It was a great run for Buffalo through much of November as their 10-game winning streak propelled them to the top of the NHL standings for a brief stint. In all they had 11 wins during the month, something they haven't done in over a decade. The key components of that run was timely scoring up front and key saves from their goaltending tandem and those two components have held steady even in their recent post-streak 0-2-2 slide. There's a thin line between winning and losing a one-goal game and the Sabres have had 13 such games in their last 14 outings, but what's been missing during their present four-game losing streak (all one-goal games) has been the overall health of the team with injuries taking their toll on the blueline.
Defenseman Marco Scandella was the first to go down. He was placed on injured reserve November 27 prior to the game at Tampa Bay. Fellow top-six blueliner Jake McCabe suffered an injury against the Lightning that night and he was placed on IR as well. The Sabres loss in Tampa snapped their winning streak and began their present losing streak.
Casey Nelson has played in 22 games for Buffalo as a reserve defenseman and had seen his ice-time fluctuate throughout the season but with injuries to Scandella and McCabe, was settling into a bottom-pairing. He ended up getting injured in the first period of Tuesday's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs and has been placed on IR as well.
The Sabres are down to four regular defenseman as they head into this afternoon's game vs. the Philadelphia Flyers at KeyBank Center. They recalled 22 yr. old rookie Lawrence Pilut from the Rochester Americans on November 27 and tapped into the Amerks once again with the recall yesterday of d-man Matt Tennyson, whom coach Phil Housley said would be in the lineup today.
And it didn't stop there. Starting goalie Carter Hutton is out of the lineup for today's game with an upper-body injury apparently sustained, according to Mike Harrington of The Buffalo News, after he "got stiff on the bench while serving as a backup during Tuesday's overtime loss to Toronto." The Sabres recalled Rochester goalie Scott Wedgewood as a backup to Linus Ullmark.
Buffalo had a busy month of November and from the middle of the month with 11 games played in 18 days including four sets of back-to-backs. During that stretch there hasn't been much time for anything including practice. However, with three days off between games, they were able to work in a Wednesday day of rest and two practices the past two days. Veteran forward Kyle Okposo told the gathered media yesterday that he welcomed the "mental reset" that came along with the mini-break while Housley was busy tweaking his lineup and staid powerplay.
Word from the rink at practice yesterday had Jason Pominville back from injury and into the lineup on a line with Conor Sheary and rookie Casey Mittelstadt dropping Okposo to the third line. Winger Tage Thompson played the left side on the third line against Toronto moves to the right on the fourth line with Patrik Berglund and center Johan Larsson.
Pilut has performed extremely well in his first three NHL games and will continue to be paired with Rasmus Ristolainen on defense while rookie Rasmus Dahlin continues to play big minutes along side veteran Zach Bogosian.
Today's projected lineup based upon yesterday's practice lines:
In an effort to get a powerless powerplay going (one goal in their last 13 opportunities,) Housley did some juggling using a quintet of Skinner, Eichel, Reinhart, Thompson and Ristolainen on the first unit while Okposo, Mittlestadt, Sheary and Dahlin comprised the core of the second unit with Pominville and Rodrigues rotating in and out. The big change is the apparent move of Eichel to the right side with Thompson taking over his spot on the left side for the one-timer. Buffalo's powerplay, which finished No. 1 in the league two seasons ago has struggled mightily under Housley. In a league where parity rules and one-goal games can be decided by special teams, Housley's powerplay finished 20th last season, was 16th-overall heading into December and is presently 19th in the league.
And speaking of special teams, Buffalo's penalty kill will continue to be tested as Scandella and McCabe out. Both were a big part of a Sabres PK that ranked as high as fifth in the league prior to their injuries but has dropped to 15th heading into today's game.
Sabres GM Jason Botterill was intent upon building depth throughout the entire organization since taking the job in May, 2017 and that depth is being tested right now on defense. Although his Sabres team hasn't been able to get a win, Botterill's Amerks haven't missed a beat despite losing to regulars on the blueline to call-ups. Last night they defeated the Providence Bruins (BOS) 2-1 and have won three of their last four games. Tonight represents a huge challenge for the club as they travel to Syracuse to take on a division rival in the Crunch (TBL.)
However, it all begins this afternoon as a hobbled Sabres team with only four regulars on defense, including two rookies and a journeyman, try to snap a four-game losing streak.