Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Can the Sabres pick up where they left off? Should they?

Published by, 1-30-2018

For the first time all season the Buffalo Sabres won three games in a row and in the process seemed to have found themselves. It took a lot of poor play and a multitude of blowout losses, including a 7-1 embarrassment versus the Dallas Stars just prior to their three-game winning streak, but something seemed to have clicked for the club.

After the Stars' embarrassment of the Sabres on "Kids Day" at KeyBank Center, Buffalo hit the road for a three-game, western Canada road trip just prior to the NHL All-Star break. They played a hot Calgary Flames team and came out of it with a 2-1 overtime win. Upon finishing that, they packed up and headed north to Edmonton where they proceeded to roast the Oilers 5-0 the following night. And to cap it off, Buffalo shut out the Canucks in Vancouver 4-0. For those counting, that's 11 goals for and only one goal against which is pretty impressive, especially for a team that went into that trip with an 11-26-9 record.

It's too bad the All-Star break came as it would have been interesting to see if the Sabres could have kept it going against the New Jersey Devils, their opponent tonight.

The Devils are an up and coming team that got off to a terrific start which included a 6-2 thrashing of the Sabres in Buffalo early in the season and they would ride that wave well into late December when the two teams would meet again. New Jersey went into the matchup on a five-game winning streak, had a seven-game point-streak and sat atop the Metropolitan Division with a 22-9-5 record before the 9-20-8 Sabres beat them 4-3 at home in overtime.

Since that game, the Devils are 2-7-2 and are on a four-game losing streak while the Sabres are 4-6-1 and are on a three-game winning streak.

The catalyst for that Sabres win over the Devils was Jack Eichel, who's been on a tear since early December. Eichel scored a goal late in the second period against the Devils on a tip-in with the Sabres down 3-1 then scored the game-tying goal with a laser one-timer on the powerplay at the 11:07 mark of the third. Eichel's tear got rolling with his first career hat trick on December 15th vs. the Carolina Hurricanes and in his last 17 games the 21 yr. old has 12 goals and 13 assists.

It was Eichel's goal against the Flames in overtime that started the Sabres winning streak.

Although Eichel contributed mightily to Buffalo's western Canada successes, especially with a four point night (1+3) against Edmonton and Connor McDavid, plenty of other players have been contributing. Forward Sam Reinhart seems to have emerged from his season-long slumber with two goals and two assists in his last two games. Ryan O'Reilly had three points (2+1) in his last three games and has eight points (4+4) in his last eight games. And defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, who scored the overtime winner against the Devils in December extended his points-streak to five games with four assists in western Canada.

Props to goalies Chad Johnson and Robin Lehner as well. The two combined to allow only one goal against on the trip and despite not facing a multitude of odd-man rushes and golden scoring opportunities, they came through with a big save when necessary. Lehner faced 63 shots and has not allowed a goal since getting pulled in the blowout loss to Dallas. The NHL named him league's 3rd star for the week leading up to the All-Star break. Eichel was named the 2nd star.

For those of us who've been watching this team struggle mightily all season, a three-game winning streak was a welcome reprieve. But for those on the "Fallin' for Dahlin' train with eyes fixated on the upcoming draft, any climb up the standings would endanger having the best possible odds of winning the draft lottery.

The 'Dahlin' part of the equation references 2018 draft eligible defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, a 17 yr. old Swede who is already drawing comparisons to the likes of Erik Karlsson and Niklas Lidstrom--a franchise-changing defenseman that could alter the future of a club for years to come. There isn't a team out there who wouldn't want or need him. But with the NHL Draft Lottery going through a significant change, due in large part to the 2014-15 Sabres/Arizona Coyotes tank seasons, the odds of landing in the upper portion of the draft have changed and even a last place finish could end up picking fourth overall with the top three picks being determined by the lottery.

After going through two horrendous seasons in tank-mode, perhaps it's best to say goodbye to the tank years in Buffalo and move on, although it's pretty hard to do with a franchise defenseman right there.

The Sabres are second-last in the league, nine points from of the lower rungs of respectability in the Eastern Conference and 19 points out of the last playoff spot. What's the difference between finishing last and in a respectable spot out of the playoffs? For the players it's competitive pride and trying to move forward after a disastrous first half of the season. For those in Sabreland ready to tank, the difference lies in percentages of landing at the top of the draft:

31st place--18%

That said, this blogger can't get enough of that winning feeling.

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