2011-12 season preview: Buffalo Sabres

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2011-12 record: 43-29-10, 96 points; 3rd in Northeast, 7th in East

Playoffs: Lost to Philadelphia 4-3 in Eastern quarterfinals

After scratching and clawing through the final stages to make the playoffs last season, new owner Terry Pegula’s summer of spending raises expectations considerably. Buffalo beefed up on offense and defense, but the question is: will it be worth it? That’s yet to be determined, but it should be fun to find out.

Offense

The Sabres scored the third most goals (245) in the East, yet they still decided to tweak their offense. Buffalo jettisoned gritty veterans Mike Grier and Rob Niedermayer, along with frequently-injured (but remarkably-gifted) center Tom Connolly to make room for their youngsters and their splashy new toy Ville Leino.

Buffalo might bring some fans back to the Chris Drury-Danny Briere Era, a short-term smash success that sent wave after wave of offensive threats at opponents before free agency tore it all apart. Sliding Leino into the second center spot is worrisome, as is the Sabres’ thin group of forwards who can excel at killing penalties. (It’s also hard to imagine Leino helping the team improve its ugly 47.7 percent mark on faceoffs from last season, although that couldn’t get too much worse.)

Still, this Sabres squad should light up the scoreboard thanks to rising young guns such as Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe along with a dizzying array of wingers in their primes (including Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and Drew Stafford). Even much-ridiculed sniper Brad Boyes could bring a Michael Ryder-like hot-and-cold element to the team if injuries and slumps hit their bigger names.

Defense

Time and time again, the Sabres’ porous defense left goalie Ryan Miller on an island during the last few seasons. As troubling as some of the moves made during Pegulamania might be, their blue line looks significantly improved.

The Sabres essentially scuttled Chris Butler and Steve Montador for two remarkably different blueliners: Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr. Ehrhoff played big minutes and employed an erratic but howling slap shot on the Vancouver blue line while Regehr served as a rugged shutdown guy in Calgary for several years. Even if critics are right about Regehr’s skills diminishing a bit since he was once considered a world-class guy in his own zone, he’s still likely to represent a massive upgrade against the league’s most dangerous scoring threats.

Those additions ease the pressure on the team’s nearly Zdeno Chara-sized Myers, who probably buckled under excessive minutes last season instead of being guilty of a true ‘sophomore slump’. Jordan Leopold is an economical and useful depth guy while Marc-Andre Gragnani ranks as an intriguing wild card of an offensive threat.

Goalies

After a 2009-10 season that only the 2010-11 version of Tim Thomas wouldn’t envy, Miller caved under the pressure of too many starts and a steady stream of defensive lapses. That’s not to say that Miller was horrible, but he dropped quite a bit from a .929 save percentage in his Vezina season to .916.

One of the issues for Miller was the lack of a dependable backup to help him out for the first half of last season; Patrick Lalime seemed like a glorified goalie coach for most of that time (0-5-0 in 7 GP with an ugly .890 save percentage). Miller should get more breathing room with Jhonas Enroth as his full-fledged backup, especially after Enroth saved the day late last season when Miller struggled with concussion issues.

The Sabres would be wise to lean on Enroth more frequently this season, too, since they’ll deal with a league-leading 21 back-to-back games in 2011-12.

Coaching

In a sports climate in which two-time World Series champion managers can get reflexively canned and NHL bench bosses have the shelf lives of NFL running backs, Lindy Ruff ranks as a stark outlier. Ruff will enter his 14th season behind the bench in Buffalo, where he’s amassed 526 regular-season wins. This season ranks as a rare test for Ruff, however, because his defenders can’t lean on the time-honored ‘low-budget roster’ excuse if things go sour. His track record indicates that he’ll find a way to make a lot of moving parts run together smoothly, although it almost seems inevitable that Leino might end up in Ruff’s doghouse a few times during the life of his risky contract.

Best-case scenario

The Sabres improve on the power play with Ehrhoff’s blistering slap shots, Leino proves to be an even bigger hit in Buffalo than in Philly and Miller takes advantage of an improved defense to win another Vezina Trophy. Finally suited with a truly competitive roster, Ruff guides the Sabres to the Stanley Cup finals where … well, let’s not jinx it for perennially jilted Buffalo sports fans.

Reality

The Sabres have strengths in every area: top-end scoring, offensive depth, defensive defensemen, scoring blueliners and an elite goalie. This team’s relative weaknesses is on the penalty kill, unless Regehr can camouflage a dearth of quality checking forwards beyond Paul Gaustad.

