With the season gone, the Buffalo Sabres ambled into the month of March without their top left-winger, Evander Kane, and their top center, Jack Eichel. They were coming off of their best month of the season (6-6-2) and had played some pretty good games in the process. Buffalo took down the top two teams in the division, Tampa and Boston, two times each in February and that trend continued in March as they played some of their best game against some of the best teams in the league. They beat the Atlantic division's third place team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, twice and also came away with an impressive 7-4 win against the Predators in coach Phil Housley's return to Nashville.
Those three wins represented 60% of their five-win total for the month and their downward spiral continued as they went 5-8-1 in March which included a dreadful 1-4-1 six-game homestand which would drop them to the bottom of the league. Buffalo had an overall 2-6-1 record at KeyBank Center and other than their mini Stanley Cups against teams like the Leafs and Preds, there really wasn't much for the fans to get excited about. Even Eichel's return was met with cynicism as fans wanted to see him protected by having him shut down for the rest of the season.
Eichel told the media (via Bill Hoppe of the Olean Times) that's not how he rolls:
"It’s a pretty simple answer, to be honest with you, I’m playing because I’m a hockey player. It’s kind of ridiculous for somebody to think we’re out of the playoffs and we don’t have an opportunity to really do anything with our season that I would just pack my year in. It’s not who I am as a person, it’s not who I’ve ever been, it’s not who I am as a hockey player.
“At the end of the day, I love to play hockey. Whether we’re in first place or last place in the league, it doesn’t matter to me. I like to put my equipment on, go out there and play hockey. That’s why I’m playing. I love to play and I have a lot of fun doing it. It’s what I look most forward to in my day. There’s not really quite a feeling like it, so I enjoy it every day.
“I’m a competitor, I want to be out there competing. I want to play, so that’s why I’m playing. There should be a lot more questions asked if I decided I did want to pack it in, end my season."
While fans were debating the Eichel injury and beginning to dream about landing a franchise defenseman in Rasmus Dahlin at the draft, a series of events with huge ramifications was beginning to unfold.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers were on the precipice of making the NCAA tournament and needed one of six teams to lose in order to get into the post season. All six won meaning that their season was done in the middle of March leaving freshman center, and 2017 Sabres first round pick (eighth-overall) Casey Mittelstadt with a decision to make on his future.
Mittelstadt had an excellent season with 11 goals and 30 points in 34 games and showed signs of being ready for the NHL. He also wowed at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championships which were held in Buffalo. His 11 points (4+7,) which included primary assists on all three USA goals in their shootout win over Team Canada at New Era Field, helped lead Team USA to a bronze medal and earned him Tournament MVP honors.
With Minnesota missing the post season and question marks surrounding the coaching staff, Mittelstadt decided to turn pro and he suited up for his first game as a Buffalo Sabre at home against the Detroit Red Wings on March 29. Mittelstadt would earn his first NHL point as he won a draw in the Wings zone and Evan Rodrigues would snap a shot home from the slot.
Mittelstadt would get points in five of the six games he played in, including his first NHL goal, and looked good in the process. The 6'1" 201 lb. center displayed deft stick work, solid skating and the ability to keep up with the speed of the NHL game. He was ready for full time NHL duty and because of it, the Sabres were able to trade No. 2 center Ryan O'Reilly in the off season to make room for him. Although there were other factors involved in the decision to trade O'Reilly and they did get some protection when they landed veteran center Patrick Berglund in the trade, the Sabres liked what they saw in Mittelstadt's six-game debut to the point where they felt the could make the move to youth now instead of later.
It was a long, cold season, just like the winter, and by the end of March most couldn't wait for it to be over. The Sabres were at the bottom of the standings, were last in goals/game (2.38,) last in goals against (3.31) and their -73 goal differential wasn't that far removed from the tank years.
Individually both O'Reilly and Sam Reinhart picked up the slack in Eichel's absence with Reinhart continuing his production surge that began with the Winter Classic on New Year's Day. Reinhart, who was downright awful in the 2017 portion of the season, had 14 points (9+4) in 14 games during March (including a hat trick) and matched his career highs in goals and points with four games still remaining.
There was light at the end of the tunnel as Mittelstadt was just the beginning of some good fortune rolling Buffalo's way. Not only would April mean the end of the season, but it also meant the NHL Draft Lottery and a shot at landing the first pick to select Dahlin.
For Buffalo's March team stats click here, for their individual stats leaders for the month click here.
For my March archive, click here.