The Buffalo Sabres head into the second game of back-to-backs with a home tilt tonight against the Colorado Avalanche.
Buffalo coming off of a strong performance in a 4-2 win on the road over the Boston Bruins that didn't come without some pain. Center Jack Eichel left the game in the first period after he got entangled with Bruins defenseman Matt Grzelcyk behind the Boston net. Grzelcyk, a former teammate of Eichel's at Boston University, looks to have nicked Eichel's skate causing him to fall backward with his legs folded under him and the weight of Grzelcyk on top may have caused Eichel to hyperextend his right knee. (See vid from MSG post-game below.)
Head coach Phil Housley wouldn't comment on the injury and word is that Eichel will have an MRI today. With no morning skate due to travel on a back-to-back, an official release on his status won't come until Housley talks to the media later in the afternoon.
Eichel went down with 6:56 left in the first period. To that point the teams skated hard and played solid defense in a scoreless game with Boston edging Buffalo in the shot-count 5-4. The game would remain scoreless until Evander Kane scored on a breakaway at the 7:42 mark of the second period. Sam Reinhart jumped on a loose puck in his own zone and caught the Bruins moving in the wrong direction. Kane took the feed at center ice, turned on the speed and ripped one past Boston's Tuuka Rask for his 17th goal of the season and his first goal since January 4, a span of 14 games.
With Eichel out, the Sabres ramped up the intensity with a total team effort in what may be described as their best game of the season. Scott Wilson battled in front of the Boston net to punch in a rebound to make 2-0. After Boston answered, Wilson set up a streaking Benoit Pouliot who buried a perfect saucer pass to make it 3-1 just over four minutes later. The Bruins scored with Rask pulled and less than a minute left in regulation but Buffalo's Rasmus Ristolainen sent home a 185' empty-netter to finish the scoring.
Often times during the course of a regular season, in any sport, you'll hear that a great or hot team will not play their best game but will still come out on top, especially against the bottom-feeders of the league. Be it known, the Bruins did not play their best game last night against the league's second worst team. It may have been that the hot streak they were on had finally run it's course and/or they simply took the Sabres lightly. But they ended up on the wrong end of the scoreboard.
Yet even when Boston seemed to be revving their engines looking as if they were ready to get things rolling (like they'd done so many times before,) Buffalo wouldn't let them. I can't remember the last time I saw the Sabres as quick to the puck as they were last night, nor do I remember a time where they used there sticks as well as they did defensively. Their backchecking was strong, they blocked 20 Bruins shots last night and played a full 60-minute game against a tough opponent.
Reinhart may have had the primary assist on Kane's goal, but other aspects of his game stood out last night which included playing a strong 200' game. In a microcosm of how all-in he was, one sequence had the 22 yr. old skating hard on the backcheck to help break up a play then dropping to block a Zdeno Chara slapshot when the puck failed to clear the zone. For a reference point as to just how scary a proposition that is, Chara won the hardest shot competition at the 2012 All-Star Game with a record-breaking shot of 108.8 mph.
We're not sure what happened to Reinhart lately, but over the last two games he's displaying the very traits that lead to him being selected second-overall by the Sabres. He's displayed patience with the puck, a third eye for finding his team mates and has putt on a passing clinic, all hallmarks of his game while spending his 2013-14 junior season at or near the top of his draft class. Although he's never had blazing speed, he's been playing at a faster pace as of late and it makes him look faster.
Reinhart's on a three game point-streak (1+5), has points in nine of his last 11 games (4+10) and is playing with a ton of confidence. Will he be able to sustain that? We're not really sure, nor are we sure what caused his early season slump or what caused him to flip the switch beginning with the Winter Classic on January 1. We've seen this before over the years with certain players, especially with players in a contract year like Reinhart is right now, so skepticism is warranted. But is sure is nice to see the real Sam Reinhart.
Props to the top-four on defense as well. Two games ago Housley dropped Ristolainen down to the second-pairing apparently to cut his ice-time and placed rookie Casey Nelson up top with Marco Scandella. Nelson has been solid in his role, albeit with some rookie mistakes, while also showing the ability to jump into the play with speed. The 24 yr. old product of Minnesota State topped 20 minutes last night and 21 minutes the previous game against the NY Islanders and has an even plus/minus rating in those two games.
Ristolainen is logging his usual workhorse minutes (27:03 last night, 27:37 vs. the NYI,) has points in his last two games (1+1) and has a plus-3 rating. His d-partner Nathan Beaulieu has simplified and steadied his game next to Ristolainen and is a plus-2 in his last two games without giving up an egregious turnover, something he'd been doing on an almost nightly basis.
Overall this Sabres team the past two games has looked nothing like the one we've seen over the course of the season save for maybe their three-game sweep in western Canada late last month. And it's a pleasure seeing that. Every Sabre on the ice seemed very calm with the puck last night to the point where they didn't get called for an icing until the 4:50 mark of the second period. By that time the Bruins had already iced the puck five times.
Both the game last night and the game prior against the Islanders were actually great games to watch. Not without some trepidation, mind you, but both of those wins were a product of playing well. They also scored four goals in a back-to-back games for only the second time this season, the first one being on that western Canada swing. They won all four of those games in regulation.
A couple more notes from last night, the Sabres handed Rask his first regulation loss since November 26 (19-0-2) and broke his eight-game winning streak. They outhit the Bruins 33-22 and handed them only their second regulation loss since December 16, a span of 23 games (18-1-4.) Boston also had a 12-game winning streak against Atlantic Division foes dating back to November 11 snapped.
Tonight the Sabres will be looking at extending their wining streak to three games for only the second time this season as they take on the 29-21-4 Avalanche. Despite being in a mini-slump lately, Colorado is four points out of the last wild card spot in the West with a game in hand and three teams to jump. It's the second of two meetings between Buffalo and Colorado with the Sabres winning 4-2 on the road in early December. The Sabres were coming off of back-to-back humiliations at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins before heading to Colorado and won with solid goaltending from Robin Lehner and a total team effort from his skaters lead by Kane and Ristolainen.
Odds are that the Sabres will be without Eichel tonight and as of now, there's been no word on a player being recalled from Rochester. That could very well change between now and 4:30 when Housley's scheduled to meet the local press.