For that reason, the Sabres might struggle a bit in the playoffs. That being said, their depth and talent will prompt many to predict that they’ll claim their second Northeast title in three season. On paper, it’s hard to argue against that conventional wisdom, but we’ll see if the team gels amid heightened expectations.

Anxious Sabres fans shouldn’t fret, though – their team should be a joy to watch again.

Golden Knights rally again to beat Blues, will play for top seed

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For the second time in as many games the Vegas Golden Knights rallied from a two-goal deficit to win a Round-Robin game, keeping their chances for the top seed in the Western Conference alive.

On Thursday they stormed back for a 6-4 win against the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.

The win gives the Golden Knights an opportunity to clinch the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference this weekend if they can defeat the Colorado Avalanche in a potential Western Conference Final preview.

Vegas had previously overcome a 3-1 deficit against Dallas in its first Round-Robin game.

The Blues fall to 0-2-0 in Round-Robin play after losing on a Nazem Kadri buzzer-beater in its first game.

Shea Theodore and Alex Tuch both scored a pair of goals for Vegas on Thursday, while Mark Stone‘s third period goal officially goes in the books as the game-winner.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

A few takeaways from Vegas’ win…

1. Do not let the relatively close final score fool you here. This was not a particularly close game as Vegas completely dictated the pace of play and controlled everything that happened on the ice. Simply put, this was domination. The Golden Knights finished the game with a 38-17 advantage on the shot chart and did not allow the Blues to record a shot on goal for the first 16 minutes of the third period. The only thing that kept it close was the fact starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury struggled in his first postseason action.

There is a strong argument to be made that this is the best, most complete team in the Western Conference and they have dominated the Round-Robin phase while they still wait for Max Pacioretty to get back into the lineup. They may not have a true superstar on their roster, but they have a rock-solid team from top to bottom that is full of outstanding two-way players with Stone, Pacioretty, William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, Peter Stastny and an underrated defense leading the way. The only thing that could potentially slow them down in the postseason is goaltending. That leads us to this…

2. Fleury was not good on Thursday. While Vegas controlled the pace of play, Fleury looked sluggish and was out of position on a handful of Blues goals to keep this game close. That brings us to a very big question: Is there any thought of using Robin Lehner in the first round of the playoffs? Fleury did not have a particularly strong season, he looked awful on Thursday, and the Golden Knights have one of the league’s top goalies sitting behind him after acquiring Lehner at the trade deadline from the Chicago Blackhawks.

There is a reason they made such a bold trade. Yes, it is a great insurance policy in case of an injury to Fleury. But it is also a great insurance policy in case Fleury does not play well. It is not a stretch to suggest that Lehner is the better player right now.

3. With their loss on Thursday this means the best the Blues can hope for is the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, which they can get if they defeat the Dallas Stars this weekend. That means the two Stanley Cup Finalists from a year ago, both of which were the No. 1 seeds in their respective conferences at the time of the regular season pause, will finish no higher than third when the playoffs begin. At the end of the day you still have to beat the top teams to win the Stanley Cup, but they are going to have a significantly tougher Round 1 matchup than they were probably anticipating.

 

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Flames-Jets stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers

Flames-Jets stream
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NBCSN’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Thursday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Flames and Jets. Coverage of Game 4 begins at 10:30 p.m. ET on CNBC. Watch the Flames-Jets stream at 10:30 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Calgary scored three goals on the power play en route to a four-goal win. The Flames led 3-2 midway through the game before scoring the final three goals. Winnipeg played a second straight game without Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine – who were both injured in Game 1.

Calgary has not won a playoff series since 2015 when they defeated Vancouver in the opening round. Last postseason, the Flames were the top seed in the West but were upset in the opening round in five games by Colorado. Calgary could join Carolina as the first teams to win their series.

