Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Sabres power past Edmonton. Is this the new reality?

Published by, 1-24-2018

With their 5-0 blowout win in Edmonton last night against the Oilers, the Buffalo Sabres have now won two in a row and three of their last five games but maybe more importantly, they look like a real good hockey team right now.

The Oilers, Calgary Flames and Columbus Blue Jackets, Buffalo's victims during this spurt, probably took the league's 30th place team for granted, which can happen. Edmonton's Milan Lucic (via the Edmonton Journal) voiced that opinion post-game to the local media last night. “It was pretty clear. I don’t think we had enough respect for that hockey team. That’s what happens when you aren’t ready to play the other team, no matter who they are or where they are in the standings."

Buffalo pounded the Oilers with the brunt of their offense coming via the powerplay. In a battle of inept special teams heading into the game, the Sabres 30th-ranked powerplay (14% conversion rate) faced off against the NHL's worst penalty kill (72.7% kill rate) and what transpired wasn't fair in the special teams department. Buffalo scored on their first three powerplay opportunities (moving them to 26th in the league at 15.6%) causing Oilers head coach Todd McClellan to call his penalty killing units "horrendous" in his post-game presser.

Buffalo was playing in the second game of a back-to-back while the Oilers hadn't played since extending their winning streak to three games with a win over the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday. Edmonton was certainly well rested (and perhaps a tad complacent) while the Sabres were coming off of a hard-fought, 2-1 overtime win at Calgary the night before and coming into the game Buffalo was only 2-6-2 in the second half of back-to-backs.

The consecutive wins (sadly) matched their lone previous two-game win "streak" which occurred October 12 and 24. Buffalo scored five goals for only the third time this season (5-4 win at Boston;  5-4 win at Arizona) and had plenty of their key players get in on the scoring. Center Ryan O'Reilly scored a pair of goals and he's been heating up again with eight points (4+4) in his last seven games. Sam Reinhart, who'd been invisible for much of the first half of the season, scored a goal and added two assists giving him six points (2+4) in his last four games. Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen extended his points-streak to four games with two assists and now has five points (1+4) during his streak.

And then there's Jack Eichel.

The 21 yr. old scored the overtime winner in Calgary on Monday and followed that up with a one-goal/four-point performance last night. Eichel is on a seven-game point streak with five goals and eight assists bringing his season totals to 49 points (20+29,) which ties him for 17th in the NHL in scoring.

At least for last night, Eichel clearly overshadowed his 2015 draft counterpart, Connor McDavid, who was selected first overall that year. With those points, Eichel has now surpassed McDavid in Buffalo/Edmonton matchups brining his totals to eight points (3+5) in five games since the "McEichel" draft while McDavid remained at two goals and two assists in five games against Buffalo. Both missed one game in the series. Since McDavid and Eichel were drafted, the teams have met six times. Buffalo's record is 4-1-1 in those games.

With his goal last night, Eichel hit the 20-goal mark last night for the third consecutive season to start his career. An interesting note from John Vogl of The Buffalo News, only three other Sabres players have done that--Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin and Thomas Vanek.

Think about that for a second.

The sheer joy, and some would add in relief as well, of beating Calgary in overtime carried over into last night's win and reports from the Sabres dressing room have the players upbeat and feeling more confident. "That was fun," said left wing Zemgus Girgensons to the Buffalo media at Rogers Place. Girgensons scored his fourth goal of the season off the rush when a pass from Kyle Okposo on a two-on-one glanced off of his skate and into the net to make the score 3-0.

Buffalo coach Phil Housley pointed to the embarrassing 7-1 loss at the hands of the Dallas Stars on Saturday as a jumping off point for their two games of success. "I think we learned a lot of what we need to do as a team in our checking and our play without the puck," Housley said to the media in Edmonton. "I think the guys are really enjoying that. They're getting opportunities because of it. We're getting the puck on our stick because of that. We're drawing penalties."

And winning, which is a lot of fun.

For the last two games, this has been a different Sabres team, but as we've seen way too often, they've been unable to sustain that on a consistent basis. Which leads us to the real question, Is this a different team, or did they just catch some lightning for a couple of games?

Reinhart, who has been playing his best hockey of the season lately, put the Edmonton win and the team's 13-26-9 record into perspective. "We know where we're at" he said to the media, "and it's not just one game that's going to do anything at this point. We need to be consistent. All we can do is take it day-by-day, and this was another step for us."

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