What’s gone wrong for the Sabres?

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Exactly one year ago the Buffalo Sabres were in the middle of a 10-game winning streak that would catapult them to the top of the NHL standings. Expectations were increasing, excitement was building, and at the very least it seemed as if the team had at least banked enough points in the standings that their playoff drought would finally come to an end, barring some sort of unspeakably bad collapse.

Then the unspeakably bad collapse happened.

They responded with another coaching change (their fifth in eight years), re-signed Jeff Skinner, made a few tweaks to the roster, and roared out of the gate this season by winning eight of their first 10 games and once again gave their fans a brief glimpse of hope.

It has, once again, been all downhill ever since.

The Sabres enter Monday’s game against Boston having won just two of their previous 11 games (the two wins were against Ottawa and Detroit) and are facing a pretty grueling six-game stretch that has them play Boston, Florida, Tampa Bay, Calgary, and Toronto (twice). There are a lot of divisional games there which means things can swing pretty dramatically in either direction in a very short period of time. Pick up a few wins, and the season can still be salvaged. Lose, and things can start heading down a very disappointing path.

The problem a year ago is that the Sabres’ fast start was the result of a lot of good luck and a lot of smoke and mirrors. Almost every game on the 10-game winning streak was decided by a single goal and required overtime or a shootout. The underlying numbers as a team were poor and it seemed like a team just waiting to collapse on itself.

Let’s take a look at what’s gone wrong this season.

They just don’t have enough offense

Jack Eichel is one of the best players in the league, while Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart are solid complementary players at the top of the lineup. That trio has combined to score 13 of the team’s 22 goals over the past 11 games, meaning the rest of the team is doing almost nothing, and some of the numbers are pretty jarring.

Take Casey Mittelstadt, for example. The No. 8 overall pick from 2017 is in his second full season in the league and is supposed to be a long-term core building block. He has been a complete non-factor this season offensively, entering play on Monday with just three goals and only 21 shots on goal in 21 games. He has just five shots on goal over the team’s 11-game slide and has been held without a shot in seven of those games.

Marcus Johansson was one of the team’s offseason additions and got off to a strong start with four goals and seven total points in his first nine games. He has been sidelined for the past two weeks, but even before he went out of the lineup his offense had completely disappeared with only five shots in his final eight games. Six of those games resulted in no shots on goal.

There are 33 forwards in the NHL with at least 15 games played this season and averaging one shot on goal or less per game — four of those 33 players play for the Sabres. You can not score goals that way.

Rasmus Dahlin‘s sophomore struggles

The league’s reigning rookie of the year is actually ahead of his scoring pace from a year ago (at least as far as assists are concerned) but every other aspect of his game has seemingly taken a small step back. He even found himself benched in a recent game. Dahlin is one of the most important players in the Sabres’ organization because of the potential he has and the role he is expected to play. If he becomes the player he was projected to be entering the league he could be the type of defensemen that can significantly change a team’s fortune. During his rookie year he looked like he was on his way to being that player. There is no reason to be overly concerned that he still won’t get there, but he’s definitely going through some growing pains. And since the Sabres don’t have another defender that possesses his skill or potential, if he’s not dominating games from the blue line, no one will.

This simply might be all they are capable of

The biggest issue with the Sabres isn’t necessarily “what’s gone recently,” but rather “what if this this is as good as they are?”

What is the identity of this team? What does it do well?

Even though Eichel has met his pre-draft expectations and become a top-line player, there is not much help around him to make this a good offensive team unless the power play dominates. The power play was hot at the start of the year, but has cooled off considerably since.

They are not great defensively unless they get outstanding goaltending, and everything about their 5-on-5 play points to a mediocre (to maybe even bad) team. They rank 14th in shot attempt differential at even-strength, and sit among the bottom-six in scoring chance, high-danger scoring chances, and expected goals (all via Natural Stat Trick), while owning an even goal differential (39 for, 39 against). Nothing stands out about them, and that has to be the most frustrating thing for Sabres fans as they go through what could be a ninth consecutive year of this.

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.

Stars can’t afford to be without Heiskanen for too long

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Thursday night wasn’t good for the Dallas Stars. Not only did they lose to the Buffalo Sabres, they also watched as defenseman Miro Heiskanen suffered an upper-body injury during the game.

