Here’s a formula for making a bad situation worse: play two road games in a row against the Central Division’s most explosive teams.
The Buffalo Sabres are finding that out this week as the Chicago Blackhawks picked up where the Detroit Red Wings left off, extending the struggling Sabres’ road losing streak to 10 games with a 6-2 beating. The bigger story should be that the Blackhawks took a temporary division/conference lead and tied the New York Rangers atop the NHL with 62 points, but there’s no denying that it’s tough to look away from the Sabres’ train wreck.
Brutal Buffalo stretches
The Sabres were 10-6-0 when they lost to the Boston Bruins when that notorious Milan Lucic-Ryan Miller collision happened on Nov. 12. Since then, their record dropped to 19-22-5 (which means they went 9-16-5) in about two months.
That big picture stretch is bad enough, but things have been even worse since mid-December, as they went 3-9-2 in a disconcerting 14-game span. It’s not as if every loss has been a meltdown, but their offense has been sputtering the entire time. They’ve peaked at three goals – a mark they’ve hit three times – and have been shut out twice in those 14 contests.
Moving the increasingly reasonable trade/firing talk aside for a moment, the Sabres’ more immediate outlook is worrisome in its own right. They’re currently eight points out of eighth place, but that could jump to nine if the Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals swap the Southeast Division lead. Either way, their postseason hopes are evaporating almost as quickly as their confidence.
The good-but-mostly-bad news is that Buffalo will have plenty of opportunities to break their away game issues going forward. The last four games of December are all on the road, starting with what could be a very challenging game against a Jets team that is far more formidable in hockey-mad Winnipeg.
Going into the season, tonight’s game probably looked like a clash between two Cup contenders from opposite conferences. With the wildly different paths both teams are taking, it instead ended up being a stark contrast between haves and have-nots.
This video is no longer available. Click here to watch more NBC Sports videos!
The NHL announced on Saturday afternoon that commissioner Gary Bettman has upheld the 10-game suspension the league issued to Anaheim Ducks forward Antoine Vermette for an abuse of official incident that happened earlier this month.
Bettman met with Vermette on Thursday and heard his appeal, and has ruled that the 10-game ban will remain in place.
Vermette was ejected from the Ducks’ Feb. 14 game against the Minnesota Wild after he slashed linesman Shandor Alphonso in the leg following a face off. The NHL ruled that it was a Category II abuse of official foul, which carries an automatic 10-game suspension. He has already served four of those games. He will lose $97,222.22 in salary as a result of the entire suspension.
Vermette’s suspension is the third abuse of official suspension we have seen in the NHL over the past two years following the 20-game ban Dennis Wideman received last year (later reduced to 10 games) and the three-game suspension given to Arizona Coyotes defenseman Anthony DeAngelo this season.
After signing a two-year, $3.5 million contract with the Ducks in free agency, Vermette has eight goals and 14 assists in 58 games this season.
Just about the only downside to the Chicago Blackhawks’ latest win, a 6-3 dismantling of the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday night, was the injury suffered by defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson.
He ended up leaving the game after taking just four shifts in the first period and did not return.
Along with missing almost all of that game, he will also be out of the lineup on Sunday when the Blackhawks look to continue their recent hot streak when they host the St. Louis Blues.
In 60 games this season Hjalmarsson has five goals and nine assists while mostly playing alongside Duncan Keith. On Thursday the Blackhawks had seven defensemen in the lineup and relied on Michal Rozsival to fill some of the minutes left vacated by Hjalmarsson. He ended up scoring his first goal of the season in the win.
The Blackhawks have been on a roll over the past few weeks, winning eight of their past nine games and scoring at least four goals in every win during that stretch.
They will miss Hjalmarsson on Sunday, but it seems to only be a short-term issue.
An already shorthanded Pittsburgh Penguins defense is going to be without another key player on Saturday when Kris Letang misses their Stadium Series game against the Philadelphia Flyers due to an upper body.
Coach Mike Sullivan announced the news following the team’s morning skate and would only add that Letang remains day-to-day with an upper body injury.
Letang, the Penguins’ best defenseman, played more than 28 minutes in their most recent game, a 3-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night.
In 41 games this season he has five goals and 29 assists. Ron Hainsey, recently acquired in a trade with the Hurricanes, is going to have to immediately take on a pretty substantial role with his new team.
Anytime the Penguins are without Letang it’s a big deal because of how impactful he is on the blue line, but it is an even bigger issue now given the injury situation they are dealing with. Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta are both sidelined for what will most likely be the remainder of the regular season.
Justin Schultz, a game-time decision on Saturday night according to Sullivan, has missed the past three games due to a concussion.
NBC’s coverage of the 2016-17 NHL season continues on Saturday night with the final outdoor game of the season when cross-state rivals the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers meet at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh in the NHL Stadium Series.
It’s only the second meeting of the season between the two rivals after the Penguins won aa 5-4 decision earlier this season in Philadelphia.
The Penguins come into the game fighting through some recent injury woes that have decimated their defense. Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley are likely to miss the remainder of the regular season, while Justin Schultz is recovering from a concussion that has sidelined him for the past three games. As if that wasn’t enough, Kris Letang, the Penguins’ best defenseman and arguably their most irreplaceable player given the role he has, the minutes he plays and the impact he makes, is day-to-day with an injury of his own. That recent rash of injuries forced the team to make a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes earlier this week to acquire veteran defenseman Ron Hainsey, who is expected to make his debut with the team on Saturday at Heinz Field.
The Penguins have also been dealing with injuries to forwards Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust.
Even with all of that the Penguins have managed to remain in second place in the Metropolitan Division and are 6-1-3 in their past 10 games.
The Flyers, meanwhile, are struggling.
With only nine wins in their past 27 games they have lost a hold on a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and enter Saturday five points back of a wild card spot. A loss on Sunday could even lead to them starting to sell off assets in advance of the NHL trade deadline this week. They have one more game (Tuesday at home against the Colorado Avalanche) between now and the trade deadline.
So it could pretty big game for them on Saturday night.
Faceoff is 8 p.m. ET and can be seen on NBC or our live stream.