Monday, December 25, 2017

Sabres and Amerks on divergent paths at the Christmas break.

Published by, 12-24-2017

Last night was pretty much a microcosm of two teams on two different paths. The Buffalo Sabres, fresh off of a solid 4-2 win at home vs. the Philadelphia Flyers travelled to Carolina to take on the Hurricanes in the second of a back-to-back. Meanwhile, the Rochester Americans were in Laval, Quebec for a back-to-back in their second consecutive game against the Rocket (MON.) The Amerks took the first game in overtime after tying the game late in the third period.

What we saw last night in Carolina was simply one of the uglier games of the season for the Sabres as they dropped a 4-2 decision in a game that wasn't nearly as close as the score might indicate. The avalanche started early as the Hurricanes scored a mere :33 seconds into the game. They controlled the faceoff and the entire play up until Sebastian Aho scored from the slot against an obviously confused and unprepared Sabres team.

It was a harbinger of things to come, beginning with the faceoff win as Carolina would finish the game winning an astounding 75% (45/60) of the draws taken. If Buffalo fans were wondering what Ryan O'Reilly, the league's faceoff leader at 61.9%, was doing, he was on a plane back to Buffalo to witness the birth of his first child, a boy.

Congratulations and best wishes to O'Reilly and his fiancĂ©,  Dayna Douros.

While O'Reilly was witnessing the wonders of his first child coming into the world, Buffalo head coach Phil Housley moved fourth-line center Johan Larsson up into O'Reilly's spot between Evander Kane and Kyle Okposo. Larsson lost the opening draw then proceeded to get blown past by Jordan Staal who got the puck into the zone where it wouldn't leave until the referee was ready to drop it at center ice with the' Canes up 1-0.

The Sabres looked grossly undermanned without O'Reilly in the lineup last night. Buffalo has some good complimentary players, like Okposo and Kane, but other than Jack Eichel, O'Reilly's the only one who can take over a game, or at least a good portion of it. That is, when he's on his game, which hasn't been too often this season.

In a situation like that, without one of their top forwards, the Sabres needed some big saves and although Chad Johnson did have a couple, he needed to be much better. However, it looks as if he doesn't have it in him this season. Johnson had won 22 games with the Sabres during the 2015-16 season and 18 games with the Calgary Flames last season and he's presently sitting on one win, which came on October 15 against the Anaheim Ducks.

Regardless of what's in front of him skater-wise, Johnson is just letting in too many goals. He has given up six goals once, five goals three times, the four-goal game last night and three goals twice. The Sabres lost in overtime in two of those five-goal against games. He has a 1-6-3 record with a 3.78 goals-against average and a .881 save percentage.

Heading into the Christmas break, which starts today, the Sabres are in 30th place with a 9-20-7 record, a minus-42 goal differential and have won back-to-back games only once this season.

Conversely, the Rochester Americans pulled off back-to-back wins against the Rocket to go into the break on a four-game win streak. The Amerks have gotten points in 21 of their last 23 games (15-6-2) and with the win last night tied the Toronto Marlies (TOR) for first place in the AHL's Eastern Conference.

Goalie Linus Ullmark is tied for the league-lead in wins (14) while sporting a 2.46 GAA and .924 Sv% while facing the most shots in the league (674) and the Amerks also have the rookie points-leader in C.J. Smith who's seventh overall in the league with 30 points (10+20.)

It's not surprising that the Amerks are doing well. Buffalo GM Jason Botterill began rebuilding Rochester at the July 1 start to free agency and his assistant GM, Randy Sexton continued by adding upper-level AHL vets into the mix. Players like forwards Kevin Porter, Seth Griffith and Sahir Gill along with defensemen Zach Redmond and Stuart Percy are a big part of a veteran leadership group guiding that's won in the past and in the process, younger prospects like Smith, defenseman Brendan Guhle, forward Alexander Nylander and even Ullmark, are learning what it takes to win from players who've been there.

Learning to win is something that the Sabres haven't been able to grasp yet, as indicated by their record, but Botterill seems intent upon laying the groundwork for future success by making Rochester a winning environment, seemingly at the expense of the parent club. One highly doubts that he foresaw his NHL club as being this bad, for a number of reasons, but he's resisted the temptation to graduate players like Smith, Guhle and Ullmark until they have the proper seasoning in Rochester.

The Sabres will be off until Wednesday, as mandated by the collective bargaining agreement, when they touch down in Brooklyn to take on the NY Islanders that night. After that they head to New Jersey to take on the Devils before playing in the 10th  annual Winter Classic at Citi Field in Queens, NY to kick off the 2018 calendar year.

Rochester also returns to action on December 27 to face the Laval Rocket once again, this time in the friendly confines of Blue Cross Arena. After that it's a back-to-back beginning Friday at Toronto of Friday and another home date with the Rocket on Saturday.

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