Chris Stewart

Is Colorado’s rise a fair example of what might happen in Buffalo?

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The Buffalo Sabres are frankly expected to be one of the worst teams in the league in 2014-15. It’s easy to see why: They’re a rebuilding club coming off of a season where they posted a 21-51-10 record. They could have added six wins last season and still finished in last place. For that matter, they could have scored 37 more goals and still ranked 30th offensively.

The short-term situation is so bleak that there are Sabres fans rooting against their team as they’ve already abandoned hope of them being competitive next season and just want them to be able to draft a potential superstar in Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel.

Chris Stewart, who came to Buffalo from St. Louis in February as part of the Ryan Miller trade, doesn’t want the fanbase to write the Sabres off.

“Look at the Colorado Avalanche two years ago,” Stewart recently said. “They were a last-place team, and they were arguably one of the best teams in the league last year. So the past is the past. You look at our team now and there are 13 or 14 new faces. So we come in and think of last year as an anomaly.”

Of course you’d be hard pressed to find a player that wants to lose or, for that matter, one that is going to paint anything other than an optimistic picture going into the season, but does Stewart have a point? Does Buffalo have a chance to follow in Colorado’s footsteps?

Let’s move past the obvious answer, which is: Of course. Anything can happen, so obviously there’s a chance that Buffalo will make the playoffs. But is it a big enough one to give Stewart’s argument validity?

Well, first off, he is correct that the team will look very different than the one that opened the 2013-14 season, which right off the bat actually makes this story a lot different than the one in Colorado. The Avalanche team that surprised the hockey world in 2013-14 wasn’t substantially altered from the one finished with a 16-25-7 record in the lockout shortened 2013 campaign.

Additionally, different isn’t automatically better. The Sabres have lost Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek for example and you can make an argument that no one on their current roster is better than those two players — at least not yet as some of their youngsters have high ceilings.

A few things did change in Colorado though. Patrick Roy took over as the team’s head coach and, in addition to giving them new hope, he joined goalie coach Francois Allaire in helping Semyon Varlamov take a huge step forward. Varlamov was at the center of the Avalanche’s success as they were bombarded with shots all season and relied on him to stand tall.

Meanwhile, Buffalo struggled largely in spite of Miller’s goaltending last season so while the new combination of Michal Neuvirth and Jhonas Enroth might prove to be solid, the single biggest change that bolstered the Avalanche wouldn’t have quite the same effect on the Sabres.

What Buffalo needs is for its defense to improve, but more than that, they need someone to find the back of the net. Colorado saw its offense improve in part thanks to a strong rookie season from Nathan MacKinnon and while the Sabres have some promising young forwards that might step up, they have a far bigger gap to overcome.

The Avalanche’s offense wasn’t great in the lockout shortened campaign, but Buffalo’s offense last season was statistically the worst of the 21st century.

It’s that gap that will be difficult for the Sabres to overcome in a single campaign. They do have some noteworthy scoring threats such as Matt Moulson, Cody Hodgson, and Tyler Ennis, but their top two lines don’t look overly promising on paper.

So maybe Colorado isn’t an ideal example for Buffalo, but the thing about a young team is that you never know quite what will happen. It seems realistic to assume that this will be a season of growing pains for the Sabres, but if they find their groove early in the season, then they might surprise people.

More good times in Washington, as Backstrom named first star of the week

Nicklas Backstrom
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The Caps have won nine in a row and catapulted to top spot in the NHL with 63 points, one ahead of second-place Columbus.

Suffice to say, folks are feelin’ fine in D.C.

Those good vibes continued on Monday, as center Nicklas Backstrom was named the NHL’s first star of the week.

More:

Backstrom led the League in assists and points with 3-7—10 in four contests as the Capitals won all four games to extend their overall winning streak to nine contests and propel Washington to the top of the NHL standings (29-9-5, 63 points).

Backstrom registered multiple points in all four games starting with one goal and one assist in a 4-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 9. On Jan. 11, he recorded one goal and three assists in a 5-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, followed by one goal and one assist in a 6-0 win over the Chicago Blackhawks on Jan. 13. Backstrom finished the week by notching two assists in a 5-0 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on Jan. 15.

In his 10th season, all with the Capitals, the 29-year-old Galve, Sweden native leads the Capitals and is tied for 10th in League scoring with 42 points (12-30—42 in 43 GP).

Backstrom, of course, wasn’t the only big story in Washington last week. Captain Alex Ovechkin scored his 1,000th career point on Wednesday, becoming the first player in franchise history to hit that mark.

The only negative thing coming out of D.C. is that John Carlson, who leads all Caps d-men in scoring, is out for today’s game versus Pittsburgh. Carlson’s absence will be brief, though, as head coach Barry Trotz expects him back in the lineup later this week.

Panthers recall McIlrath from AHL — but will they play him?

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 03:  Ryan Reaves #75 of the St. Louis Blues and Dylan McIlrath #42 of the New York Rangers fight during the first period at Madison Square Garden on November 3, 2014 in New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The Florida Panthers have recalled defenseman Dylan McIlrath from a conditioning stint in the AHL.

