Their record is what it is, that of the Eastern Conference's last place team. But the Buffalo Sabres have shown marked improvement in their game lately, and although it hasn't gotten them two points on most nights, the door to success they've been beating on is beginning to show cracks.
Buffalo's game last night against the Carolina Hurricanes seemed to be the kind of game that head coach Phil Housley and his players wanted to play going back to the beginning of the season. However, the differences between playing a responsible, up-tempo game now as opposed to then begin with health, a slight up-tick in talent and players with a better understanding of who they are, where they fit in and what they need to do.
The Sabres and 'Canes combined for nine goals on 75 shots in a game that was played a little tight to begin with, but opened up as it went along culminating with a combined six goals less than 10 minutes into the third period. It ended up being a very exciting game for the fans to watch, which included a breakaway in overtime that could've sent the KeyBank Center crowd home in a frenzy. Yet, as games have gone so many times, especially as of late, it was not to be for Buffalo and they lost to Carolina in overtime, 5-4.
It was the third time in the last five games that Buffalo went to overtime and lost, and it was the second time that they overcame a two-goal, third-period deficit to force the extra session. Last Sunday Evan Rodrigues scored two goals, one early in the third and the other with 1:27 left, to force overtime against the St. Louis Blues but the Sabres lost 3-2. Last night Jack Eichel scored two goals a mere 10 seconds apart in the third period to tie the game at 4-4 after the Sabres gave up three unanswered goals.
With the overtime loss last night, the Sabres are now 1-6 in overtime (plus 0-1 in the shootout) and seem to be very close to breaking through. Evander Kane was stopped on a breakaway last night as he lost control of the puck in tight. Eight days prior, Jack Eichel had an overtime breakaway in Chicago but was stopped as he tried to go five-hole. In both instances the puck wound up going the other way and ending up in Buffalo's net.
Eichel was a beast last night as he scored the a trick, the first of his career, and added the primary assist on Jake McCabe's early third period goal that put Buffalo up 2-1. He had 11 shots on goal and was dominant as the 'Canes could not corral him on any of his three goals:
(Thx to the Buffalo Sabres for the vid and to Dan Dunleavy for "Jack-trick")
It was as dominant a game as we've seen from the 21 yr. old and is the type of game we've been expecting for a while now.
Although he's been playing well and covering the entire ice surface with his long strides and unique skating style, Eichel hasn't been producing like he's capable of. In Thursday's 2-1 loss at Philadelphia, he played a strong game, but was held off the score sheet. The official tally against the Flyers had him with zero shots on goal but he did clank two shots off the post.
We're not sure if his breakout, four-point night will lead to Connor McDavid-type numbers in the future, but one would think that after playing the way he did, Eichel will realize that he, like the McDavids, Crosby's and Matthews' of the league, can scare the crap out of the opposition.
Which is one of the reasons why this team future is looking brighter.
The holes in the Sabres lineup are still there as are the mental lapses and the missed opportunities (see Philadelphia game,) but Buffalo has been playing much better hockey since their back-to-back losses to Pittsburgh to begin the month of December. It began with a 4-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche to begin a three-game road trip and they've now gotten points in five of their last six games (2-1-3.)
The addition of Rodrigues to the lineup has helped immensely as he's been able to anchor the third line at center. Both he and Eichel are in their third pro season with Rodrigues climbing his way up to the Sabres squad.
Rodrigues came up from the Rochester Americans who entered last night's game second in the
AHL's North Division, fourth-overall in the league. Last night they had a big matchup against the division-leading Toronto Marlies but fell short by a 3-2 score.
Buffalo GM Jason Botterill focused upon turning the Amerks fortunes around this season and thus far he's been highly successful. It's much easier to complete a turnaround at the AHL-level than it is in the NHL and what Botterill and his staff have been able to do is change the culture and get those players playing the right way. Although Rodrigues was ready for full-time NHL duty prior to this season while playing an aggressive, up-tempo game, upon return from injury he worked right into what the Amerks were doing. After eight games where he scored 10 points (5+5,) Rodrigues got the call to Buffalo and continued that same type of play to help lead the bottom-six.
Along with the Sabres' Eichel and Rodrigues, Rochester defenseman Brendan Guhle is tearing it up for the Amerks. The 20 yr. old former second-round pick (51st-overall, 2015) is in his first full pro season logging top-pairing/all-situations minutes and is fourth on the team in scoring with 16 points (6+10) which ranks him third in the league amongst rookie defensemen. Last night Guhle scored a goal while joining the rush and wiring a shot from the top of the circle that beat Toronto goalie Calvin Pickard glove-side.
Rochester's Alexander Nylander (2016, 8th-overall) started the play by jumping on a turnover in his own zone and moving it up-ice. The 19 yr. old former first round pick (2016, 8th-overall) has been struggling since making the move to North America last season but shined last night against the league's best team. In addition to the secondary assist on Guhle's goal, Nylander added his own tally as he pounced on his own rebound in the slot and buried it.
One would be remiss not to mention rookie C.J. Smith, a free agent signee by Botterill this past spring. Smith leads the Amerks, by far, with 27 points (9+18) which is also tops in the AHL amongst rookies.
Despite the Sabres early woes and the desperate need for speed on the big club, Botterill stuck to his guns and kept some of his faster,more talented players in Rochester developing. It kept the Amerks strong and let the Sabres figure it out mostly on their own. Last night both teams lost but some of their bright spots shined through, lead by Eichel.
The Sabres are off until December 19 which happens to coincide with the NHL's holiday trade freeze. Botterill's been fielding calls on some of his players, which is what the GM of the league's second-worst team should be doing, but he's got to be a bit satisfied knowing that his vision of how he'd like to see his teams play, is beginning to take hold. It was ugly for a while in Buffalo, but his patience is beginning to pay off with some continuity stretching from Rochester up to Buffalo and in the process, some players are beginning to grab the spotlight.