Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Life without Jack Eichel on the ice has begun. And it was pretty rough.

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 2-12-2018

The score said Colorado Avalanche-5, Buffalo Sabres-4 but the game wasn't as close as the score might indicate. The Sabres managed to get into the third period down 3-2 but allowed two goals against in 7:03 and found themselves down 5-2. Ryan O'Reilly's powerplay goal at the 12:14 mark made it a two-goal deficit and Evander Kane scored with 2:52 left and goalie Robin Lehner pulled for the extra attacker. Buffalo applied the pressure but managed only two shots on goal and the time ticked away to 0:00.

Buffalo did what it always seems to do at home, get off to a sluggish start, fall behind, get their legs and (sometimes) make a game out of it. Last night was brutal in that respect as Colorado caught them napping :43 seconds into the game as the defense pairing of Rasmus Ristolainen and Nathan Beaulieu somehow let an Avalanche player get behind them. Former Sabre Nikita Zadorov sent a pass from behind is goal line to the Sabres blue line where Colin Wilson took it and found a streaking Alex Kerfoot who beat Lehner.

That was the beginning of a difficult night for that defense duo, especially Ristolainen. The hulking Finn was on the ice for seven of the nine goals overall, including all five against, and was pinned to the bench five-on-five early in the second and didn't hit the ice at full strength until the Avalanche scored their fifth goal at the 7:03 mark of the third period. It was that kind of night for him. Much to his credit, he faced the cameras afterwards and solemnly stated to the gathered media, "Obviously, I've got to play better."

Head coach Phil Housley was asked by the media what he thought might be the problem with Ristolainen, who had been playing extremely well through much of 2018. "I think it could be preparation, maybe confidence. I just don't see him as sharp in his game right now, going back to the All-Star break and I think he's got to refocus and get his game back."

Since the All-Star break the 6'4" 216 Ristolainen has one goal and two assists in seven games and is a minus-4, which includes his minus-3 rating last night. In the six game's prior to last night's 23:48 of ice-time, Ristolainen never logged under 27 minutes. When Jake McCabe went down early in the Anaheim game on February 6, he was on the ice for 32:39 in the overtime loss.

Ristolainen looked physically worn last night which probably affected the mental aspect of his game. Both Housley and former head coach Dan Bylsma have mentioned repeatedly that they'd like to pare back Ristolainen's minutes to the low-mid 20 area, yet neither have done it for more than a game or two.

There was plenty of blame to be thrown around last night, most notably forward Johan Larsson who took a bone-headed penalty that lead to a powerplay goal and a 4-2 Colorado lead. And for an encore, Larsson was a train wreck in his own end and turned over the puck which lead to the fifth and eventual game-winner for the Avalanche. And for as much as Lehner was left out to dry, he seemed disinterested at times, almost as if he knew what kind of night it would be after the 'Lanche scored :43 into the game.

This was the Sabres first game without Jack Eichel, who's out 4-6 weeks with a high-ankle sprain. Although the team gutted out a win at Boston after Eichel went down, they fell apart in this one. They were a disaster 5v5 and disjointed on the powerplay giving up a shorthanded goal (on a whiff by Ristolainen at the point) only managing a powerplay goal at 5-on-3. Other than the stellar play of O'Reilly who tried to carry the team on his back (23:48 TOI, one goal, two primary assists, plus-2,) the highlight of the evening for special teams was the penalty kill.

Although the PK unit did allow a goal against (in five opportunities,) they also scored two short-handed goals. Benoit Pouliot was the beneficiary of some dogged work and determination by O'Reilly and poked in a rebound laying in the crease. The other shortie was scored by rookie defenseman Casey Nelson who took a chance and scored when he corralled his own rebound, circled the net and bounced it in off of an Avalanche defender. It was his first NHL goal as his pumped up reaction would indicate.

Sure, it was a bad game last night, but credit to the Sabres for somehow clawing back into the game and not giving up. They lost their leading scorer in Eichel (22 goals, 31 assists, 51 points) and their most deadly weapon on the powerplay. Eichel and his linemates, whoever they've been throughout the season, have always been a threat 5v5 and having that element out of the lineup made it difficult on the rest.

The Sabres were on the second game of a back-to-back with travel in between and didn't have a morning skate yesterday. There's no scheduled practice today and save for a morning skate tomorrow, they'll essentially be winging it again at home against a deadly Tampa Bay Lightning team tomorrow night.

Good luck with that.

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