Saturday, March 10, 2018

A division win in the shootout with Robin Lehner in net

Published by, 3-9-2018

What's this hockey world coming to?

OK. So a divisional win from the Sabres isn't that far-fetched as they've dominated, yes dominated, the Atlantic Division dating back to early February. Since a February 1 loss at home against the Florida Panthers, a team they've struggled with all season, the Sabres are 7-1-1 (with their only regulation loss coming against the Panthers) within the division. That includes going 5-0-0 against the top three teams in the Atlantic--Tampa Bay, Boston and Tornoto--and outscoring those three by a combined 20-10 margin.

Buffalo bench boss Phil Housley talked about his team getting "geared up" for games and obviously when it comes to their divisional foes, his Sabres do that. With a depleted lineup, no less.

This was their starting forward group last night in Ottawa:

Benoit Pouliot-Ryan O'Reilly-Sam Reinhart
Scott Wilson-Johan Larsson-Jason Pominville
Zemgus Girgensons-Jacob Josefson-Kyle Okposo
Jordan Nolan-Daniel O'Regan-Nicolas Baptiste

It's basically the same lineup the Sabres have been using for the past month with the only changes being in the bottom six with some AHL players moving in and out because of injury. It's a lineup that has no business beating division leaders, much less doubling their goal-output in the process, as they have only three forwards in O'Reilly, Reinhart and Okposo who should even be considered top-six material.

However, as great as it's been against the Atlantic Division, Buffalo has only one win and one overtime loss against a non-divisional opponents. Their regulation losses during that time ranged from lackluster efforts to unmitigated disasters save for a couple of games in the first half of February. Buffalo's record outside the division after the Feb. 1 loss to Florida is 1-6-1 and they were outscored by a combined 30-17 in those games.

A microcosm of Buffalo's bi-polar nature when it comes to divisional/non-divisional games can be found in their most recent back-to-back which finished last night in Ottawa.

On Wednesday night the Sabres got trounced at home by the Calgary Flames in one of their worst losses of the season with the 5-1 score not even close to being indicative of how poorly the Sabres played. By the end of the second period the Flames lead 5-0 and only a smattering of Buffalo fans were left in the stands to watch the Sabres avoid the shutout on a goal by defenseman Casey Nelson with 17.1 seconds left.

It would mark the 14th time this season the Sabres have gotten blown out by three or more goals and in those games they totaled an astounding minus-55 goal differential (74-19.) The Sabres have a league-worst minus-58 goal differential for the entire season which means in the other 54 games they've played they're a minus-3.

Yet last night those same Sabres beat the Ottawa Senators on the road 4-3 in the shootout. Although it's understood that the Flames and Senators are far apart in the standings and also that the Sabres have a much better record on the road than they do at home, unlike the Calgary game, Buffalo was engaged in Ottawa. How else would this Sabres team score the game-tying goal in the third period and win it in the shootout, with the "skills competition" being a major source of angst and frustration dating back to last season.

The Sabres went 2-5 last season in the shootout and were 0-1 this year until last night. Starting goalie Robin Lehner was in net for five of those losses over the last two seasons and allowed nine goals on 10 shots against during that time with the only non-goal coming of a goal post rung in a shootout loss to Montreal in this season's opener. Snake-bitten doesn't begin to describe Lehner in the shootout and many fans last season were hoping that then head coach Dan Bylsma would make a "call to the bullpen" and bring in the backup to replace Lehner.

But last night was a bit different. Lehner, as usual, allowed a goal on the first shot but stopped the next two. And the Sabres skaters, who haven't exactly been snipers in the skills competition the last two seasons, scored as Reinhart and Josefson got Buffalo the win.

Buffalo has 14 games remaining in a lost season but if the pattern holds true, they should give their divisional foes a hard time while allowing the rest of the league to walk all over them. Up next is a game against the expansion Las Vegas Knights who look nothing like an expansion team. It will be their first visit to Buffalo and they'll be playing a matinee on Sabres' Kids Day. Which is something that doesn't bode well for the Sabres as it's been a horror show the last two Kids Days.

The meeting with Vegas kicks off a six-game homestand for Buffalo but they won't play again until March 15 when the Toronto Maple Leafs come to town. It will be only the second meeting between the two clubs this season with the first one coming earlier this week.

Because of last night's shootout win, the Sabres climbed out of the league basement with 55 points, two more than the last place Arizona Coyotes, who have two games in hand. With their loser point last night, Ottawa is two points ahead of Buffalo in the standings but they also have two games in hand.

Three more teams occupy the spots above Buffalo and Ottawa at this juncture--Vancouver-59 points;  Montreal-61;  Edmonton 62--and all of them have a game in hand on the Sabres.

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