories.

The Sabres have learned to defend better, albeit with some serious deficiencies at times, and they're beginning to get that puck moving with more accuracy more frequently. That leads to a better transition game, more possession, more shots and quality chances. In an interview with the gathered media, Housley said this about his teams shot totals. “I read a stat that if we had 30 shots or more, we’re 5-2-3 and when we don’t get 30 shots, we’re 0-7-0, so what does that tell you?"

Even with the shot totals up, they're still having difficulty scoring and thus the debate right now--is it the players? Or are they victims of circumstance?

It's a little of both, although lack of talent is a big issue for this club, especially in the bottom-six. Matt Moulson, Zemgus Girgensons, Jordan Nolan and Johan Larsson have all been regulars down there and thus far they've contributed a combined two goals and five assists in 57 total games. Seth Griffith, who was a regular on the wing had two goals and an assist in 14 games before heading to the press box and Sam Reinhart has five points (2+3) in 17 games playing third line center almost exclusively. He was bumped up to second-line right wing last game and had his best game of the year.

However, regardless of what the bottom-half does, as Eichel said, it's up to him and the top players to produce.

Ryan O'Reilly has started to bring his game around but remains unhappy with his overall game. He was the lone Buffalo scorer in the Sabres 2-1 overtime loss at Montreal on Saturday. Jason Pominville started out hot, but has slowed considerably scoring only one goal and adding one assist in his last eight games. Kyle Okposo has been playing world's better than how he started the season (2+2 in his last five games,) but still only has six points (2+4) on the season.

Oddly enough, the most consistent scorer on the team is Evander Kane. He started out hot with five goals and five assists in his first seven games then followed it up with four goals and three assists in his last 10. He's on a pace to shatter his previous career highs.

One can say it's lack of talent, at least overall, or one could say that it's puck luck, but a huge factor in scoring goals is confidence, and that's lacking right now. Eichel has had the puck jump all over the place on him and his shots have atypically gone wide. He's on an eight-game goal-scoring drought right now and thinks that if they keep up their play, goals will come. “It’s a long season and the puck luck and the bounces will start coming around," he told the media after practice.

“When you’re playing good and you’re getting your chances, it’s a positive, it’s just those games when you’re feeling it, it’s important to bury your chances.”

It' will probably take a series of positive things and some luck to get the entire team "feeling it," which is another way of saying confidence. They're trying to beat down a door but it's proven to be a rather formidable task and it's up to the leaders on this team--Eichel, O'Reilly, Okposo and even Kane--to continue to "kick at the darkness 'till it bleeds daylight," to use a quote from Canadian artist Bruce Cockburn.

That's where effort and will and a little bit of faith come into play. This team is playing better, and playing more consistently and that's a good thing, but they need to start scoring more and they'll need contributions from everyone. Until then, we'll continue to have this same conversation and the same quotes.


Speaking of effort, and ultimately compete-level, forward Justin Bailey has been sent to Rochester.

The third-year pro, which includes 47 NHL games to his credit, once again had a fast, impressive start for the Sabres only to loose his way. Bailey is a big, fast powerforward who can score but he needs to consistently use his size and speed to create scoring opportunites for himself and his linemates. He'll do that fore a few games and then get a bit complacent. "I thought he started out really well the first couple of games," said Housley to the media today. "[but] I thought his play dipped a little bit from that. That urgency he had on the forecheck, using his speed and even in providing a physical element.

"He's going to go down (to the Rochester Americans) and work on that."

If it hasn't occurred to him yet, someone needs to hammer this point home to him--before him lies a golden opportunity with the Sabres and all he needs to do is bring it every game. Bailey could easily be slotted on the third line and if the Kane rumors are for real, there could be a top-six slot waiting for him.

*****'s Jourdon LaBarber has these probably lines and pairings for tonight:



It also looks as if Robin Lehner will get the nod tonight.


The defending two-time Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins have played a lot of hockey over the last two years and perhaps that has much to do with their slow start this season. And if there ever was a time for Buffalo to grab a win vs. Pittsburgh, tonight would be the night.

The Sabres are 1-8-1 in their last 10 games against the Penguins, 3-6-1 on the road.

Buffalo has lost two in a row to the Penguins with their last win being a minor miracle on November 19, 2016. The Sabres came into that game on a six-game losing streak (0-4-2) and had backup goalie Anders Nilsson in net. The game went to the shootout and Nilsson stopped Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang in the shootout as the Sabres pulled of the victory.

Buffalo's heroes in that game were William Carrier who scored Buffalo's only goal and Cal O'Reilly, who scored the only goal in the shootout. Carrier was lost in the expansion draft and O'Reilly, brother of Ryan O'Reilly, was loaned to the Toronto Marlies last March by the Rochester Americans, and signed with the Minnesota Wild in the off season.

Although it won't take a minor miracle to beat Pittsburgh tonight, methinks that a lot will need to go right for the Sabres to come away with two points.

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