The question now is whether they’ll play him.

McIlrath has only appeared in four games for the Panthers since getting traded by the Rangers in November — and in three of those games, he logged less than 10 minutes of ice time.

On his conditioning assignment, the 24-year-old played six games for the Springfield Thunderbirds, scoring once with an assist and 13 PIM.

It seems unlikely that the Panthers would make any changes to their lineup after knocking off Columbus, 4-3, on Saturday. They start a four-game road trip tomorrow in Calgary.

McIlrath’s chances of playing may be limited due to the fact he’s a right shot and the Panthers’ back end already has three healthy right shots in Aaron Ekblad, Jason Demers, and Mark Pysyk.

Ekblad, Demers, and Pysyk have each played all 45 games this season. The leading candidate to be scratched is probably Jakub Kindl, a left shot.

So barring an injury, McIlrath may have to sit and wait some more. The Panthers have won four of their last six, and they’re not in a position to mess with success.

Alex Petrovic (ankle) is Florida’s only injured defenseman. Also a right shot, he could be ready to return in early February.

The Bruins are finally ‘starting to connect’ on offense

Boston Bruins' David Krejci (46), of the Czech Republic, celebrates his goal beside Philadelphia Flyers' Wayne Simmonds (17) during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Boston, Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
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The floodgates have opened for the Boston Bruins.

And it’s about time.

With Saturday’s 6-3 win over the Flyers, the B’s have scored 22 goals in their last six games. The offense has been a relative juggernaut compared to the first few months of the season. Brad Marchand had five points against Philadelphia, and he likes the progress the team has made.

“I think early on we had a lot of moving parts and guys in and out of the lineup. [We had] different guys that came in that we all had to get used to one another, and it doesn’t happen overnight,” said Marchand, per CSN New England. “It took half the year, but…I think we all realized that we have to be a desperate team. We’re starting to come together and learn each other and finally get some chemistry on the lines. All of that comes into play and again, I think we’re just starting to connect.”

The statistics suggested the goals would come. The Bruins have the highest score-adjusted Corsi in the league, but through Christmas, for whatever reason, the pucks weren’t going in.

To illustrate, Patrice Bergeron had just four goals in his first 31 games, and it wasn’t for a lack of shots. He now has five in his last 12, bringing his season total to a modest nine, as the bounces are finally starting to go his way:

To be sure, the Bruins are still in a desperate fight for a playoff spot. They’re currently second in the Atlantic Division, but with five more games played than both third-place Toronto and fourth-place Ottawa, winnable games like this afternoon’s against the Islanders need to be won.

“When you score a couple goals, I guess your confidence goes up a little bit,” said goalie Tuukka Rask. “I think that’s what happened [with us]. So we’ve just got to make sure that we keep it going and don’t take a step back.”

NHL on NBCSN: Capitals visit Penguins, go for 10 in a row

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 16: Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals skates with the puck past Trevor Daley #6 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during the second period at Verizon Center on November 16, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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NBCSN will continue its coverage of the 2016-17 campaign tonight when the Pittsburgh Penguins host the Washington Capitals at 7:00 p.m. ET. If you want to watch the game online, you can do so here

Streaks are colliding in Pittsburgh on Monday night when the Penguins host the Washington Capitals.

From the Pittsburgh side, they are looking to break a three-game losing streak (their longest of the season) and will have to do so without the services Kris Letang, their top defensemen, after he was placed on injured reserve on Monday morning. Not exactly a great situation to be in when the team coming in for a visit is a Capitals team that has not only won nine games in a row, but has been absolutely crushing every team they have played during this stretch, including the Penguins less than one week ago.

Even more than the current winning streak, the Capitals are now 16-2-2 in their past 20 games and have moved back into the top spot in the NHL standings and are making a run at a second consecutive Presidents’ Trophy.

It has been a collective team effort during this latest run, especially during the current winning streak where five players have averaged more than a point per game, including Justin Williams who has a team-high six goals during the streak.

“Everybody seems to be doing their job at a high level right now, and that’s why we’re being successful,” Williams said after their 5-0 win against the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday, via the Washington Post. “When there’s a breakdown, someone’s there to help you out, and when there’s a total breakdown, our goaltenders are there to shut the door. Not a great start but a great finish.”

The Capitals were able to win Sunday’s game with backup goalie Phillip Grubauer in net — and for the first 40 minutes he had to be their best player — and will be turning back to Braden Holtby tonight. For as good as Holtby was a year ago when he won the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender, he has managed to be even better this season and carries a .933 save percentage into Monday’s game. In 18 starts since the start of December, he has been at an even higher level at .944.

The Penguins meanwhile have hit their first tough stretch of the season, giving up 15 goals over the past three games. The Penguins have not lost four games in a row since a four-game losing streak in December of 2015, which were also the first four games of Mike Sullivan’s head coaching tenure with the the team. Going up against a team that just beat them 5-2 a week ago, and a team that has outscored Columbus, Ottawa, Montreal, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Philadelphia by a 26-3 margin they have a gigantic test in front of them.