He’s considered day-to-day for now.

The 20-year-old was hurt after Sabres forward Rasmus Asplund made contact with his head as Heiskanen was falling down to the ice. He then went to the Stars locker room and never returned to the game.

“We all know what he does for us,” Stars interim head coach Rick Bowness said, per the Dallas News. “Our breakouts are a lot better, he joins the rush and he’s a danger on that offensive blue line. Take him out of there, and that’s a big hole. There’s just no getting around that. Injuries happen, and got to keep playing. Got to overcome them.”

Here’s how he got hurt:

It’s easy to see why Heiskanen wouldn’t be pleased with Asplund in the moment, but the contact with the head only occurs because Heiskanen falls forward right before his opponent gets to the corner. But Sweden on Finland crime will never go over well.

The Stars don’t know how long their young defender will be out, but, as Bowness mentioned, it’s clear that they need him back in their lineup quickly. He’s up to seven goals and 24 points in 47 games this season and he averages just over 24 minutes of ice time per game.

The fancy stats also show that when Heiskanen is on the ice the Stars control 55.31 percent of the XGF and 54.19% of the high-danger chances (stats via Natural Stat Trick).

He’s formed a nice duo with Jamie Oleksiak, as they’ve played 384 minutes together at five-on-five this season. If he’s out for an extended period of time, finding someone to slide into that spot won’t be easy.

“He’s an elite player on this team, so anytime you lose one of those guys, it doesn’t matter who it is, it’s going to hurt,” teammate Ben Bishop said after the loss to Buffalo. “Obviously, we’re down a goal there, we rely on those guys.”

On a more positive note, it sounds like they’ll be getting Stephen Johns back after he missed 22 months with post-traumatic headaches. He’ll have to be eased back into the lineup, but he could help fill the void left by Heiskanen. But they’ll likely have to do that as a committee.

The Stars currently find themselves in third place in the Central Division with a record of 27-16-4. They’re tied for second with Colorado, but the Avs hold the tie-breaker (they have more regulation/overtime victories). The Winnipeg Jets, who are currently fourth in the division and just outside the playoff picture, are four points behind Dallas.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Stars’ Stephen Johns nears return after 22-month absence

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DALLAS (AP) — Star defenseman Stephen Johns appears on track to return to Dallas’ lineup for the first time in 22 months on Saturday.

Johns, who returned from a conditioning assignment with Texas of the AHL, was not active for Thursday’s game but will travel with the Stars for their game at Minnesota.

He has not played in an NHL game since March 29, 2018, because of post-traumatic headaches.

”There’s a good chance he’ll play Saturday,” interim coach Rick Bowness said, ”so we’ll evaluate that (Friday) and Saturday morning.”

In two games for Texas, Johns had a goal and three assists.

The Stars could be in need of a defenseman after Miro Heiskanen didn’t play the second half of Thursday’s 4-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres because of an upper-body injury. Bowness said Heiskanen’s availability is considered day to day.

PHT Morning Skate: Under-the-radar rookies; Ovechkin’s suspension

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Find out a little bit more about Nicklas Backstrom‘s new contract extension with Washington. (Nova Caps)

• Here’s a list of five-under-the-radar rookies that could compete for the Calder Trophy. (The Hockey News)

• Three-on-three hockey is awesome, but don’t expect to see much more of it going forward. (TSN)

• Martin Brodeur is hoping to get a bigger role with the Devils going forward. (NHL.com)

• Check out Elliott Friedman’s latest 31 thoughts blog. (Sportsnet)

• Even though hockey has changed a lot, there’s still a need for “muscle”. (National Post)

• Have you ever wondered what it takes to be an effective pest in the NHL? (ESPN)

• Sabres top prospect Dylan Cozens is inspiring a lot of young athletes in Yukon. (New York Times)

Alex Ovechkin has decided which game he’ll miss as part of his suspension for skipping the All-Star game. (Washington Post)

• NBC Sports Boston breaks down the 10 best left wingers in hockey. Do you agree with this list? (NBC Sports Boston)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Golden Knights win DeBoer’s debut; Hats off to Ovechkin

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Three Stars

1. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals. Another milestone for the greatest goal scorer to ever play in the NHL. He recorded his 25th career hat trick on Thursday night and reached the 30-goal mark for the 15th consecutive season to start his career, a feat accomplished only by him and Mike Gartner. Read more about it here.

