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Strong goaltending has given the Sabres a flicker of hope

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We’ve written a lot lately about the failed backup goalie situations in Toronto, Edmonton, and Boston, so let’s switch things up and talk about Anders Nilsson in Buffalo, because he’s put up some excellent numbers for the Sabres this season.

Nilsson improved to 7-3-4 with a .930 save percentage after last night’s 39-save triumph over the Flyers. The 26-year-old only allowed one goal in the 4-1 victory. In the three starts he’s made this month, he’s 2-0-1 with a .944 save percentage.

Granted, the Sabres are still a fair bit back of a playoff spot, five points behind Ottawa for third place in the Atlantic Division, with three other teams between them and the Senators.

But thanks in large part to their goaltending, they’re at least feeling some optimism now.

“We’re happy with where we’re at,” forward Sam Reinhart told reporters last night. “We know it’s a long road to get back to where we want to be. … Tonight was another step in the right direction.”

The Sabres acquired Nilsson in an offseason trade with the Blues, sending a fifth-round pick in the 2017 draft to St. Louis.

Buffalo GM Tim Murray deserves credit for the move. Though at the same time, it’s worth remembering that Nilsson was not Murray’s first choice to back up Robin Lehner, as the Olean Times Herald explained on the day of the trade:

After the Sabres lost goalie Chad Johnson to his hometown Calgary Flames on Friday, Murray said another backup verbally agreed to an $850,000 contract. The Sabres had even placed the goalie on their depth chart.

Then the goalie took a $900,000 deal with another team, Murray said. Based on the contracts awarded, Jeff Zatkoff, who signed for that money with the Los Angeles Kings, was possibly the player.

Zatkoff, in case you’re wondering, has struggled badly with the Kings, going 2-6-1 with an .886 save percentage.

The Sabres, meanwhile, couldn’t ask for much more from their two netminders, as Lehner has also put up solid numbers with a .921 save percentage in 27 starts.

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Looking ahead, if the Sabres have any hope of making up more ground in the standings, they’ll need their goalies to be good, or even better than good. Buffalo has nine games left in January, and only two of them are at home.

The Sabres’ next game is Thursday in Tampa Bay.

Maple Leafs help SickKids Foundation make giant cookie for Santa (Video)

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It’s always special to see NHL teams give back to their communities in original ways. The Toronto Maple Leafs found a pretty unique way to help out the SickKids Foundation. It even involved putting on a hairnet.

The Leafs made their annual visit to the SickKids Foundation earlier this month and some of them took part in a special tradition that involves making a giant cookie for Santa “no-trade” Claus (sorry).

Mike Babock, Wendel Clark and a few of the current members of the team worked hard to make sure that the finished product was all quality.

Babcock barking out orders in the kitchen is hilarious. Him emphasizing “cream your sugar” is pretty good, too.

“I come here on a regular basis and the people here are stars,” Babcock said, per the Toronto Star. “If you think of your children getting diagnosed with something, let’s say cancer, it’s an awful thing and you want to go to the best place, with the best doctors, so you can feel the best. To me that’s what this place is all about.

“Sometimes when things are going really good in your life you need to take a step back, take a deep breath to understand how lucky you are.”

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

It’s supposed to be pretty cold during tomorrow’s NHL 100 Classic in Ottawa

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We’re just over 24 hours away from the “NHL 100 Classic” outdoor game between the Canadiens and Senators at TD Place in Ottawa. Don’t forget, you can watch that game online tomorrow night at 7:00 p.m. ET via the NBC Sports app.

If you’re considering watching the game at home, that’s probably a wise move considering it’s going to be freezing in Ottawa on Saturday night.

According to the Weather Network, it’s supposed to be mainly clear. It’s also going to be 7 degrees Fahrenheit, but it’ll feel more like minus-4 because of the wind-chill factor.

“There are going to be moments we wish we were inside,” Sens captain Erik Karlsson said, according to TSN’s Frank Seravalli.

And Bobby Ryan is a little confused:

“I can’t even pronounce the thing that goes over your head,” Ryan told TSN Radio’s Ian Mendes. “It’s sounds like a dessert — a balaclava or whatever.”

As fun as this might be, it’s still a huge game between two Atlantic Division rivals. The Canadiens are two points behind Boston for third in the Atlantic and the Sens are five points behind Montreal.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

A deeper look into the Bruins’ 11-game losing streak against the Caps

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There are some streaks in professional sports that simply don’t make sense. How some teams continue to dominate others year after year even though coaches and rosters change is kind of weird.

