Saturday, February 17, 2018

Buffalo at Ottawa tonight with the Sabres and Sens heading in different directions

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 2-15-2018


At some point, I'm of the opinion that the Buffalo Sabres will pass the Ottawa Senators in the standings this season. I know it's not saying much as only three points separate the two teams at this juncture, but it's significant in that these are two teams at the bottom of the Eastern Conference going in different directions.

Buffalo headed into this season on the heels of a disappointing 2016-17 campaign that saw the general manger and head coach get fired. New Sabres GM Jason Botterill hired a new head coach in Phil Housley, the team tweaked their defense and Buffalo went into this season with a sense of optimism that they could take a step forward.

It didn't happen.

An 0-4-1 start lead to a 10-20-8 record for the 2017 portion of this season placing them all but mathematically out of the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season. A few years back Buffalo had decided on a scorched earth rebuild featuring two seasons in the tank. They made a huge leap in points in the 2015-16 season after drafting Jack Eichel and trading for young vets Ryan O'Reilly and Robin Lehner at the 2015 NHL Draft. But the next season they took take a step back which lead to the firings.

The Senators have spent the last 10 years mostly alternating between making the playoffs and missing them. Prior to last year's run where they came to within one game of the Stanley Cup Finals, Ottawa missed the playoffs four times and never made it out of the second round when they did. Their best season was in 2006-07 when they defeated the Sabres in the ECF then lost in the SCF to the Anaheim Ducks.

That 2007 playoff season was the last time either team was consistently good and it would seem as if Ottawa, like Buffalo a few years ago, is ready for a massive rebuild. Like the Sabres did when they realized that the team as constructed was mediocre with only a faint possibility of making any noise in the playoffs, the Senators came to the conclusion that the only way to move forward is to undertake a rebuild.

Last year's run to the ECF was an aberration in the grand scheme of things for Ottawa and despite having a bona fide superstar in defenseman Erik Karlsson, it sounds as if the Senators are ready to sink to the bottom for some high picks. "The goal is to win the Stanley Cup," said team owner Eugene Melnyk in a press release announcing the extension of GM Pierre Dorion. "Having come within one goal of last season's Stanley Cup Final, we were hopeful entering this season. Obviously, our results have challenged those expectations. What remains unchanged is the dedication that goes into evaluating every aspect of this organization."

Although the team did not mention "rebuild" the press release followed that quote with the rather lengthy euphemism stating that the Sens "will concentrate on building a foundation of sustainable success." Aka, building through the draft.

"Today's announcement reflects a renewed commitment to scouting, drafting and development," continued Melnyk. "It may require changes to our lineup. Rest assured, we will only tolerate pain with an endgame in mind: building an organization that wins - at all levels - year in and year out." With "changes to our lineup" being a code word for tanking the season.

Sabres fan know all about "pain with an endgame in mind," and oddly enough, management actually used the word "suffering" when it came to what the fans should expect during their tank. Unfortunately, that pain extended a little farther than we would have liked. Buffalo went from 30th place two years running to 23rd, back down to 26th and is now in second last place again.

Ottawa began it's rebuild by shipping veteran defenseman Dion Phaneuf on Tuesday. Ironically, the Senators trading for Phaneuf was the start of a three year "win-now" push by the organization which also saw them acquire young vets Derek Brassard, Tommy Wingels and Matt Duchene, amongst others, as they built to win while Karlsson was still under contract until the end of this season. It almost worked, but in the process they gutted their prospect pool.

With the hopes of a deep playoff run dashed, their prospect pool depleted and the team's bottom line getting worse by the day, the time to start again is now. Some are all-in on rebuilding and are ready for their team to lose for high draft picks.

"I understand that cheering for your favourite team to lose goes against every fibre of your body," wrote SBNation's Trevor Shackles today, "and it feels sickening when you are actually excited to see them do poorly in games." He continued by writing, "what’s best for the Ottawa Senators the rest of the season is if they continue to pile up the losses. I don’t see a way out of this continuous cycle they are in unless the 18-wheeler finally does fall off the cliff."

Shackles is the Sens writer for SBNation and the first reason behind him wanting his team to lose was to "net them the highest pick possible" while also adding that it will "force the organization to make some long-lasting changes that will make the team a sustainable contender."

That should sound familiar to Sabres fans as the team went through five seasons post-'07 where they either missed the playoffs or got bounced in the first round with a team that either wasn't good enough to make (or advance in) the playoffs, but weren't bad enough to get top picks in the draft.

The Sabres and Sens had enjoyed a pretty heated rivalry prior to their era's of inconsistency beginning in '07/'08 but now they find themselves at the bottom of the Eastern Conference heading in different directions.

While the Senators are barreling towards the bottom, the Sabres seem to be picking themselves up. After their atrocious start to the season and poor play that kept them at the bottom of the conference, the past few weeks have seen them start to find themselves as a team. Beginning with a three-game western Canada swing where they swept the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks (by a combined 11-1 score,) the Sabres have managed to muster a 6-4-1 record and in the process have gained a ton of confidence.

Will this upswing be sustainable?

With this team you just don't know, especially with Eichel out 4-6 weeks with a high ankle sprain. But for those who've been watching Buffalo all season, this stretch has a welcome reprieve from the terrible hockey we've subject to for much of the season.

The Sabres head into Ottawa tonight having won three of their last four. In their three wins they've beaten the league's best team in Tampa Bay as well as the Boston Bruins, who sit second in the conference. Buffalo also beat a NY Islanders team that was in playoff desperation mode as they're dealing with the possibility that franchise center John Tavares might leave when his contract expires this off-season.

For the first time since Nov. 27-Dec. 4, 2015, the Sabres scored four or more goals in four consecutive games. Low and behold, they won three of four. The Sabres found their lost powerplay last month and continue to move up in that department. Since January 1 when the PP was at 12.4% (14/113), Buffalo has converted on 17 of 61 opportunities (27.8%) which moved them from 30th in the league to 23rd at 17.8%. In the last four games they've gone 4/15 with the man advantage (26.7%.)

WGR550's Paul Hamilton tweeted from Ottawa that the lineup looks to be the same save for defnesman Josh Gorges replacing Justin Falk which means this is what Buffalo will be icing tonight:

Pouliot-O’Reilly-Reinhart
Kane-Rodrigues-Okposo
Wilson-Larsson-Pominville
Girgensons-Josefson-Baptiste

Scandella-Nelson
Beaulieu-Ristolainen
Gorges-Antipin
Hamilton also tweeted that it looks like Lehner will be in the net for the Sabres.

In their only meeting of the season, the Sabres defeated Ottawa in Buffalo 3-2 with Lehner in net. Benoit Pouliot, Kyle Okposo and Evander Kane staked the Sabres to a 3-0 lead just past the half-way point of the second period, Ottawa would counter with two third period goals including one with less than a minute to play with their goalie pulled.

The Sabres are 7-1-2 in their last 10 against the Senators, 4-5-1 on the road, according to Sabres PR.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Sabres find a formula (and PP) in win against the NHL's best team.

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 2-14-2018


For those of us who remember, Games 2 & 3 of the Buffalo Sabres season were utter disasters. A new coach with a different philosophy and a remade defense tried to go stride for stride with two fast, talented teams early in the season and it didn't work out very well.  In trying to match the pace of the NY Islanders, and especially the NJ Devils, the Sabres got buried like a mudder on a fast track against a Kentucky Derby favorite.

From then on it's been a season of discontent and misery as this edition of the Buffalo Sabres has vainly tried to find themselves. They have a coach in Phil Housley who wanted an uptempo game, but had only a few players who could actually play that way. He had players who could push the pace but with the rest a step or so behind, often times we were witness to disjointed play and ugly results.

The Sabres are starting to find themselves, and maybe Housley himself has finally figured out how to pull the proper levers at the right time. Buffalo laid out a gameplan last night against the league's best team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, and came out on top at home. It was a dogged effort but not without adversity as the calls were not going there way through much of the early portion of the game. Despite that they were able to overcome, even when self-inflicted minor penalties seconds apart gave the league's second-best powerplay heading into the game a 5-on-3 for 1:53.

Buffalo made it through that and ended up with a 5-3 win over the Lightning much to the delight of a sparse crowd at KeyBank Center.

There was no way Buffalo was going to run stride for stride with Tampa so instead of feeding their transition with attempts to carry the puck into the Lighting zone, the Sabres played a game of dump and chase. They got the puck in deep, got on the forecheck, and even when there was a change of possession, Tampa still had 200' of ice to cross to get to the Sabres net.

It worked.

Buffalo jumped out early on Nicolas Baptiste's second goal of the season at the 6:25 mark of the first period. Baptiste and Zemgus Girgensons kicked it into overdrive before using a nice give and go along the half-wall to spring Baptiste. The 22 yr. old, who was just called up from Rochester on Sunday, cut to the front of the net and went five-hole for the goal.

Baptiste especially, but Girgensons as well, added a ton of speed to the fourth line and it showed on that goal.

Third line winger Scott Wilson would also get in on the scoring for the Sabres. The sequence started with the Evan Rodrigues line as they sustained some heavy pressure in the offensive zone. Tampa was force to dump it up ice but the Sabres came through the neutral zone with speed and established the forecheck again. Jason Pominville got it out to the left point where defenseman Victor Antipin swung it to the right. D-partner Casey Nelson sent it to the net where Wilson was there for the redirect.

That goal put Buffalo back on top 3-2 and was a nice answer to a fluke goal that saw Buffalo goalie Chad Johnson miscommunicate with Antipin and an ill-advised clear in front of his own net went directly to Tampa's Vadislav Namestinkov who deposited into a wide open net.

Secondary scoring has been non-existent for the most part this season for Buffalo so having two in one game was a pleasant surprise, as was how well the powerplay looked without Jack Eichel.

Eichel went down with a high-ankle sprain against the Boston Bruins on Saturday night and with a back-to-back against the Colorado Avalanche on Sunday, there was no time to work somebody in. Evander Kane filled in against the Avalanche and it was a mess going 1/5 with their only goal being scored 5-on-3.

Housley moved Rodrigues into Eichel's spot and it looked as if the first powerplay unit never missed a beat, save for Eichel's blistering shot from the circle.

Ryan O'Reilly and Sam Reinhart have been the two principles on the powerplay all season and once again they were the driving force in Buffalo going 2/3 with the man advantage last night. Reinhart scored off of an O'Reilly rebound while O'Reilly scored his own while pouncing a wide shot off the stick of Kyle Okposo.

O'Reilly has been a beast these last two games without Eichel. He had a goal and two primary assists in the 5-4 loss to Colorado and duplicated that last night against the Lightning. Those six points hurtled him past Kane and into second place on the Sabres in scoring. But probably more important is that those points are the product of the Ryan O'Reilly former GM Tim Murray fell in love with before trading for him.

Since coming to Buffalo in a trade at the 2015 NHL Draft, he's either lead the team in scoring (60 points in 2015-16) or has been second (55 points last season.) Those six points the last two games puts him on a pace for right around 60 points again and dependent upon when Eichel gets back in the lineup, O'Reilly could end up leading the team in scoring again.

But that's not the whole story with him. The points are a product of how determined his play has been. Unfortunately for him and the Sabres, he's been inconsistent in that department. O'Reilly has always had the capacity to take over a game and that's why Murray wasn't hesitant in giving him a long-term contract with a $7.5 million cap-hit. He's a beast on the faceoff dot but hasn't dominated the game as much as that cap-hit would indicate he could.

Why, is the big question with him, but when we see him in games like this, and when we see a player like Eichel taking over games on a more often, the Sabres with those two at center should have a much better record these past two seasons than 50-67-22 over the last two season. Sure, their defense hasn't been the greatest and goaltending, specifically this season, has been erratic, but with those two there really is no reason why they should be bottom-five in scoring two years running.

Last night was the fourth game in a row the Sabres have scored four or more goals and they went 3-1-0 in the process. The last time Buffalo scored four more goals per game for a four-game stretch was November 27-December 15, 2015. They went 3-0-1 with a shootout loss.

It's great to see smiles on the faces of Sabres' players post game and it was downright thrilling to hear the chants of "Let's Go Buffalo!" throughout KeyBank Center last night. Although sparse, the crowd last night was clearly appreciative of what the Sabres were doing and showed that they were into the game early as they vociferously booed some bad calls against their team.

For far too long the Sabres players have wanted to put on a show for the home crowd and often times it's resulted in ugly losses. Last night they kept it simple, as if playing a road game. Low and behold they scored some goals, got the crowd into it and skated away with the 'W'.

Not a bad formula.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

NHL-leading Bolts coming off of a tough loss isn't ideal for Eichel-less Sabres

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 2-13-2018


The Tampa Bay Lightning are presently on a quick two-game jaunt to the shores of Lake Erie where they finish up a back-to-back road trip against the Buffalo Sabres tonight. The Bolts, owners of the best record in the NHL, found themselves in an early hole last night at Toronto against the Maple Leafs and eventually fell 4-3.

Toronto took a 3-0 lead on a goal in the first period and two in the second before the Lightning finally broke through with less than five minutes in the stanza. Two quick Tampa goals in the first 1:18 of the third period tied the game at 3-3 but Toronto countered with a James van Riemsdyk goal just a few minutes later to finish the scoring.

Tampa and Toronto are two of the faster teams in the league with a lot of skill flying up and down the ice. All-Star Lightning defenseman Victory Hedman, stated the obvious to the gathered media last night when he said that Toronto's "got some good speed under their feet and can score goals," yet he was also quick to point out, "other than that, I thought we controlled the pace of the game. We created a lot of chances and it could have gone either way."

Division foes Tampa and Toronto are Nos.1 and 3, respectively, in the Eastern Conference while the Boston Bruins, also of the Atlantic Division, come in at No.2. Their places on the podium in the conference isn't all that surprising when you consider that the teams behind them in the division aren't of their caliber. Tampa, Boston and Toronto have feasted on Atlantic Division foes to the tune of a combined 29-11-4 record and have done the same in the Eastern Conference going a combined 59-24-12.

Tampa's foe tonight is the Buffalo Sabres, currently last in the Eastern Conference and second-last in the entire NHL.

The Sabres have been left in the NHL dust this year and have been trying to make the climb towards respectability after starting the season on a 0-5-1 losing streak and going 10-20-8 through the 2017 portion of the season. Although Buffalo had put together a solid 5-4-1 record over their last 10 games, which includes a season-long three game winning streak just prior to the All-Star break, having franchise center Jack Eichel go down to a high ankle sprain on Saturday in Boston was a huge blow to their progress.

The Sabres finished out that game against the Bruins by holding on for a 4-3 win but headed back to Buffalo for the second of a back-to-back against the visiting Colorado Avalanche. The 'Lanche are a young, quick team and even without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon were able to take a 5-2 lead in the third period then hold on for the 5-4 win.

Despite some atrocious play, being able to come back should have left the Sabres with a bit of confidence moving forward but not having their star player really hurts. The speed element Eichel added to this Buffalo team is unmatched and his absence from the Sabres first powerplay unit was sorely missed. Plus 5v5 he's the only player on the team right now that makes his linemates better. The Colorado game was a perfect example of how much he was missed as the Sabres were outskated, didn't score a goal 5v5 and although they did score a goal on the powerplay, it was with a two-man advantage. The other four powerplay opportunities came 5-on-4 and they could barely establish an offensive-zone presence.

The Sabres will have a morning skate today which marks the first time they'll be on the ice in a non-game situation without Eichel. No doubt they'll be working on the powerplay as they're going to need as many goals as they can, but head coach Phil Housley may want to keep an close eye on his defense.

For two of the last three games (both wins) the pairing of Rasmus Ristolanen and Nathan Beaulieu was solid. However, they were a disaster against the Avalanche on Sunday night. It began only :43 seconds in when Colorado's Colin Wilson somehow got behind the duo, pulled in a 130' pass and fed a streaking Alex Kerfoot for a layup on a 2-on-0. It was all downhill from there for that duo, especially for Ristolainen. The 23 yr. old workhorse d-man for Buffalo was on the ice for all five Avalanche goals and was pinned to the bench 5v5 for nearly all of the second and third periods.

Something clearly wasn't right for Ristolainen as he may have had the worst game of his career. Fatigue, both physical and mental, may have played a role, or as Housley put it post-game on Sunday, "preparation, maybe confidence" might be some of the issues. Ristolainen hadn't played less than 27 minutes in the six games post All-Star break yet Housley kept loading up the minutes. After the Colorado game, "I just don't see him as sharp in his game right now, going back to the All-Star break and I think he's got to refocus and get his game back."

Perhaps Ristolainen needed the day off yesterday to, like Housley said, "refocus," but the team really could have used some practice, especially when prepping to face the best team in the league. The Sabres are only 1-8-1 in their last 10 against Tampa Bay, 2-5-3 at home. The Bolts are the only team in the NHL to score 200 goals so far this season (201,) have the most goals/game (3.55,) have the league's third best powerplay (23.8%) and boast the league's top scorer in Nikita Kucherov (71 points) as well as the fifth leading scorer in Steven Stamkos (65.)

If that weren't enough, Tampa also has the sixth best goals-against average in the league (2.63) despite having the 22nd best penalty-kill (78.7%.)

Add it all up and this game vs. the Lightning without Eichel isn't exactly the best scenario for the Sabres.

But then again, games are played on the ice.


*****

Reports from the rink have these lines and d-pairings at the morning skate:

Pouliot-O’Reilly-Reinhart
Kane-Rodrigues-Okposo
Wilson-Larsson-Pominville
Girgensons-Josefson-Baptiste

Scandella-Nelson
Beaulieu-Ristolainen
Falk-Antipin

Notes on the projected lineup:

Housley mixed things up on the forward lines moving Benoit Pouliot from the fourth line and Sam Reinhart from the second line up to the first line with Ryan O'Reilly. Forward Evan Rodrigues starts at center again on the second line with Evander Kane and Kyle Okposo on his wings while Scott Wilson drops to the third line with center Johan Larsson and Jason Pominville, who was on the first line against Colorado. Jacob Josefson anchors the fourth line with Zemgus Girgensons and Nicolas Baptiste.

Baptiste finally makes it into the lineup after getting the call on Sunday but sitting out the Colorado game. The 22 yr. old should add much more speed and a better scoring touch than the player he replaced, Jordan Nolan.

Housley is sticking with the same d-pairings he's used the last three games with rookie Casey Nelson up top in a pairing with Marco Scandella. Nelson has been playing very well, despite a few rookie mistakes, while displaying speed and crafty stickwork. He also scored his first NHL goal which happened to be a shorthanded tally. Only one other player in Sabres history had done that and you have to go back to March 14, 1971, according to Sabres PR, when Kevin O’Shea scored his first NHL goal shorthanded at Minnesota against the North Stars.

The duo of Ristolainen and Beaulieu are back for a fourth straight game with Justin Falk and Victor Antipin once again on the third pair for the third straight game.

Defenseman Josh Gorges looks to be in the press box keeping Nolan company.

Word from the rink also has backup goalie Chad Johnson in net.


Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Life without Jack Eichel on the ice has begun. And it was pretty rough.

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 2-12-2018


The score said Colorado Avalanche-5, Buffalo Sabres-4 but the game wasn't as close as the score might indicate. The Sabres managed to get into the third period down 3-2 but allowed two goals against in 7:03 and found themselves down 5-2. Ryan O'Reilly's powerplay goal at the 12:14 mark made it a two-goal deficit and Evander Kane scored with 2:52 left and goalie Robin Lehner pulled for the extra attacker. Buffalo applied the pressure but managed only two shots on goal and the time ticked away to 0:00.

Buffalo did what it always seems to do at home, get off to a sluggish start, fall behind, get their legs and (sometimes) make a game out of it. Last night was brutal in that respect as Colorado caught them napping :43 seconds into the game as the defense pairing of Rasmus Ristolainen and Nathan Beaulieu somehow let an Avalanche player get behind them. Former Sabre Nikita Zadorov sent a pass from behind is goal line to the Sabres blue line where Colin Wilson took it and found a streaking Alex Kerfoot who beat Lehner.

That was the beginning of a difficult night for that defense duo, especially Ristolainen. The hulking Finn was on the ice for seven of the nine goals overall, including all five against, and was pinned to the bench five-on-five early in the second and didn't hit the ice at full strength until the Avalanche scored their fifth goal at the 7:03 mark of the third period. It was that kind of night for him. Much to his credit, he faced the cameras afterwards and solemnly stated to the gathered media, "Obviously, I've got to play better."

Head coach Phil Housley was asked by the media what he thought might be the problem with Ristolainen, who had been playing extremely well through much of 2018. "I think it could be preparation, maybe confidence. I just don't see him as sharp in his game right now, going back to the All-Star break and I think he's got to refocus and get his game back."

Since the All-Star break the 6'4" 216 Ristolainen has one goal and two assists in seven games and is a minus-4, which includes his minus-3 rating last night. In the six game's prior to last night's 23:48 of ice-time, Ristolainen never logged under 27 minutes. When Jake McCabe went down early in the Anaheim game on February 6, he was on the ice for 32:39 in the overtime loss.

Ristolainen looked physically worn last night which probably affected the mental aspect of his game. Both Housley and former head coach Dan Bylsma have mentioned repeatedly that they'd like to pare back Ristolainen's minutes to the low-mid 20 area, yet neither have done it for more than a game or two.

There was plenty of blame to be thrown around last night, most notably forward Johan Larsson who took a bone-headed penalty that lead to a powerplay goal and a 4-2 Colorado lead. And for an encore, Larsson was a train wreck in his own end and turned over the puck which lead to the fifth and eventual game-winner for the Avalanche. And for as much as Lehner was left out to dry, he seemed disinterested at times, almost as if he knew what kind of night it would be after the 'Lanche scored :43 into the game.

This was the Sabres first game without Jack Eichel, who's out 4-6 weeks with a high-ankle sprain. Although the team gutted out a win at Boston after Eichel went down, they fell apart in this one. They were a disaster 5v5 and disjointed on the powerplay giving up a shorthanded goal (on a whiff by Ristolainen at the point) only managing a powerplay goal at 5-on-3. Other than the stellar play of O'Reilly who tried to carry the team on his back (23:48 TOI, one goal, two primary assists, plus-2,) the highlight of the evening for special teams was the penalty kill.

Although the PK unit did allow a goal against (in five opportunities,) they also scored two short-handed goals. Benoit Pouliot was the beneficiary of some dogged work and determination by O'Reilly and poked in a rebound laying in the crease. The other shortie was scored by rookie defenseman Casey Nelson who took a chance and scored when he corralled his own rebound, circled the net and bounced it in off of an Avalanche defender. It was his first NHL goal as his pumped up reaction would indicate.

Sure, it was a bad game last night, but credit to the Sabres for somehow clawing back into the game and not giving up. They lost their leading scorer in Eichel (22 goals, 31 assists, 51 points) and their most deadly weapon on the powerplay. Eichel and his linemates, whoever they've been throughout the season, have always been a threat 5v5 and having that element out of the lineup made it difficult on the rest.

The Sabres were on the second game of a back-to-back with travel in between and didn't have a morning skate yesterday. There's no scheduled practice today and save for a morning skate tomorrow, they'll essentially be winging it again at home against a deadly Tampa Bay Lightning team tomorrow night.

Good luck with that.

Monday, February 12, 2018

After a big win at BOS, tonight vs. COL. Minus Jack Eichel?

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 2-11-2018


The Buffalo Sabres head into the second game of back-to-backs with a home tilt tonight against the Colorado Avalanche.

Buffalo coming off of a strong performance in a 4-2 win on the road over the Boston Bruins that didn't come without some pain. Center Jack Eichel left the game in the first period after he got entangled with Bruins defenseman Matt Grzelcyk behind the Boston net. Grzelcyk, a former teammate of Eichel's at Boston University, looks to have nicked Eichel's skate causing him to fall backward with his legs folded under him and the weight of Grzelcyk on top may have caused Eichel to hyperextend his right knee. (See vid from MSG post-game below.)

Head coach Phil Housley wouldn't comment on the injury and word is that Eichel will have an MRI today. With no morning skate due to travel on a back-to-back, an official release on his status won't come until Housley talks to the media later in the afternoon.

Eichel went down with 6:56 left in the first period. To that point the teams skated hard and played solid defense in a scoreless game with Boston edging Buffalo in the shot-count 5-4. The game would remain scoreless until Evander Kane scored on a breakaway at the 7:42 mark of the second period. Sam Reinhart jumped on a loose puck in his own zone and caught the Bruins moving in the wrong direction. Kane took the feed at center ice, turned on the speed and ripped one past Boston's Tuuka Rask for his 17th goal of the season and his first goal since January 4, a span of 14 games.

With Eichel out, the Sabres ramped up the intensity with a total team effort in what may be described as their best game of the season. Scott Wilson battled in front of the Boston net to punch in a rebound to make 2-0. After Boston answered, Wilson set up a streaking Benoit Pouliot who buried a perfect saucer pass to make it 3-1 just over four minutes later. The Bruins scored with Rask pulled and less than a minute left in regulation but Buffalo's Rasmus Ristolainen sent home a 185' empty-netter to finish the scoring.

Often times during the course of a regular season, in any sport, you'll hear that a great or hot team will not play their best game but will still come out on top, especially against the bottom-feeders of the league. Be it known, the Bruins did not play their best game last night against the league's second worst team. It may have been that the hot streak they were on had finally run it's course and/or they simply took the Sabres lightly. But they ended up on the wrong end of the scoreboard.

Yet even when Boston seemed to be revving their engines looking as if they were ready to get things rolling (like they'd done so many times before,) Buffalo wouldn't let them. I can't remember the last time I saw the Sabres as quick to the puck as they were last night, nor do I remember a time where they used there sticks as well as they did defensively. Their backchecking was strong, they blocked 20 Bruins shots last night and played a full 60-minute game against a tough opponent.

Reinhart may have had the primary assist on Kane's goal, but other aspects of his game stood out last night which included playing a strong 200' game. In a microcosm of how all-in he was, one sequence had the 22 yr. old skating hard on the backcheck to help break up a play then dropping  to block a Zdeno Chara slapshot when the puck failed to clear the zone. For a reference point as to just how scary a proposition that is, Chara won the hardest shot competition at the 2012 All-Star Game with a record-breaking shot of 108.8 mph.

We're not sure what happened to Reinhart lately, but over the last two games he's displaying the very traits that lead to him being selected second-overall by the Sabres. He's displayed patience with the puck, a third eye for finding his team mates and has putt on a passing clinic, all hallmarks of his game while spending his 2013-14 junior season at or near the top of his draft class. Although he's never had blazing speed, he's been playing at a faster pace as of late and it makes him look faster.

Reinhart's on a three game point-streak (1+5), has points in nine of his last 11 games (4+10) and is playing with a ton of confidence. Will he be able to sustain that? We're not really sure, nor are we sure what caused his early season slump or what caused him to flip the switch beginning with the Winter Classic on January 1. We've seen this before over the years with certain players, especially with players in a contract year like Reinhart is right now, so skepticism is warranted. But is sure is nice to see the real Sam Reinhart.

Props to the top-four on defense as well. Two games ago Housley dropped Ristolainen down to the second-pairing apparently to cut his ice-time and placed rookie Casey Nelson up top with Marco Scandella. Nelson has been solid in his role, albeit with some rookie mistakes, while also showing the ability to jump into the play with speed. The 24 yr. old product of Minnesota State topped 20 minutes last night and 21 minutes the previous game against the NY Islanders and has an even plus/minus rating in those two games.

Ristolainen is logging his usual workhorse minutes (27:03 last night, 27:37 vs. the NYI,) has points in his last two games (1+1) and has a plus-3 rating. His d-partner Nathan Beaulieu has simplified and steadied his game next to Ristolainen and is a plus-2 in his last two games without giving up an egregious turnover, something he'd been doing on an almost nightly basis.

Overall this Sabres team the past two games has looked nothing like the one we've seen over the course of the season save for maybe their three-game sweep in western Canada late last month. And it's a pleasure seeing that. Every Sabre on the ice seemed very calm with the puck last night to the point where they didn't get called for an icing until the 4:50 mark of the second period. By that time the Bruins had already iced the puck five times.

Both the game last night and the game prior against the Islanders were actually great games to watch. Not without some trepidation, mind you, but both of those wins were a product of playing well. They also scored four goals in a back-to-back games for only the second time this season, the first one being on that western Canada swing. They won all four of those games in regulation.

A couple more notes from last night, the Sabres handed Rask his first regulation loss since November 26 (19-0-2) and broke his eight-game winning streak. They outhit the Bruins 33-22 and handed them only their second regulation loss since December 16, a span of 23 games (18-1-4.) Boston also had a 12-game winning streak against Atlantic Division foes dating back to November 11 snapped.

Tonight the Sabres will be looking at extending their wining streak to three games for only the second time this season as they take on the 29-21-4 Avalanche. Despite being in a mini-slump lately, Colorado is four points out of the last wild card spot in the West with a game in hand and three teams to jump. It's the second of two meetings between Buffalo and Colorado with the Sabres winning 4-2 on the road in early December. The Sabres were coming off of back-to-back humiliations at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins before heading to Colorado and won with solid goaltending from Robin Lehner and a total team effort from his skaters lead by Kane and Ristolainen.

Odds are that the Sabres will be without Eichel tonight and as of now, there's been no word on a player being recalled from Rochester. That could very well change between now and 4:30 when Housley's scheduled to meet the local press.








Sunday, February 11, 2018

The "Big, Bad Bruins" are bad (ass) in a different way.

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 2-10-2018


There's a clip of Sabres defenseman Jim Schoenfeld blasting Boston Bruins forward Wayne Cashman through the boards at the old Memorial Auditorium followed by the two engaging in a fight right where the Zamboni enters the ice. The clip in and of itself is great but thanks to werqa123, we get to see it with some context as the Sabres overcame an early 2-0 deficit to beat the Bruins 7-3 on December 12, 1972 (fight @ :54-mark):





"Rookie defenseman and sometime rock singer Jim Schoenfeld was a commanding figure on the ice," said Sabres play-by-play man Ted Darling in the voice over, "taking on the Bruins single-handily, one by one." In addition to Cashman, Schoenfeld dropped the gloves with Bobby Orr, who was a pretty tough customer, and Carol Vadnais, an able and very willing pugilist.

That was the price the Sabres had to pay to earn respect back then. These were "Big, Bad Bruins" of the early '70's, the defending Stanley Cup Champions with two Cups in the last three years. The Sabres were a fledgling franchise, a mere two years into their existence with, some good players, most notably Gilbert Perreault, who were trying to gain the respect of teams in the league. Safe to say that they pretty much started on that road with that game.

The Bruins were a tough lot back then and you know it's true when a Hall of Fame defenseman known for his skating and offensive prowess, is a willing pugilist. That willingness to mix it up is still true today, even though both the Bruins and the league itself is far removed from the Slapshot 70's.

It took Boston 39 years to win the Stanley Cup again and they did so with many of the same traits they had back in the 70's which included playing a rugged, in-your-face style backed by top-notch goaltending. Boston has struggled a bit since their last 2011 Cup victory and rebooted their club on the fly after a Finals loss to Chicago in 2013.

Backed once again by solid goaltending, Boston a talented, mobile defense and a quick, tenacious, skilled group of forwards that go full bore much in the gritty Bruins tradition, but without all the fanfare that went along with the fights. They finally found their stride this season hand have rolled to an 18-1-4 record that has them knocking on the door of the league's best record. They've won four in a row and are 9-1-0 in their last 10.

That's what's in store for the Sabres tonight when they face off at 7 pm in Boston.

Buffalo is coming off of a 4-3 win at home against a desperate NY Islanders team that's on the precipice of a playoff spot. After jumping out to a 3-0 lead, the Sabres allowed three unanswered goals before Sam Reinhart, the game's first star, scored the game-winner with less than five minutes to go in regulation.

The win finally got the franchise to 1000 home wins after being stuck on 999 during a four-game losing streak (0-3-1.)

Buffalo is 2-6-2 in their last 10 vs. the Bruins, 4-4-2 on the road. It's the third of four meetings between the two clubs this season. Buffalo won the first one in Boston back in October as they over came a 4-1 deficit with three unanswered goals in regulation before Ryan O'Reilly won it for them in overtime. Boston rolled into Buffalo in December and proceeded to shut the Sabres out 3-0 which included two empty net goals with less than two minutes to go in regulation.

Boston goalie Tuuka Rask is on fire with a 19-0-2 in his last 21 games, according to Fox Sports, and has yielded either one or two goals in each of his last seven starts, something that doesn't bode well for a Sabres team that's scoring a league-low 2.30 goals/game. Rask is 13-5-1 all-time against the Sabres, according to Fox, with a 2.06 goals-against average and .934 save percentage.

Sabres' forward Zemgus Girgensons was not the morning skate, according to reports from TD Garden. Buffalo coach Phil Housley told the gathered media Girgensons "was feeling a bit under the weather" and that he'd be a game-time decision.

