Examining Sabres’ current slide

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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.

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.

Predators-Avalanche postponed due to water main break

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Friday’s game between the Nashville Predators and the Colorado Avalanche has been postponed because of a water main break that has soaked the downtown arena.

The NHL said the water main break has “significantly impacted the event level” of Bridgestone Arena. Team locker rooms and the ice surface are on the event level.

Predators President and CEO Sean Henry told reporters that the water in the event level ranged from 3 inches to 3 feet.

“We’re assessing it right now. We’re remediating it,” Henry said. “The good thing is, the water got shut off, the city responded in a pretty fast manner. I don’t think anyone is ready for things like this the Friday after Thanksgiving.”

Video posted by a WTVF-TV reporter shows the water puddled up on the main floor’s concourse area and the team store.

The team was forced to close the store until further notice, pointing shoppers online for Black Friday specials.

A makeup date for the  game will be announced later.

Also, a decision on whether to postpone the Predators’ home game against the Columbus Blue Jackets will be made later.

The water issue also resulted in a switch to a different venue in Nashville for a college hockey game between Northeastern and Western Michigan. They had been scheduled to play at Bridgestone Arena, a game that was moved to Ford Ice Center Bellevue.

Rangers trade Ryan Reaves to Wild for 5th-round pick in 2025

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
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ST. PAUL, Minn. — The New York Rangers traded enforcer Ryan Reaves to the Minnesota Wild for a 2025 fifth-round pick.

Reaves had been a healthy scratch for eight of the past 12 games for the Rangers. He gives struggling Minnesota some extra muscle and a veteran presence.

The 35-year-old is signed through only the rest of this season at a $1.75 million salary cap hit. He has no points and 12 penalty minutes in 12 games of his second season with New York.

Reaves has played in 869 NHL regular-season and playoff games for the St. Louis Blues, Pittsburgh Penguins, Vegas Golden Knights and Rangers. He was with the Golden Knights during their inaugural season in 2017-18 when the reached the Stanley Cup Final.

Toronto’s Morgan Rielly placed on long-term injured reserve

Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
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TORONTO — The Toronto Maple Leafs placed defenseman Morgan Rielly on long-term injured reserve with a knee injury.

Rielly was hurt in a collision with with New York forward Kyle Palmieri early in the third period of Toronto’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Islanders at home.

Rielly has no goals and 16 assists in 20 games this season and is averaging 23 minutes of ice time.

Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said following practice that the 28-year-old Rielly doesn’t need surgery, adding there’s no firm timeline for his return beyond the minimum 24 days and 10 games required for going on long-term injured reserve.

Toronto’s defense is also missing Jake Muzzin with a neck injury and T.J. Brodie with an injured oblique.

Carrier, Pietrangelo rally Golden Knights past Canucks 5-4

Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Pietrangelo scored the tiebreaking goal in the third period and had two assists as the Vegas Golden Knights rallied past the Vancouver Canucks 5-4 on Monday night.

William Carrier scored twice and Mark Stone had a goal and an assist for the Golden Knights (15-4-1), who overcame a 4-2 deficit in the third. Reilly Smith also scored, while Jack Eichel and Alec Martinez each had two assists.

Logan Thompson made 25 saves for Vegas, which had a go-ahead goal wiped out in the third but still kept pushing.

“I don’t think that’s really how we drew it up,” Pietrangelo said. “A lot of emotions. Obviously we score and then it gets taken back. But I’ll tell you what, it’s not easy to win on the road and you’ve got to give credit to our group – we were resilient no matter what happened.”

Vancouver (6-10-3) got a goal and an assist from Andrei Kuzmenko. Bo Horvat, Luke Schenn and Elias Pettersson also scored, and Quinn Hughes had two assists.

Thatcher Demko stopped 33 shots for the Canucks, who gave up a multi-goal lead in a loss for the seventh time this season.

“Inexcusable,” defenseman Luke Schenn said.

“That’s nothing to do with systems or what the coaches are telling us. That comes down to battle and compete and, we’re getting outmuscled and outbattled in front of the net and in the blue paint,” he added. “Everyone just needs to be better in front of (Demko) there and that’s where games are won and lost.”

Vegas appeared to take the lead midway through the third period, but the goal was disallowed because of a bizarre bounce.

A clearing attempt by the Canucks hit the lens of a camera sticking through one of the media holes in the glass, knocking a piece of it onto the ice. Play continued at that end and Stone put the puck in the net. But after a video review, the goal was overturned and an official said the whistle should have been blown to stop play.

About four minutes later, Pietrangelo did give the Golden Knights a 5-4 advantage when he collected a puck from Stone and sent a backhand past Demko from the low slot at 14:14.

Vancouver scored three straight goals early in the third to go up 4-2 before Vegas roared back.

“We let them score one, kind of changed the momentum quick and then they scored another one. So I don’t know,” Pettersson said. “We just can’t let that happen. It’s been happening way too many times this season.”

Carrier made it 4-3 with his second of the night at 6:54, sending in a rebound from the top of the crease for his sixth of the season.

“Once they scored one it was like, `Uh oh, here we go again.’ And we’re back on our heels and they came at us, and then they got three,” Canucks coach Bruce Boudreau said.

Smith shoveled a puck into the Vancouver net at 8:57 to tie it.

“We just win some pucks below their goal line and get it to the front of the net and force them to defend an area they haven’t done as good a job as they’d probably like this year there,” Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said. “We didn’t do a very good job to start a third there, and then it snowballs a little bit. You have a little life and you get a couple more pucks to the net and a second chance.”

ON A ROLL

Horvat drew the Canucks even 1:47 into the third with a wrist shot from the hash marks. Vancouver’s captain has 15 goals, second-most in the NHL behind Connor McDavid (16). … Brock Boeser‘s assist on the first goal of the game extended his point streak to seven games (two goals, six assists).

MARKING MILESTONES

Golden Knights forward Jonathan Marchessault played his 500th regular-season NHL game. Now in his 10th season, the 31-year-old center suited up for Columbus, Tampa Bay and Florida before Vegas selected him in the 2017 expansion draft. … Vancouver defenseman Ethan Bear made his 200th regular-season appearance.

UP NEXT

Golden Knights: Host the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday in the opener of a three-game homestand.

Canucks: Begin a three-game trip Wednesday at Colorado.