January 1 is the start of a new year and universally represents the opportunity for a fresh start--new year, new outlook, new direction. If ever there was a case of a Buffalo player taking that to heart it was Sabres forward Sam Reinhart.
Reinhart, the second-overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, was downright abysmal in the 2017 portion of the season. He scored only 11 points (6g+5a) in 38 games and suffered two double-digit goal-less streaks, one of 10 games and the other 16 games which started in late November and lasted throughout the entire month of December. If anyone was in desperate need of a fresh start after laying a trail of zeros through much of the first half, it was him.
"I took a step back and obviously I wasn't happy with the way anything was going," said the 22 yr. old at locker cleanout as he began talking about his metamorphosis.
In the final 44 games of the season, Reinhart was on fire scoring 22 goals and adding 19 assists. Although he said confidence had something to do with it he elaborated on his transformation as he continued talking to the gathered media."I said to myself, 'I'm just going to play my game and not, you know...'" That's where he trailed off looking for the appropriate words leaving one to wonder if he was just about ready to maybe talk about the way he was being used and/or game-planning.
"You know I think it's more important for me to play my game," he continued. "It's more beneficial to me and the team for me to play my game and however that fits into the team...you know I think I just..."
Once again he trailed of looking for the appropriate words. "I don't want to say I said, 'screw it' but umm...I think it was important for me to get back to what I did best in the past and I think I was able to find a way to [figure out] how it fits into a team game and hopefully can start with that next year."
There is a lot going on in those words, especially when you take into consideration that the Sabres had managed only a 10-20-8 record through the first half of the season and there seemed to be dissension and/or apathy rolling through the locker room of first-year head coach Phil Housley. Was Reinhart sincere in that his Saul to Paul transformation was a matter of taking his game into his own hands while fitting it into the system? Or did he say 'Screw it' to the game plan in a last gasp of self-preservation? After all, he was in the final year of his entry-level deal and if he continued on that 2017 pace, he'd be behind the eight-ball in negotiations.
Whatever the reason, Reinhart found his game.
The new year for the Sabres began with the 'Bright Lights/Big City' matchup against the NY Rangers on New Years Day. It was the 10th anniversary of the first Winter Classic which was held in Buffalo. On a sunny but very cold day the Sabres entered the second period down 2-0 but Reinhart found himself at home as he pounced on a rebound in the crease during a Sabres powerplay to make it 2-1.
Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen would tie the score early in the third but the Rangers would score mid-way through overtime on the powerplay for the 3-2 win.
Buffalo looked real solid in that game but it was back to their old ways as they dropped the next four in a row by a combined 21-10 score which included two pitiful performances at the Minnesota Wild (7-1) and at home vs. the Winnipeg Jets (7-4.)
After the Jets loss, frustrations began bubbling to the surface and spilling onto the ice. Housley, who'd been the nurturing mother goose to his gosling team called them out for what he called the "is our lack of respect and urgency playing defense," in his post-game presser as his players seemed to be more focused upon their individual numbers.
And at practice the next day, winger Evander Kane and defenseman Justin Falk got in a heated tête-à-tête. In an intense practice that saw Kane check defenseman Zach Bogosian into the boards hard, injuring him in the process, Falk was apparently working Kane over a little too hard in front of the net. Kane took issue with that and they had to be separated with Falk calling Kane "selfish" while using some flowery cuss words for accent.
Buffalo would go on to win the next game at home against Columbus, lose the next two, then sweep their western Canada road trip in grand fashion with back-to-back shutouts. The 5-0 win against the Edmonton Oilers and 4-0 win at Vancouver vs. the Canucks in the last two games of the swing were impressive, too bad most of Western New York hockey fans had lost interest and weren't awake when the final buzzers sounded after midnight.
Buffalo closed January with a 3-1 loss at home vs. New Jersey and finished the month 4-7-1 and a particularly lousy 1-3-1 record at home.
With the low-lights many and the highlights few the Sabres did, however, barrel towards to the trade deadline with some positives--the western Canada swing, Reinhart and Ristolainen's resurgence, Jack Eichel the All-Star, and some solid play from the future in defenseman Brendan Guhle and goalie Linus Ullmark. In addition, 2017 first round pick, Casey Mittelstadt shined at the World Junior Championship held in Buffalo. The eighth-overall pick was voted Most Valuable Player of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship as he lead Team USA to a bronze medal and tied for the tournament high with 11 points (4+7) in seven games.
Also in that tournament was Team Sweden's Rasmus Dahlin who was named top defenseman of the tournament.
Out of the ashes...
For Buffalo's January team stats, click here and for their individual stats leaders, click here.
For my January archive, click here.
Sam Reinhart's full interview at locker cleanout, 2018, via sabres.com: