Thursday, March 1, 2018

Less than 20 games to go, Sabres fans.

Published by, 2-18-2018

The Buffalo Sabres begin their final 19-game post-trade deadline stretch of the 2017-18 season with a 19-33-11 record which is good for an Eastern Conference-worst 49 points. To say it's not been a very good year would be an understatement and to add a little perspective, here was the Sabres record at this point of the season stretching back to 2013-14, the first of their two tank years:

2013-14:  19-36-8 (46 points)
2014-15:  19-39-5 (43)
2015-16:  25-31-7 (57)
2016-17:  26-26-11 (63)

The past two seasons had GM Tim Murray overseeing the hockey operations department and head coach Dan Bylsma in charge of his team. In 2015-16 the Sabres went 10-5-4 over their last 19 games and finished with 81 points, which was 50% more than the season prior. Although the prior season was designed for a wretched showing and a last place finish, that significant point increase gave fans and management plenty to be optimistic about moving forward. However, as the Sabres struggled with injuries and inconsistencies in the early part of 2016-17 and a pall was cast over the team as they finished the season with a 7-11-1 record while playing as if they were simply riding out a lost season.

It lead to the firings of both Murray and Bylsma.

Enter new GM Jason Botterill and his new bench boss, Phil Housley, both of whom had never occupied those positions before. Off-season optimism once again reigned supreme as Botterill made some moves to revamp his defense (while also significantly turning over his roster) and Housley was expected to work some magic with that revamped d-corps. It fell apart early and got worse through the first two months of the season before things began to stabilize. With the season basically over in December, Sabreland was focused on the February 26, 2018 NHL trade deadline.

That has since come and gone with Buffalo making one trade as Evander Kane, Buffalo's second-leading goal scorer, was shipped off to the San Jose Sharks for a decent return that could turn out to be better if he re-signs with the Sharks. In that case the conditional 2019 second round pick Buffalo received would turn into a first-round pick. The Sabres also received a 2019 conditional fourth-rounder and if San Jose wishes, they can push that pick to 2020 in which case it turns into a third round pick. Buffalo also received forward prospect Daniel O'Regan in the deal.

Kane played his first game for the Sharks last night, skated over 16 minutes for his new club,  registered two assists (one primary) and was a plus-2 in San Jose's 5-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers at the Shark Tank. He was also named the game's second star.

While Kane is on the West Coast trying to help the Sharks make the playoffs (the win last night pushed them into second in the division by two points,) those in Sabreland are left with an annual routine that dates back seven seasons--play out the strand while focusing on the NHL Draft.

However, in saying that, within the next 19 games are "little stanley cups" which could, and should, at least get the fan base excited. Most notably, the Sabres have four games against the QEW rival Toronto Maple Leafs in a weird schedule quirk that loaded all four season-series matchups into what will be the final 17 games of Buffalo's season. And if the fans can't get up for any of those games, the next first two in that series is at KeyBank Center and they can do what they usually do when it comes to a Toronto game in Buffalo, sell their tickets at a premium to ease some of the mental and financial burden they've been shouldering during the season.

Sprinkled amongst the final games are a first-time visit from the expansion Vegas Golden Knights (March 10) and...really not that much to get all that excited about.

It all begins tonight with Buffalo in Tampa to take on the league's top team. The Lightning, who were a Stanley Cup favorite to begin, fortified their d-corps at the trade deadline when they acquired NY Rangers defenseman (and captain) Ryan McDonagh making them even more of a favorite.

Tampa has been a top team in the division for three of the past four years which includes a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2014-15. Last year they were victims of circumstance and barely missed the playoffs but it would seem as if they're back with a vengeance.

Buffalo has split the season series with Tampa so far with both games taking place at KBC. They were shut out 2-0 in late November but pulled off an impressive 5-3 win just over two weeks ago. The Sabres were without Jack Eichel, who'd suffered an injury two games earlier in Boston. The Sabres used a full team effort complete with a dogged forcheck punctuated by secondary scoring to take down Tampa.

However, even with that win, the Sabres are still only 2-7-1 in their last 10 against Tampa according to Sabres PR.

Tonight the Sabres will be without their top two goal scorers prior to the deadline--Eichel and Kane--and they will also be missing their third leading scorer in Kyle Okposo who's on a leave to be with his wife for the birth of their third child.

Without those three, the weight of scoring falls on the shoulders of Ryan O'Reilly and Sam Reinhart, both of whom have been pretty hot of late. O'Reilly has eight points (2+6) in his last eight games while Reinhart has been on fire with a four-game scoring streak and 20 points (7+13) in his last 19 games. The Sabres have also been getting meaningful contributions from the blueline lately. Rasmus Ristolainen has 21 points and all of his six goals in his last 26 games while Marco Scandella has scored three goals in his last five games (all stats courtesy of Sabres PR.)

Of note:  It took until Game-28 against the Colorado Avalanche on December 5 for a Sabres defenseman to score a goal (Jake McCabe.)

Needless to say the Sabres have their work cut out for them tonight against the Lightning. This is the time of year where teams are beginning to really kick it in gear while either in a playoff chase or getting finely tuned for the playoffs and Tampa is no exception. The Lightning are winners of their last four games and five of their last six.

As for the Sabres?

Let's hope they show up in a meaningful way.

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