One of those strange streaks was extended on Thursday night, as the Washington Capitals defeated the Boston Bruins for the 11th straight time. The last time the Bruins took down the Caps was in March of 2014. The B’s have made a coaching change, they’ve altered the roster, but they still can’t beat the Caps.

As Washington’s Barry Trotz pointed out earlier this month, every squad seems to have a “unicorn team”. On Dec. 5, Trotz’s team beat the San Jose Sharks for the first time since 2009. Fine, the Capitals and Sharks might not play each other that often, but that’s still an eight-year losing streak.

“Every team has a unicorn team, you do,” Trotz said at the time, per the team’s website. “I was talking to the Columbus broadcasters [on Saturday], and they said, ‘Do you know what your record is against Columbus?’ And I said, “I have no idea.’ They said, ‘It’s pretty good.’

“For years, Nashville was [the Blue Jackets’] unicorn. They could never beat them. I think every team has that. The ones that come to mind for me with this club are San Jose and Dallas. We’ve been a unicorn for a few franchises, too. I just think everybody has one of those.”

Trotz is right. The Capitals have definitely been Boston’s unicorn.

The last time the Bruins took down the Capitals, Claude Julien was still their head coach, Jarome Iginla was the third-leading scorer on the team, and Milan Lucic, Reilly Smith, Loui Eriksson, Carl Soderberg and Andrej Meszaros were still on the roster.

Also, Barack Obama was still the president of the United States, the hoverboard scooter wasn’t invented yet, Nico Hischier was just 15 years old, and Tom Brady was “only” a three-time Super Bowl Champion.

“At some point you definitely want to get it over with and win those games,” Patrice Bergeron said after last night’s 5-3 loss, per NHL.com.  It’s not something necessarily that I was thinking before the game … we knew it was a challenge and we had to be good and be smart. A few breakdowns and a little lack of discipline [and they] made us pay is the bottom line.”

Here’s the game-by-game breakdown of the 11-game losing streak:

• Oct. 11, 2014: 4-0 loss at home (Alex Ovechkin scored twice, Braden Holtby had the shutout)

• Mar. 15, 2015: 2-0 loss on the road (Nicklas Backstrom assisted on both goals, Holtby had the shutout)

• Apr. 8, 2015: 3-0 loss on the road (Backstrom had two more assists, Holtby had the shutout)

• Nov. 5, 2015: 4-1 loss on the road (John Carlson had a goal and an assist)

• Jan. 5, 2016: 3-2 loss at home (Evgeny Kuznetsov had a goal and an assist)

• Mar. 5, 2016: 2-1 OTL at home (Matt Niskanen scored the game-winning goal)

• Dec. 7, 2016: 4-3 OTL on the road (Justin Williams scored twice, Backstrom netted the OT winner)

• Feb. 1, 2017: 5-3 loss on the road (Backstrom had three points)

• Apr. 8, 2017: 3-1 loss at home (Kevin Shattenkirk scored the game-winning goal)

• Nov. 4, 2017: 3-2 loss at home (Tom Wilson had two goals)

• Dec. 14, 2017: 5-3 loss at home (Alex Chiasson scored twice, Ovechkin had a goal (empty-netter and an assist)

These two teams will play each other one more time (Dec. 28) this season. Will the Bruins be able to figure out how to beat their “unicorn” by then?

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: What’s holding the Islanders back?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• University of Alabama hockey player Jon Lovorn is dedicating this season to the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary School. (SECCountry.com)

• It’s time for the NHL to give all 31 teams an outdoor game next season. (Vice Sports)

• Philly.com takes a look at Sean Couturier‘s “well-balanced” life and how it got him to the NHL. (Philly.com)

• A strong end to 2017 could help the Predators land home ice advantage in the playoffs (Predlines)

• If/when Seattle makes it to the NHL, there might be too many teams in the Pacific Division. How would realignment look? (Five for Howling)

• One of the reasons the Oilers have struggled for so long is because of their inability to select solid players late in drafts. (OilersNation.com)

• The only thing that appears to be holding the Islanders back is goaltending. (The Hockey News)

• The Hershey Bears released their 2018 Outdoor Classic Jersey for their game against Lehigh Valley next month. (RussianMachineNeverBreaks.com)

• The Rangers’ recent struggles prove that they need to be sellers before the trade deadline. (NY Post)

• The Devils and Coyotes swapped minor-league forwards yesterday. New Jersey got Michael Latta while the Coyotes got Ryan Kujawinski. (NHL.com/Coyotes)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.