In his stead was Scott Wilson while defenseman Justin Falk was in for Josh Gorges skating alongside rookie Victor Antipin. Every thing else remained the same at the morning skate save for Chad Johnson manning the net tonight instead of starter Robin Lehner.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Notes while enjoying Buffalo's 1000th home win...finally

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 2-9-2018


Well, this edition of the Buffalo Sabres finally did it. After losing the first four games (0-3-1) of their five-game homestand, the Sabres 4-3 win over the NY Islanders finally got them to 1000 home wins for the franchise. And they did so while wearing their 2018 Winter Classic sweaters, which brings us to our first note on last night's game.


***

While growing up as a kid, the home team always wore white, for me it was like the good cowboy wore the white hat while the bad cowboy wore black. Simple enough. But the NHL got a stick up their butt and changed it. Why they did it is up for debate, as some think it had to do with finances and/or the use of a third sweater at home. Personally I never liked the idea, but the NHL stuck with it and beginning in 2003-04 the home team wore the dark sweaters.

Last night the Sabres thread here was full of comments in favor of the Sabres making the white Winter Classic their home sweater, and I couldn't agree more. In order to do that, the NHL would need to change their tune concerning the home colors. It's the opinion here that they never should have switched and I'd hazard to guess that a large majority of fans feel they should switch back.

Perhaps it's time.


*****

From the game:

--Sam Reinhart's roll continued last night as he had a 1-goal, 2-assist stat-line for his second multi-point night in a row. For some reason the light went on this calendar year and after an extremely poor 2017 portion of the season (5+6 in 39 games,) Reinhart has scored 15 points (6+9) in 15 games since the beginning of 2018. You could say it's mainly because he's on Jack Eichel's line, which is true, although Reinhart had been there before and didn't get the job done. We might also point to a powerplay that looks like it's back to their No.1 form from last season, and no doubt he's contributed there (3+4) which also helps his stats. But somewhere along the line Reinhart got a kick in the ass and he's playing his best hockey of the season. Perhaps he realizes that it's a contract year and as a restricted free agent, he has no real say in what his next contract will be.

--How many times have we heard recent Sabres coaches say that they need to pare back defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen's ice-time? Often, and present coach Phil Housley said it again before last night's game while indicating that Ristolainen, ideally, should be in the 23-24 minute range. Ristolainen, in part because of a weak performance the previous game, was dropped down to the second pairing last night, yet when it came down to it, Ristolainen skated a game-high 27:37 and a game-high 21:30 at even strength. In the third period he skated nine shifts for a total of 10:39 most of it (8:33) at even strength. Just sayin'.

--Defenseman Casey Nelson played a solid game on the top pairing with 21:47 of ice-time, a secondary assist on Eichel's game-opening goal and he finished with an even rating. The 25 yr. old has made great strides in his development since being signed as a free agent in 2015. Nelson and Scandella had the difficult task of manning up against the Islanders John Tavares for much of the game and did a standup job. Said Housley to the gathered media post game about Nelson, "I thought he was one of  our better defensemen. He kept the game simple. There's nothing flashy about his game but he get's the job done."

--Housley changed up his lines for yesterday putting forward Evan Rodrigues with Eichel and Reinhart, and boy did that line look good. The trio combined for three goals, four assists and were a combined plus-5. With his goal and assist, Rodrigues increased his career totals to eight goals and nine assists in 57 NHL games. A free agent signee out of Boston University had tore up the NCAA along with fellow Terrier Eichel in 2014-15 and many had wondered how long it would take for a coach to put them on the same line. Although it has happened in the past, it will be interesting to see if they can build upon what they were able to accomplish last night.

--Housley is a rookie coach and he's made many questionable decisions with the lineup and the powerplay as well as in-game decisions this season, something that hasn't helped this 15-29-10 team. His early preference of forcing Reinhart to play center when he clearly was ineffective there probably set the player and the team back. Rodrigues is another forward he (along with, possibly, GM Jason Botterill) tried to force into a center's role. Rodrigues had played, and succeeded at, center in Rochester but was having a difficult time in Buffalo. Reinhart and Rodrigues had separately played on Eichel's wing before bringing a different skill-set to the line and both have shown the ability to play off of Eichel. Which is a good thing.

--Speaking of the franchise center, No. 15 had a two-point night last night. He scored the opener and sent a bank-shot off the back wall on a designed play to get the secondary assist on the game-winner. After a four-game scoring lull, Eichel has managed four points in his last two games (2+2) bringing his season total to 22 goals and 31 assists in 54 games. His 53 points tie him for 18th in the league while his 19 even-strength goals tie him for ninth. Too bad the Sabres powerplay was so atrocious for the first half of the season.

--There's a movement in Sabreland that wants to see Eichel as "Captain Jack," and he definitely looks as if he's ready to take over as team captain. From the moment he was drafted as the face of the franchise, it was going to be his team. What we've seen from him lately on the ice and what we've heard from him in interviews, is sure seems like he's matured to the point where that 'C' should be sewn on his sweater and it will happen next season. I just wish it was the Winter Classic home white sweater beginning next season.