Saturday, November 4, 2017

One line at a time.

Published by, 11-3-2017

The Buffalo Sabres started out the season with one forward line rolling and the rest non-existent. The line of Jack Eichel centering left wing Evander Kane and right wing Jason Pominville did all the scoring in the first four games. Granted some of the goals were scored on the powerplay, and Kane was a beast with three shorthanded goals, but after four games, Kane and Pominville each had four of the Sabres nine total goals and Eichel had the other while also getting the primary assist on four of those goals.

Zemgus Girgensons would finally break that trend with a goal in the first period at Los Angeles in Buffalo's fifth game of the season yet Eichel would account for the Sabres only other goal that night with assists from, who else, Kane and Pominville.

Is it any wonder the team started the season 0-4-1?

Sabres head coach Phil Housley had a bear of a time trying to figure out how to get his other scorers going. Housley's line juggling included a number of combinations, some of which had Pominville changing lines and Sam Reinhart moving from center back to wing, a position he played most of the past two seasons. In Anaheim, Housley came up with an interesting trio as he moved Reinhart and center Ryan O'Reilly to the wings on either side of Girgensons.

However, call-up Justin Bailey to ignite Buffalo's secondary scoring as he scored his first goal of the season just 1:26 into the game against the Ducks. Bailey took advantage of some extended zone-time created by the Girgensons' line, barreled to the net on a change and buried a rebound near the paint. Reinhart would score his first goal of the season late in the second period and Johan Larsson would add an empty-netter in the third period for his first as well.

It was the first time all season, the Eichel line would be held off the scoresheet and ironically the Sabres got their first win of the season.

It wasn't long after that game that O'Reilly began to turn things around, mostly on the powerplay to start, but after landing only one assist through the first five games, he went on a point streak. Beginning in Anaheim he collected six points (3+3) in four games and after being shut out in the next two, he's was good for four points (1+3) in his last two games. O'Reilly sits fourth on the team in scoring with 11 points.

Housley bounced new Sabre Benoit Pouliot around much of this season after he began the season on the second line with O'Reilly and Okposo. It took him nine games to net his first goal of but after a two-goal performance last night, Pouliot has now four goals (plus an assist) in his last five games.

Perhaps no Buffalo forward has gone through a tougher stretch than Kyle Okposo. It was so bad that at one point for Okposo that Housley benched him for all but one shift in the third period against the Vancouver Canucks. However, Okposo would come back with a very strong game against the Boston Bruins the next night and even though he didn't score a goal, it was widely considered his best game of the year. "Kyle was fantastic," said Housley post-game, "moving his feet, winning a lot of puck battles."

Although still goal-less through his first nine games, that Boston game punched Okposo's ticket back into the top-six, first on the Eichel/Kane line then back to a more familiar position as O'Reilly's right wing. Okposo had an assist against the San Jose' Sharks last Saturday and netted his first goal of the season at Arizona last night as he scored with  0.9 seconds left in the first period to tie the score. Okposo added an assist to finish with two points and was a plus-2. O'Reilly had three assists and was also a plus-2 while the game's first star, Pouliot, had two goals and an assist and was also a plus-

It took a number of games but Buffalo's top-six is back to where they began the season with lines of Eichel-Kane-Pominville and O'Reilly-Pouliot-Okposo. If Housley can keep those lines mostly intact, while getting production from them, perhaps he can turn his attention more to the bottom-six in the hopes that he can get them moving a little more. Reinhart has shown signs of life in his role as a third-line center (although he still might be better off on the wing) and his winger Seth Griffith scored his second goal of the season last night as well.

The Sabres as a whole have been playing much better of late and are beginning to make a dent in the win column. They're 4-3-1 since that five-game losing streak to start the season and it looks as if they've evolved into a two-line team. Although two scoring lines is enough to beat a team like the Coyotes, who have only one win on the season, as the game against a very deep Columbus Blue Jackets club revealed, they'll need much more than that to compete with the better teams in the league.

That said, Buffalo seems to be headed in the proper direction and they look to be getting on track, at least up front, one line at a time.

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