Friday, December 29, 2017

The maturation process of a team and of their future leader

Published by, 12-28-2017

Over the last couple of seasons the most dreadful in-game thought for Sabres fans was the team heading to the shootout, especially with Robin Lenher in net. Lehner has had an unusually difficult time with the skills competition and one would think it's a good thing that the Sabres haven't been to the shootout this season since opening night at home against the Montreal Canadiens, which, of course, was a loss.

However overtime has been almost as much of a problem for this team as the shootouts are. Since pulling off a split in overtime during a four-day span back in October—a 5-4 loss at Las Vegas and a 5-4 win at Boston—the Sabres have now dropped their last six overtime decisions including last night’s 3-2 OT loss in Brooklyn vs. the NY Islanders. Lehner has been in goal for four of them including back-to-back losses at Chicago and at St. Louis.
Getting to overtime has been a small victory for this club and based upon what we saw of this team early on, the optimist in me might say that this team has made great strides in just being competitive enough to get it to that point. Yet the pessimist would (and should) say that it's not good enough.
Yet both sides would be right.
The Sabres had an awful time through the first two months of the season going 6-15-4. Through December they've tightened things up and have a 3-5-4 record thus far with one more game to go. Since getting blown out in the first two games of the month, the Sabres have had six one-goal games, but have finished only 1-1-4 in them. 
Buffalo has been playing decidedly better as of late but scoring woes continue to be their downfall. That includes improving upon their league-worst 2.16 goals/game and making them count in crucial situations, especially in overtime, as winger Evander Kane will attest to. He had an overtime breakaway thwarted at Carolina vs. the Hurricanes and was stopped from in close last night on a glorious opportunity in the extra session.
It seems like a never-ending series of hurdles for the club this season and it seems as if it takes a long time before each can be cleared.
Perhaps we can chalk it all up to a learning process as this franchise tries to shake two bottom-dwelling seasons and is trying to learn how to win. Buffalo is on the right track to win much more than it did the first two months of the season. However, with Kane as a pending unrestricted free agent and Lehner's name popping up in trade rumors, they may end up having fall back down again before they try to pick themselves up.
Such is the process.
The maturation process of Jack Eichel is unfolding right before our eyes on this abysmal season. The franchise center whom Buffalo tanked for in 2015 seems is starting to figure out just what kind of an impact he can have on the game, and it's impressive.
Eichel, an offensively gifted player with a sick release, has been criticized for loafing on the ice and not playing well defensively. That's changed lately. It seems as if every game he's hitting turbo-boost on the back check and disrupting odd-man rushes in a way that completely surprises the opposition. It happened last night on the powerplay when Rasmus Ristolainen stumbled and fumbled at the Islanders blueline early in the second period and coughed up the puck. Eichel hit the after-burners and caught the Islanders Casey Czikas on a breakaway and disrupted him just enough that the shot went wide past Lehner.
His offense is still there and improving. Eichel has 33 points, second only to Kane's 34 on the team, and in his last five games he has nine points (5+4.) He had a hat trick in one of those games against the Hurricanes and completely flustered that team in the process. And he distributing as well. In the last two games Eichel has set up Zemgus Girgensons for a goal.
Girgensons has been having an awful time ever since Ted Nolan was relieved of his duties as Buffalo's head coach back in 2015. Against the Hurricane's in the game prior to the Christmas break, Eichel set up Girgensons in what looked like a designed play off a faceoff in the Carolina zone. Last night a deflected shot from the point went to Eichel behind the net and Girgensons planted himself in the crease for the redirect.
There's no doubt that Girgensons has been having a rough go of it these past couple of seasons. At once he was thought of as a top-six/top-nine forward but as things went along he fell to more of a fourth-line/defensives specialist role. Although he won't be confused with a bona fide top-six player, Girgensons has been doing good things up there and Eichel is making him a better player.
Most felt as if this would be Eichel's team once he was drafted with the second-overall pick in 2015. Where once it was an assumption that turned into more of a question, Eichel's play as of late has it looking more definitive as his maturation process takes hold.

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