It’s been 33-year-old Cam Talbot outdueling Vezina Trophy finalist Connor Hellebuyck in this series. This is especially interesting because entering this matchup it wasn’t even clear whether Talbot would be Calgary’s starter. 27-year-old David Rittich started 48 of Calgary’s 70 games during the regular season.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WHAT: Calgary Flames vs. Winnipeg Jets
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Thursday, August 6, 10:30 p.m. ET
TV: CNBC
ON THE CALL: Brendan Burke, Pierre McGuire
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Flames-Jets stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

(8) Calgary Flames vs. (9) Winnipeg Jets (CGY leads series 2-1)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Flames 4, Jets 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Jets 3, Flames 2 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Flames 6, Jets 2 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Flames vs. Jets, 10:30 p.m. ET – CNBC (livestream)
Saturday, Aug. 8: Jets vs. Flames*, TBD

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

 

Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers

Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs stream
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NBCSN’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Thursday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Blue Jackets and Maple Leafs. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs Game 3 stream at 8 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

After being shutout in Game 1, Auston Matthews scored the Leafs’ first goal of the series with four minutes remaining in the second period of Game 2. This snapped Joonas Korpisalo’s 96-minute shutout streak to start the postseason. Captain John Tavares scored on a breakaway in the third period before Morgan Rielly’s empty-netter.

With less than two minutes to play in the third period, Jake Muzzin was taken off on a stretcher after colliding with Oliver Bjorkstrand. Muzzin was down on the ice for an extended period of time before being taken to a local hospital. He was discharged overnight and returned to the team hotel but has been ruled out for the remainder of this series.

Neither team has scored a power play goal in this series, with both teams going 0-for-6 on the man advantage through the first two games. Toronto went 0-for-5 on the PP in Game 2.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WHAT: Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
WHERE: Scotiabank Arena – Toronto
WHEN: Thursday, August 6, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: John Forslund, Mike Milbury, Brian Boucher
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

(8) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (9) Columbus Blue Jackets (Series tied 1-1)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Blue Jackets 2, Maple Leafs 0 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Maple Leafs 3, Blue Jackets 0 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Friday, Aug. 7: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 9: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs*, TBD

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

Flyers keep rolling, will play for No. 1 seed in East on Saturday

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The Philadelphia Flyers were the hottest team in the NHL when the 2019-20 season was paused, and they are not slowing down during the league’s restart.

They kept rolling on Thursday afternoon with a thoroughly convincing 3-1 win over the Washington Capitals in Round-Robin play to take another big step toward the No. 1 overall seed in the Eastern Conference.

After beating Boston on Sunday, the Flyers are now 2-0-0 in the Round-Robin phase and will have a massive game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday.

The winner of that game will be the No. 1 seed in the East while the loser will be second.

The Capitals and Bruins will play for the No. 3 seed on Sunday.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

A few takeaways from the Flyers’ latest win…

1. The story for Philadelphia on Thursday was their depth, as it wasn’t their top stars driving the win.

Backup goalie Brian Elliott got the start in goal and stopped 16 out of 17 shots in the win, while Scott Laughton scored two more goals to give him three already in the return to play. That does not include the overtime winner he scored in the exhibition game against Pittsburgh. He also added an assist on Travis Sanheim‘s second period goal to give the Flyers a 2-0 lead.

Both goals were scored because of slick passing plays.

The first one was off a ridiculous no-look feed from Travis Konecny.

2. The Flyers raised quite a few eyebrows over the summer when they acquired the RFA rights to Kevin Hayes and then gave him a massive seven-year contract. Hayes is a good player, but it just seemed like a huge commitment for a player that probably wasn’t considered a core forward. Just one year into his contract and he is looking like a huge pickup in the short-term. After a strong regular season performance that saw him score 23 goals in 69 games, he already has four assists in the return to play and factored into all three goals on Thursday. It is still fair to wonder how that contract will look toward the end of it, but if he helps the Flyers bring a championship back to Philadelphia nobody is really going to be concerned about that.

3. And let’s be very clear about something: the Flyers bringing a championship to Philadelphia this season is not an outrageous thought. It could happen. This team looks like a legit contender right now and is still clicking on all cylinders. Before the NHL pause they had won 19 out of 26 games, and since returning to play have completely dominated the Boston Bruins and Capitals, outscoring them by a 7-2 margin in the two games.

There is little to suggest it is a fluke, either. During the regular season they had very strong underlying numbers at 5-on-5 (on the positive side when it came to shot attempts, scoring chances, expected goals), they finally have a solution in goal (Carter Hart), and they have very quietly assembled a strong group of depth players to complement the core of Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier. They were so dominant on Thursday that they limited the Capitals to just 17 shots on goals, including only two from Alex Ovechkin.

4. As for the Capitals, the absolute best they can hope for in seeding is the No. 3 seed in the East if they can beat the Bruins in regulation on Sunday. They had a little bit of a scare on Thursday when center Evgeny Kuznetsov took an awkward fall late in the first period. He was able to return to the game eventually. The Capitals are also still playing without top defenseman John Carlson who has yet to play in Round-Robin play.

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.