Sunday, March 11, 2018

Visit from Las Vegas Golden Knights kicks off 6-game homestand for Sabres

Published by, 3-10-2018

I would have put the word 'expansion' in the headline before the Las Vegas Golden Knights, but even though they are in their first year of existence, they hardly look the part of an expansion team. In fact, one could easily say that the Buffalo Sabres have looked much more like an expansion team this season.

The Golden Knights were on a tear through the first 3/4 of they year and are enjoying the best season ever by an expansion club. As we sit here on the 10th day of March, Vegas is still perched atop the Pacific Division with a 43-19-5 record and their 91 points are tied for second in the Western Conference. Golden Knights GM George McPhee assembled a team of "undesirables" from the expansion draft and with veteran head coach Gerrard Gallant calling the tune, this team has been winning.

The run that Vegas went on until their recent slump is that of a championship-caliber team which includes no losing month, a remarkable 11-1-1 run in December and a 13-game streak where they never lost in regulation (12-0-1.) Much has been made about a team consisting of players left unprotected, and therefore seemingly unwanted, by their former teams and they're being coached by one who was sent packing by his former team, the Florida Panthers, and literally was at the curb with his bag hailing a taxi cab after learning of his firing.

A lot of adrenaline has been flowing through this Vegas team this season and they've also been healthy through much of the campaign save for their goaltenders early in the season. Vegas took a minor step back lately as they went 1-3-1 before pulling out a 4-0 win at Detroit on Thursday and part of the reason for that mini-slump might be traced back to the injuries that have started to mount.

This is the NHL stretch-run and the Golden Knights went into Detroit for the third game of a five-game road trip without forward James Neal and defenseman Nate Schmidt, both of whom are in Las Vegas recovering from injuries. Reilly Smith, the team's second leading scorer suffered an injury in Columbus on Tuesday and the Golden Knights are also without forwards Oscar Lindberg and former Sabre Will Carrier, defenseman Luca Sbisa and backup goalie Malcolm Subban.

However, Vegas will face a Sabres' team today that has it's own issues. On the health side, forward Kyle Okposo was lost to a concussion suffered in Thursday's 4-3 shootout win at Ottawa. Okposo, who had concussion problems last season, joins an injury list that includes Jack Eichel, the team's leading scorer (out since Feb. 11,) and fellow Sabres forward Evan Rodrigues along with defensemen Jake McCabe and Zach Bogosian.

However the Sabres woes this season reach far beyond injuries of which there were many (241 man-games lost.) While the expansion Golden Knights were tearing it up through the first half of the season, the Sabres were wallowing near the bottom of the league with a 10-20-8 record through the 2017 portion. Within that record for Buffalo was a 5-4 overtime loss at Las Vegas back in October.

The Sabres have turned it around a bit in the 2018 portion of the program going 12-15-3 since Jan. 1 and are presently 8-6-2 in their last 16 games while playing 14 of them (save for five minutes of the game he was injured) without Eichel.

With their leading scorer out the Sabres have been using scoring by committee mainly lead by Sam "The Forgotten One" Reinhart. The third-year pro got off to an incredibly poor start but has picked it up since the calendar year changed. In his last 30 games, Reinhart has 12 goals and 15 assists and is a plus-1.

Forward Ryan O'Reilly has 13 points (3+10) in his last 13 games while defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen has two goals and five assists in his last 10 games and has an even plus/minus rating. Fellow defenseman Marco Scandella has four goals in his last 10 games and is a plus-6. A quick reminder, the Sabres did not have a defenseman score a goal until McCabe did so on December 5, a full 28 games into the 2017-18 season.

All of that aside, in an interesting twist to the Sabres recent play, seven of their last eight wins are against Atlantic Division foes while five of their last six losses have come outside the division. Buffalo has been playing the Atlantic tough which includes a five-game win-streak against the division's top teams--Tampa, Boston and Toronto--but on the downside, they've been blown out in their last three losses by a combined 14-3 score. One of them was against Florida while the other two were against Calgary and Washington.

What might be even more disturbing is the Sabres' record during Kids Day, which happens to be the promotion their having for today's 1 pm matinee vs. Vegas. Buffalo has been downright abysmal in their last two on Kids Day's. The last one featured a 4-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings which wasn't as close as the score might indicate and the one prior was a 7-1 debacle against the Dallas Stars back in January.

All of this bodes well for Vegas entering into today's game, but this Sabres team has been known to pull off some surprises.

Word from the rink is the Robin Lehner gets the start in goal for Buffalo.


The only other time that the Golden Knights and Buffalo met was on October 17 in Las Vegas when backup goalie Chad Johnson was in net. O'Reilly opened the scoring then Vegas scored three unanswered goals before Buffalo answered with three of their own, the last of which came with :09 seconds to play as Evander Kane tied it. David Perron scored 3:52 in overtime to give the Golden Knights the win.

As mentioned earlier, Vegas has a number of injuries and some of those on the injury report for today's game were in on all five goals the last time these two teams met:

Smith--1g, 1a

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