The Colorado Avalanche and Buffalo Sabres are having a nearly identical experience on the roller coaster ride that is their 2018-19 season.
It all started with what was probably considered a pleasant surprise and a lot of excitement, and has quickly devolved into a season that could end with bitter disappointment if things don’t start to turn around quickly. While both teams opened the season with their share of flaws on their respective rosters, they both stormed out of the gate and found themselves sitting with the exact same record (37 points) through their first 27 games.
For any team, in any season, that is not only an outstanding start it is usually the jumping off point for what could be a special year. It is playing at would be a 112-point pace for more than a quarter of the season, something that is not easy to do. That usually puts teams among the top four or five in the NHL and is usually the sign of a team that not only has a great shot to make the playoffs, but even a shot to go on a serious playoff run.
During the 10-year stretch between 2008-09 and 2017-18 there were 45 teams that recorded at least 37 points through their first 27 games in a season, with 42 of them (93.3 percent) going on to make the playoffs. Banking those early season points matters and usually gives teams enough of a cushion for any sort of slump that will happen over the course of an 82-game schedule.
Given the flaws both teams had (scoring depth and defensive, specifically) it seemed inevitable that neither one would continue that early season pace, but they still seemed to have put themselves in a great position, one that would have been extremely difficult to squander the rest of the way.
For the Avalanche, it looked to be a big stepping stone after last year’s stunning turnaround that saw them go from being one of the worst teams in the NHL over the past decade, all the way to a playoff berth in just one season.
For the Sabres, it looked as if this season was finally going to be a real sign of progress after seven consecutive non-playoff seasons and a massive rebuild that has resulted in nothing but losing. With a 17-7-3 start out of the gate, including a 10-game winning streak, the postseason finally seemed to be in reach again.
Despite all of that, both teams prepare to enter the second half of the season in danger of completely missing the playoffs due to nearly identical slides over the past two months.
Buffalo has dropped out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture entirely and finds itself four points back of the second Wild Card spot. Given how far ahead the rest of the pack in the Atlantic Division is (the Sabres are seven points back of the third-place Montreal Canadiens) the wild card is probably the Sabres’ only path to a playoff spot right now. All they have to do at the moment is overtake the Boston Bruins or Pittsburgh Penguins, both of which have far more talented rosters.
The Avalanche, meanwhile, are one of the many teams in Western Conference race that are all separated by just a handful of points. With 52 points on the season the Avalanche are clinging to the second wild card spot based on points percentage at the moment, but are also just three points back of a top-three spot in the Central Division.
The similarities between both teams and how their seasons have progressed are striking.
Both teams had the first half of their seasons defined by one hot streak that skyrocketed them up the standings. For the Sabres, it was the aforementioned 10-game winning streak that was powered by a stunning run of good fortune that saw them win almost every game not only by a single goal, but also (usually) in overtime or a shootout.
Eventually that luck ran out. Around that same time, the Avalanche went on an 11-game point streak (9-0-2).
Both teams have also been powered almost exclusively by just a single, dominant line at the top of their lineup.
Just look at the numbers (goals, shot attempts, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances, all via Natural Stat Trick) for both teams when their top lines are on the ice versus when any of the the other three lines have to play.
Each one plays at a Stanley Cup level with its top line on the ice, and then sees a massive slide down to a lottery team level as soon as it leaves the ice.
The Avalanche at least hold up decently well when it comes to scoring chances when their big line is off the ice, but it has not yet translated into anything meaningful on the scoreboard.
The Sabres, however, are totally dependent on the Eichel-Skinner duo to keep them afloat.
This, along with the way they are in danger of squandering such a great start in the standings, has to be especially frustrating for both teams because they have the most difficult pieces to find. They not only have top-line, All-Star level talent on their rosters, they have multiple players at that level and all of them are not only reaching expectations, there is an argument to be made they are exceeding them. But these two teams are showing — along with the Dallas Stars and Edmonton Oilers — that it takes more than one line, no matter how great or dominant it is, to win in the NHL on a consistent basis. For as good as these groupings are together they are still only playing a third of the game (at most) on any given night. That leaves the majority of the game up to the rest of the team, and if the rest of the team isn’t close to that same level, or good enough to outplay the other team’s second, third, and fourth lines none of it is going to matter.
The Avalanche are probably the team sitting in the best position right now, even though they are competing with more teams for a playoff spot.
For one, they have shown some sign that their other lines can at least create some chances. They are not totally lost without the MacKinnon-Rantanen-Landeskog trio on the ice. They also have not been as dependent as the Sabres when it comes to overtime and one-goal games. Even when the Avalanche went on their 11-game point streak only three of their nines wins were by a single goal, and they were only 2-2 in games decided by one goal during that stretch. They have shown they can blow teams out control games to the point where it does not all come down to one call, or shot, or play going in their favor.
If anything, they’ve been a little unlucky in one-goal games this seasons with only a 4-8-7 mark as of Sunday.
The Sabres, on the other hand, have shown absolutely nothing this season without the Eichel and Skinner on the ice and have been almost entirely dependent on one-goal games with a 13-5-6 mark. That is not the sign of a good team that knows how to win close games. That is the sign of a team that has been terribly lucky.
It is also a concerning sign for the rest of the season.
Both teams put themselves in a great position in the first quarter of the season, and both teams allowed themselves to fall down to the bubble in the second quarter.
They now have less than 35 games to figure it out and get back on track to avoid what would be a stunning collapse based on recent NHL history.