Western New York sports fans haven't had a whole helluva lot to cheer for the past few years as the Sabres have been in a rut with the Amerks right down there with them. Add in the NFL's Buffalo Bills current 17-year playoff drought, the longest in the four major North American sports and it makes for some pretty rough sledding for WNY sports fans.
But yesterday was a good day for hockey those fans. No, make that a great day for not only the present, but for the future as well. All three teams--Team USA, the Sabres and the Amerks--won yesterday. USA and the Sabres won in dramatic fashion while the Amerks pitched a perfect road-game to overtake the Marlies for the Eastern Conference lead. And if that wasn't good enough for you the future of the Buffalo Sabres--Casey Mittelstadt, Jack Eichel and Linus Ullmark--all lead their team's to victory.
He's a 6'0" 203 lb. center from Edina, Minnesota who opted to play his senior season at Eden Prairie High School (MIN) prior to the 2017 NHL Draft, which was a somewhat unusual path. And it's good for the Sabres that he did. Mittelstadt scored 64 points (21+43) in 25 games for the Eagles in his final high school season. He started out that hockey season playing for the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL scoring 21 points (8+13) in 16 games and after his Eagles were ousted in the semifinals of the state tournament, he rejoined the Gamblers and added another nine points (5+4) in 14 games.
It was a season that placed him top-10 in pre-draft rankings with Central Scouting ranking him as the third best North American skater behind only Nico Hischier and Patrick Nolan who went first and second overall, respectively, in the 2017 NHL Draft. Most thought he was a top-five pick but he slipped to Buffalo and they swooped in to nab him with the eighth-overall selection.
Mittelstadt is in his freshman season with the Minnesota Golden Gophers and has 17 points (5+12) in 19 games. Division-1 hockey features older players, stiffer completion and systems, like the one he faced recently at Ohio State, that are lockdown and defensive. Every inch of ice Mittelstadt has gotten at the D-I level has been earned and although 17 points in 19 games doesn't give the aire of dominance, the work he did prepared him well for a tournament like this against his peers.
Mittlestadt scored three goals in the first two games of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championships being held in Buffalo, NY, including a highlight reel goal on Thursday night, and then he followed that up by continuing to prove that he's been the best player at the tournament so far. In a crucial game that the U.S. needed to win, against the rival Canadians, Mittelstadt came through by assisting on every goal including two primary assists that brought the team back from a 3-1 deficit.
After the game yesterday at New Era Field where conditions were difficult with frigid temperatures and abundant snow through a good portion of the game, Mittelstadt talked about relying on facets of his game other than scoring when things proved difficult. And make no mistake, it was difficult for every player on the ice yesterday.
"Even during the year, that's the first thing I go to if I feel I'm not playing well," he said, via Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News. "I go back to stick-handling and my vision. That's the biggest key for me, to make sure that I'm always fine-tuning it."
And that he did as seen on his two primary assists beginning at the 2:22 mark of the highlight video below (courtesy USA Hockey.) Mittelstadt almost had a fairy tale ending to the game but just missed on a shootout attempt that could've have won it, but regardless, for the second game in a row he was name Team USA's player of the game.
That he was able to not only rise to the occasion in difficult conditions, but do so against a fierce rival like Team Canada, in front of the largest crowd to see an IIHF WJC game, no-less, has got the Buffalo fan-base excited. The 4-3 shootout win is being called an instant classic and Mittelstadt's MVP performance has them looking towards the future with a big smile as those talents are not that far away from hitting the NHL.
Although Eichel's future with the Sabres became the present in 2015, the same year he was drafted second overall by Buffalo, his "franchise status" has been delayed. He came to the NHL riding a media-fueled "McEichel" wave as he and top-pick Connor McDavid were ready to take the league by storm. But Eichel struggled through large portions of his first two NHL seasons.
We've seen bursts of his incredible skating and skill-level in the past but Eichel had neither the consistency of McDavid nor did he lead his team to the playoffs like McDavid did last season. Instead of his Sabres team moving forward after a solid 2015-16 season, they went backwards and Eichel rumored to be in a power struggle with then coach Dan Bylsma.
Bylsma was fired at the end of the season and was replaced by rookie head coach Phil Housley.
What ensued to begin this season was an on-ice embarrassment that rivaled that of the tank years. The Sabres plunged to the bottom of the league after a rough start and have remained close to last ever since. The month of November was a particularly abysmal month and ended with the team in a rut as the won only once in a 10-game span (1-7-2) to finish the month.
It continued into December with an embarrassing 4-0 shutout loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins at home followed by an equally embarrassing loss to the Pens in Pittsburgh the next night, all of this with NHL cameras beginning to roll for the "Road to the Winter Classic Series." Eichel was visibly shaken after that first Pittsburgh loss, according to reports from the locker room, and was seen in a one-on-one with team President Russ Brandon. What Brandon said has never been divulged but the follow-up 5-1 loss to the Pens didn't bode well.
Eichel had been playing some pretty good hockey prior to that but the team's struggles had been weighing him down and eventually something clicked. He hit for a goal and an assist in leading the Sabres to victory in Colorado following the back-to-back embarrassments against the Pens, and continued to play a strong, hard-skating 200' game thereafter, although his stat-line might say otherwise.
