Published by hockeybuzz.com, 2-14-2018
For those of us who remember, Games 2 & 3 of the Buffalo Sabres season were utter disasters. A new coach with a different philosophy and a remade defense tried to go stride for stride with two fast, talented teams early in the season and it didn't work out very well. In trying to match the pace of the NY Islanders, and especially the NJ Devils, the Sabres got buried like a mudder on a fast track against a Kentucky Derby favorite.
From then on it's been a season of discontent and misery as this edition of the Buffalo Sabres has vainly tried to find themselves. They have a coach in Phil Housley who wanted an uptempo game, but had only a few players who could actually play that way. He had players who could push the pace but with the rest a step or so behind, often times we were witness to disjointed play and ugly results.
The Sabres are starting to find themselves, and maybe Housley himself has finally figured out how to pull the proper levers at the right time. Buffalo laid out a gameplan last night against the league's best team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, and came out on top at home. It was a dogged effort but not without adversity as the calls were not going there way through much of the early portion of the game. Despite that they were able to overcome, even when self-inflicted minor penalties seconds apart gave the league's second-best powerplay heading into the game a 5-on-3 for 1:53.
Buffalo made it through that and ended up with a 5-3 win over the Lightning much to the delight of a sparse crowd at KeyBank Center.
There was no way Buffalo was going to run stride for stride with Tampa so instead of feeding their transition with attempts to carry the puck into the Lighting zone, the Sabres played a game of dump and chase. They got the puck in deep, got on the forecheck, and even when there was a change of possession, Tampa still had 200' of ice to cross to get to the Sabres net.
Buffalo jumped out early on Nicolas Baptiste's second goal of the season at the 6:25 mark of the first period. Baptiste and Zemgus Girgensons kicked it into overdrive before using a nice give and go along the half-wall to spring Baptiste. The 22 yr. old, who was just called up from Rochester on Sunday, cut to the front of the net and went five-hole for the goal.
Baptiste especially, but Girgensons as well, added a ton of speed to the fourth line and it showed on that goal.
Third line winger Scott Wilson would also get in on the scoring for the Sabres. The sequence started with the Evan Rodrigues line as they sustained some heavy pressure in the offensive zone. Tampa was force to dump it up ice but the Sabres came through the neutral zone with speed and established the forecheck again. Jason Pominville got it out to the left point where defenseman Victor Antipin swung it to the right. D-partner Casey Nelson sent it to the net where Wilson was there for the redirect.
That goal put Buffalo back on top 3-2 and was a nice answer to a fluke goal that saw Buffalo goalie Chad Johnson miscommunicate with Antipin and an ill-advised clear in front of his own net went directly to Tampa's Vadislav Namestinkov who deposited into a wide open net.
Secondary scoring has been non-existent for the most part this season for Buffalo so having two in one game was a pleasant surprise, as was how well the powerplay looked without Jack Eichel.
Eichel went down with a high-ankle sprain against the Boston Bruins on Saturday night and with a back-to-back against the Colorado Avalanche on Sunday, there was no time to work somebody in. Evander Kane filled in against the Avalanche and it was a mess going 1/5 with their only goal being scored 5-on-3.
Housley moved Rodrigues into Eichel's spot and it looked as if the first powerplay unit never missed a beat, save for Eichel's blistering shot from the circle.
Ryan O'Reilly and Sam Reinhart have been the two principles on the powerplay all season and once again they were the driving force in Buffalo going 2/3 with the man advantage last night. Reinhart scored off of an O'Reilly rebound while O'Reilly scored his own while pouncing a wide shot off the stick of Kyle Okposo.
O'Reilly has been a beast these last two games without Eichel. He had a goal and two primary assists in the 5-4 loss to Colorado and duplicated that last night against the Lightning. Those six points hurtled him past Kane and into second place on the Sabres in scoring. But probably more important is that those points are the product of the Ryan O'Reilly former GM Tim Murray fell in love with before trading for him.
Since coming to Buffalo in a trade at the 2015 NHL Draft, he's either lead the team in scoring (60 points in 2015-16) or has been second (55 points last season.) Those six points the last two games puts him on a pace for right around 60 points again and dependent upon when Eichel gets back in the lineup, O'Reilly could end up leading the team in scoring again.
But that's not the whole story with him. The points are a product of how determined his play has been. Unfortunately for him and the Sabres, he's been inconsistent in that department. O'Reilly has always had the capacity to take over a game and that's why Murray wasn't hesitant in giving him a long-term contract with a $7.5 million cap-hit. He's a beast on the faceoff dot but hasn't dominated the game as much as that cap-hit would indicate he could.
Why, is the big question with him, but when we see him in games like this, and when we see a player like Eichel taking over games on a more often, the Sabres with those two at center should have a much better record these past two seasons than 50-67-22 over the last two season. Sure, their defense hasn't been the greatest and goaltending, specifically this season, has been erratic, but with those two there really is no reason why they should be bottom-five in scoring two years running.
Last night was the fourth game in a row the Sabres have scored four or more goals and they went 3-1-0 in the process. The last time Buffalo scored four more goals per game for a four-game stretch was November 27-December 15, 2015. They went 3-0-1 with a shootout loss.
It's great to see smiles on the faces of Sabres' players post game and it was downright thrilling to hear the chants of "Let's Go Buffalo!" throughout KeyBank Center last night. Although sparse, the crowd last night was clearly appreciative of what the Sabres were doing and showed that they were into the game early as they vociferously booed some bad calls against their team.
For far too long the Sabres players have wanted to put on a show for the home crowd and often times it's resulted in ugly losses. Last night they kept it simple, as if playing a road game. Low and behold they scored some goals, got the crowd into it and skated away with the 'W'.
Not a bad formula.