Buffalo Sabres fans finally had reason to believe.
After years of being stuck at the bottom of the NHL standings, the Sabres finally looked to be returning to relevance thanks to an incredible start to the 2018-19 season that featured a 10-game winning streak throughout most of November.
It was easy to get caught up in it (I did! Maybe you did! Most people did!)
When they won that 10th consecutive game on Nov. 27, the Sabres were sitting with a 17-6-2 record (by far their best start in years), had the best record in the league, and looked to be a near lock to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2010-11 season.
Keep in mind, between the 2005-06 and 2017-18 seasons there were 37 teams that won at least 17 of their first 25 games to start a season.
Only two of those teams (the 2015-16 Montreal Canadiens and the 2017-18 St. Louis Blues) ended up missing.
Not only would it have taken a massive collapse over the final three-quarters of the season to have that cushion get erased, but everything was going the Sabres’ way. Jack Eichel was taking another step toward superstardom. Jeff Skinner proved to be everything the front office could have possibly hoped for him to be when they traded for him over the summer. Carter Hutton solidified the goaltending position and top draft pick Rasmus Dahlin was making an immediate impact on defense. They were also getting every possible break.
But even with all of those positive developments there were some red flags as to whether or not the Sabres would be able to continue winning, and in the month-and-a-half since that winning streak ended their season has started to slip away from them a little.
A lot of those positive developments are still very much there. Eichel and Skinner have been magnificent together, while Dahlin is having one of the best seasons an 18-year-old defender has ever had. He looks like he has a chance to be the cornerstone defender the team has needed during this ongoing rebuild.
So what has gone wrong that has resulted in them sliding from the top spot in the NHL standings all the way down to the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, with just a one-point lead over the ninth-place Canadiens?
Let’s start with the obvious and point out that the 10-game winning streak was a huge anomaly.
That is not meant to be a knock on the Sabres because any team (even a great one) that goes on a 10-game winning streak has a little bit of luck and good fortune involved. You do not win that many games in a row at this level without a few breaks and bounces going your way.
The Sabres took that to the extreme during their streak. Nine of their 10 wins were decided by a single goal. Seven of those games were won in overtime or a shootout. Both of those numbers are impossible to maintain because one-goal games (especially overtime or shootout games) can come down to one weird bounce, one play, or one call. When every game is basically one giant coin flip, eventually your luck is going to run out.
Since their streak ended the Sabres are only 1-4 in games that have gone to overtime or a shootout. They were 7-0 in such games during the streak. For the season as a whole, they are 1-6 in overtime or shootout games outside of the winning streak.
In other words, when you live by overtime and the shootout, you will also probably die by overtime or the shootout.
They are also only 2-6-2 in all one-goal games since the end of the streak. They did not suddenly forget how to win those games. That is just the nature of the beast that is the NHL when so many of your games are decided by a single goal.
But why are they involved in so many one-goal games? Well, it’s probably because they just don’t have that much talent to separate themselves from everybody else, while they are totally dependent on their top line. They are getting nothing — almost literally nothing — outside of that top group.
For as good as Eichel and Skinner were during their winning streak, they were not the only players producing offense. Yes, Skinner had 10 goals during that stretch, including several game-winning goals, but the Sabres were getting contributions from other lines when it came to providing offense.
During those 10 games the Sabres only outscored their opponents by an 8-6 margin when the Eichel-Skinner duo was on the ice during 5-on-5 play.
As a team, they actually outscored their opponents by a 13-11 margin when neither was on the ice.
They received at least one goal from 17 different players. Seven players scored at least two goals. Six different players had at least seven points. Some of that was driven by a couple of hot streaks, some spikes in individual shooting percentage and again, maybe a little more good luck. All of it has dried up.
In the 17 games that have followed, the Sabres’ top-line (Skinner, Eichel, and Sam Reinhart) is dominating even more than it did during the winning streak. Reinhart has 23 points. Eichel and Skinner are both over a point-per-game. When all three are on the ice during 5-on-5 play the Sabres are outscoring teams by a 15-6 margin. They are, for the most part, carrying the play.
It is when they’re not on the ice that everything falls apart.
How little production are they getting out of the rest of the team?
When none of Skinner, Eichel, or Reinhart has been on the ice since Nov. 28, the Sabres have been outscored by a 19-9 margin. Only two players outside of that trio have more than five points over the past 17 games, and they’re both defenders. Rasmus Ristolainen has 12 points and Dahlin has six. Almost all of their points (nine of Ristolainen’s and all six of Dahlin’s) have come with the top-line on the ice.
No other forward on the team has more than three points over their past 17 games.
How can you win with so little production from three of your lines? The answer, of course, is that you can not.
That is the problem the Sabres still have to fix before they can solidify themselves as a playoff team and take the next step in their development.
Big picture, they are not as good they looked during their 10-game winning streak. A lot of things fell perfectly in their favor at the exact same time.
They also may not be as bad as they have looked since. Their current record is probably an accurate representation of what they are. And what they are is a team that has one great line, not much else after it, and on most nights will find itself relying on a coin flip to determine whether they win or lose.
They are better than they have been over the better part of the past decade and they have taken some big steps, but they are not quite there yet.