The virtues of playing a full game in overdrive would finally pay off vs. the Carolina Hurricanes as Eichel scored his first career hat trick and completely dominated regulation. After a tough game against Boston he proceeded to hit for seven points (4+3) in his next four games, including his two goals last night, and carried his team to a 2-1-1 record in the process.
With his Sabres' team down 3-1 late in the second period to the Metropolitan-leading New Jersey Devils last night, Eichel tipped Jake McCabe's shot from the point with 1:55 left and the Sabres went into the third period down only one goal. He then proceeded to score the game-tying goal on the powerplay ala Alexander Ovechkin with a blast from the right circle. Just listen to call from Sabres broadcast legend Rick Jeanneret (courtesy NHL):
What we're seeing of the future is Eichel emerging as a leader through his play. Despite all of the struggles this team has faced all season, he and his teammates, seemed to have fully bought into Houlsey's system and they're slowly trying to turn that into wins. Although the record still isn't there, and they still have many holes to fill, this edition of the Sabres is playing much better hockey and they're slowly building confidence in themselves and the team with Eichel leading the charge.
Last night's win over the Devils wasn't just some run-of-the-mill win. They beat the second-best team in the Eastern Conference, on the road in front of a packed house while being outplayed in the second period as they only had three shots on goal (yet scored on two of them.) The Sabres broke a six--game overtime skid and even got the game-wining goal from a defenseman as Rasmus Ristolainen scored his first goal of the season.
But the driving force behind their 4-3-4 run has been Eichel who's looking more and more like their future captain.
The Rochester Americans are the top team in the AHL's Eastern Conference. Rochster got to that point after a tremendous run that saw them go 17-4-6 since late October and cap it off with a 2-0 shutout win vs. the Marlies in Toronto last night. With the win, Rochester's 20-7-6 record and .697 win-percentage barely edges out the Marlies .667 win-percentage.
Not bad for a team that finished in 26th place the last two seasons and in 28th the year before that.
The Amerks have a lot of things clicking for them centered around a team that was put together with veterans who've won in the past. Although Rochester doesn't have a ton of homegrown prospects in the ranks, the ones they have are really shining.
Free-agent forward C.J.Smith (2017, UMass-Lowell) is having a banner rookie season. His 30 points (10+20) leads all rookies, by far, and places him tied for 10th in the league. And fellow rookie defenseman Brendan Guhle has upped his game with 17 points (6+11) on the season while playing on the top pairing in all situations.
But the backbone of the team is goalie Ullmark.
This is Ullmark's third pro season after coming over from MODO of the Swedish Elite League. Buffalo's 6th-round pick (163rd-overall) in the 2012 NHL Draft split his rookie season between the Sabres and the Amerks when Buffalo goalie Robin Lehner went down with a high-ankle sprain in October, 2015. Ullmark looked solid during his time in the NHL but stayed in Rochester to hone his game.
Last season Ullmark was named the Amerks team MVP after facing the most shots in the AHL(1,678) and compiling a 26-27-2 record with a 2.87 goals-against average and a .919 save-percentage. When it came to the Amerks last season if Ullmark wasn't in net, the team didn't have much of a chance of winning as the rest of the goalies went a combined 6-14-1.
Ullmark learned a lot last season, first and foremost about having to carry a heavy workload as a starter, but also about giving his team a chance to win no matter how many goals were scored against him and that carried over to this season.
This year he once again leads the league in shots-against (721,) yet is fourth in Sv% (.926,) seventh in goals-against (2.33) and is tied for the league lead in wins with 15.
Ullmark was named the AHL Player of the week leading up to the Christmas break after going 2-0-0 with 1.46 GAA and a .956 Sv% and stopping 65 of 68 shots in those two games. He followed that up with a first star performance last night stopping all 22 shots he faced.
To their credit, the Sabres organization made a conscious decision to keep Ullmark in Rochester for one more year of seasoning and for his part, he embraced that role. As the team waddled through some early difficulties and began to find ways to win, or to a least gain a point, Ullmark was in there giving them a chance to win.
Since giving up six goals in a November 22 game vs. the Syracuse Crunch (TBL,) the 24 yr, old has been outstanding. In his last 11 games he has the one shutout (last night,) has allowed two or less goals in eight games and has not allowed more than three goals. Ullmark has faced 284 shots and allowed 19 goals (.933 Sv%) with the Ameks going 7-2-2 in his those games.
If yesterday was any indication of what this franchise has in store for the future, things are looking much brighter in Sabreland. We've all seen Eichel's game-changing play and the fact that Mittelstadt has risen to the top amongst his peers is a strong indication that he could have a major impact at the NHL-level. Ullmark is a tribute to the process of letting players fully develop and along with him in the AHL are players like Smith and Guhle who are learning the pro game and the Sabres systems that are in place.
The Western New York sweep with Team USA, the Sabres and Amerks all winning was a great day for hockey fans in Sabreland and it's one that should be savored as we look towards the future.