What a difference two months makes.
The Buffalo Sabres were the darlings of the NHL back in November when they tied a franchise record with 10 straight wins and sat atop the NHL standings at 17-6-2. But since that 10-game winning streak, the Sabres are just 8-14-4 with 20 points, which is tied for the fewest in the league during that span.
During Monday’s practice head coach Phil Housley drastically shuffled his lineup and placed his top three scorers – Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart – on three separate lines. Eichel centered the top line between Conor Sheary and Kyle Okposo, Skinner skated alongside Casey Mittelstadt and Jason Pominville, and Reinhart moved to the third line beside Evan Rodrigues and C.J. Smith.
At 1.13 points per game, Eichel is without question Buffalo’s best player. The captain’s playmaking ability could help spark Sheary and Okposo, who have both had down seasons, but have shown promise in the past, especially when playing next to superstars. Sheary was extremely productive when skating alongside Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh. He tallied 53 points and 23 goals in just 61 games during the 2016-17 season with the Penguins. Okposo’s best years came in his final three seasons with the New York Islanders, when he registered 69, 51 and 64 points respectively before signing a 7-year, $42 million deal with Buffalo in July of 2016. A significant portion of those Islander years were spent alongside John Tavares. Both Sheary and Okposo have struggled to find the same consistency since joining the Sabres. Perhaps this is the catalyst to get them going.
Skinner’s 31 goals are tied for second in the NHL, trailing only Alex Ovechkin. The pending unrestricted free agent has been a perfect match with Eichel all year and is seemingly in line for a big pay day. He’ll now look to find the same chemistry with the 20-year-old Mittelstadt and 36-year-old Pominville. Mittelstadt has struggled mightily with just two goals and six points in his last 19 games. The veteran Pominville has been even less productive, with four points and two goals over his past 25 games.
Meanwhile, Reinhart has 45 points and is on pace for 72, which would shatter his previous career-high of 50 set last season. The rookie Smith has played in just four games this season and six in his young career. He scored his first NHL goal in his last game back on January 8 against New Jersey. Rodrigues has started to pick up the pace with seven points and four goals in his last nine games.
Despite their struggles over the last two months, the Sabres are only three points out of a playoff spot. Now would be an ideal time for them to make a push, as they are in the middle of a season-long seven-game homestand that continues Tuesday night against Minnesota.