2. David Rittich, Calgary Flames. Huge night for the All-Star goalie as he stopped 35 shots during regulation and overtime and all three shots he faced in a shootout to help lift the Flames to a 2-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Flames have now won six of their past seven games. Thanks to the Arizona Coyotes’ loss to the Vancouver Canucks, the Flames are now tied for first place in the Pacific Division.

3. Mark Stone, Vegas Golden Knights. The Golden Knights won Peter DeBoer’s coaching debut on Thursday night, 4-2, over the Ottawa Senators thanks to a big game from Stone. He scored a goal and recorded an assist in his first game back in Ottawa as a visiting player. Stone played the first six-and-a-half years of his career with the Senators and was one of the team’s best players during his time there. He was a key part of their 2016-17 run to the Eastern Conference Final and became one of the league’s best two-way players. The Senators traded him to Vegas at the trade deadline a year ago. He received a lengthy ovation from the Ottawa crowd on Thursday.

Other notable performances from Thursday

  • Jaroslav Halak gave up a goal to Sidney Crosby just 24 seconds into the game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday, then slammed the door shut the right of the night to help the Boston Bruins to a 4-1 win.
  • John Tortorella recorded his 200th win as head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets in their 3-2 win over the Carolina Hurricanes. It is a huge win for the Blue Jackets and a costly game for the Hurricanes as defenseman Dougie Hamilton exited the game with a nasty looking leg injury. Read about it here.
  • The Minnesota Wild snapped their four-game losing streak with an impressive win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. Read about it here.
  • Sam Montembeault replaced an injured Chris Driedger in the Florida Panthers’ net and helped them get a big win over the Los Angeles Kings.
  • Ilya Kovalchuk continued his great play with the Montreal Canadiens by scoring two goals in a 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers. He now has three goals and seven total points in seven games since joining the Canadiens.
  • Rasmus Dahlin scored his third goal of the season to help the Buffalo Sabres beat the Dallas Stars.
  • John Gibson stopped 33 shots for the Anaheim Ducks as they hand the Nashville Predators their seventh defeat in their past 10 games.
  • Philipp Grubauer stops all 27 shots he faces in a shutout win for the Colorado Avalanche over the San Jose Sharks.
  • Jake Virtanen avoids a suspension earlier in the day and then scores the game-winning goal for the Vancouver Canucks in a big win over the Arizona Coyotes.

Highlights of the Night

This might have been Rittich’s biggest and best save of the night.

Cam Atkinson wasted no time making an impact in his return to the Blue Jackets’ lineup with this assist early in the first period.

Chris Kreider scores a game-winning power play with 30 seconds to play in regulation to help give the New York Rangers a 3-2 win over the New York Islanders.

Blooper of the Night

After whiffing on a shootout attempt earlier this week, Brad Marchand had some more problems on a breakaway.

Auston Matthews tried the lacrosse move and it did not work.

Factoids

  • Cale Makar scored his 10th goal of the season for the Colorado Avalanche, tying him for the most in franchise history for a rookie defenseman. [NHL PR]
  • Patrice Bergeron reached the 20-goal mark for the 11th time in his career, the second most in Bruins franchise history behind only John Buyck. [NHL PR]
  • Capitals goalie Ilya Samsonov is the 10th rookie goalie to ever win nine consecutive decisions during the regular season. [NHL PR]

Scores

Boston Bruins 4, Pittsburgh Penguins 1
Calgary Flames 2, Toronto Maple Leafs 1 (SO)
Florida Panthers 4, Los Angeles Kings 3
New York Rangers 3, New York Islanders 2
Montreal Canadiens 4, Philadelphia Flyers 1
Washington Capitals 5, New Jersey Devils 2
Columbus Blue Jackets 3, Carolina Hurricanes 2
Vegas Golden Knights 4, Ottawa Senators 2
Anaheim Ducks 4, Nashville Predators 2
Minnesota Wild 3, Tampa Bay Lightning 2
Buffalo Sabres 4, Dallas Stars 1
Colorado Avalanche 4, San Jose Sharks 0
Vancouver Canucks 3, Arizona Coyotes 1

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.