Sabres shuffle lines looking for spark

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.

MORE: Sabres goalies need to shake off tough month

Struggling Sabres won’t have Eichel for at least two games

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A lot has gone right for the Buffalo Sabres so far this season, which is not something you’d say about this franchise since … the Chris Drury days, maybe?

Things can fall apart alarmingly quickly in the modern NHL, however, and the Sabres face some challenges as 2018 turned to 2019.

Consider that, after their stunning 10-game winning streak, the Sabres enjoyed a 17-6-2 record, even briefly earning a spot atop the entire NHL. While the Sabres are engaged in a tug-of-war with the Bruins for the Atlantic’s third spot, they’ve come down to Earth, having only won four games (4-7-4) since that surprising winning streak.

Bringing a three-game losing streak into Thursday’s home game against the Florida Panthers would be bad enough, but it gets worse when you realize that Phil Housley’s ruling Jack Eichel out for at least the next two games.

Eichel isn’t getting much Hart Trophy buzz, yet – with all due respect to Evan Rodrigues – things get dicey without Buffalo’s captain.

Via Left Wing Lock, the Sabres are expected to place Rodrigues on what’s been an impressive top line, as Eichel normally combines with Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart.

Things get stark beyond that, particularly with Vladimir Sobotka pressed into second-line duty. (Sobotka’s suffering with really bad possession numbers, and only has five points in 37 games during his first season with the Sabres after that Ryan O'Reilly trade.)

There’s not much sense in straining too hard to look for positives here, although there are some interesting things to consider:

  • How will Skinner play without Eichel?

It’s been downright refreshing to see Skinner flourish with an elite center, even if Buffalo’s capologists will disagree regarding the pending free agent. Skinner’s long been an underrated scorer – at least since he’s gotten over scary concussion issues earlier in his career – so this near-point-per-game pace has been fun to watch.

That said, Skinner’s play has undoubtedly been enhanced by Eichel’s presence, not to mention well-timed puck luck (21.3 shooting percentage), which has helped him exceed last season’s 24 goals with 26 already in 2018-19.

Two/a few games wouldn’t stand as the sort of sample size to make any broader judgments about Skinner, yet they could provide an interesting look into how Skinner (and the Sabres) can perform without that star center.

When I first heard about Eichel missing time, I wondered if the silver lining could be Mittelstadt getting a chance to take a bigger role, possibly even stepping into that top center gig.

Of course, that would be a decision made based on his pedigree as a prominent draft pick and prospect, rather than what he’s accomplished so far this season.

After coming into 2018-19 with significant Calder Trophy buzz, Mittelstadt only has 11 points through 40 games while averaging just 13:29 TOI per game. His underlying numbers don’t exactly blow you away (at least not in a good way) either.

Still, I wonder if there’s upside to giving Mittelstadt that shot, rather than placing him in the fourth-line role it appears he’ll take on against Florida on Thursday. Sometimes a talented-but-struggling player can get a boost from playing with other skilled players. If nothing else, there seems like more upside to deploying Mittelstadt as the 2C rather than an also-struggling Sobotka.

Just throwing it out there.

  • But what about Eichel’s routine?

These details from SI’s Alex Prewitt seem less fun. Will Eichel at least get more control over the apples he’s eating now that he’s day-to-day?

***

Buffalo might learn some lessons with Eichel out, whether it’s for two games or more. Unfortunately, there’s a chance many of those lessons will end up being painful.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The best, most jaw-dropping saves of 2018 (PHT Year in Review)

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Pro Hockey Talk is taking a look back at the year in hockey. We’ll be presenting you with the best goals, saves, moments, players and more as we remember 2018.

Goalies. They’re a hockey team’s last refuge.

They’re tasked with what seems impossible at times. Saving hard, rubber pucks flying at blistering, dangerous speeds. The pads and other equipment are only getting smaller yet these brave souls choose to stand in harm’s way.

It’s admirable, above all else.

Goalies are the most important part of a hockey team. Most of the saves they make throughout the course of a season are routine. Flick the right pad out here, throw the glove the hand there.

But some… go above and beyond the call of duty. Some saves shouldn’t be saves at all. They defy logic. Sometimes physics, too. And we’re left only to watch in amazement and marvel at the replays.

And so while we approach the end of 2018, we look back at some of the most incredible saves of the past year.

There’s no particular order for these. Many of them are equally incredible in their own right and deserve to lauded as such.

The first we will see here is Marc-Andre Fleury being, well, Marc-Andre Fleury. Claude Giroux should have scored. He didn’t because of MAF.

Some saves are not only incredible but should be given a primary assist because, without them, the chance to score would simply vanish.

Colorado Avalanche goalie Jonathan Bernier‘s paddle save on Ryan Kesler was tremendous in and of itself, and then it led to a goal by Nathan MacKinnon.

Goalies often have to make quick saves in succession.

A couple of quick shots or perhaps a shot and a save off the ensuing rebound.

Things like that.

In November, Carolina Hurricanes puck stopper Scott Darling robbed Anthony Mantha of a hat trick and then Mike Green of a game winner back to back in overtime.

November was a good month for saves that can’t be explained.

Calvin Peterson isn’t a household name (probably not even to Los Angeles Kings fans), but his save on Loui Eriksson was so dirty that he changed all that with one twist of his body and flash of his glove.

The two-pad stack is a thing of beauty.

Throughout the history of the NHL, there have been some insane variations of it all with the same ending: a jaw-dropping save and a dejected shooter.

Henrik Lundqvist appears here as the perpetrator. Evan Rodrigues is the poor victim.

David Pastrnak has a knack (get it?) for scoring goals.

He’s carving out a nice career doing so thus far.

But in the Stanley Cup Playoffs he had a sure goal snatched off the goal line by the paddle of Freddie Andersen.

Highway robbery in the worst degree.

Braden Holtby produced some magic last season, but arguably his best save of his career came in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final.

With the Caps down one game in the series and leading 3-2 in the game, Holtby came to the rescue after a bad bounce of the stanchion at T-Mobile Arena.

Alex Tuch‘s look of horror said it all.

Alex Ovechkin‘s relief did, too.

Of all the best saves this season, none was more important — and arguably better looking — than the one Holtby delivered in Game 2.

* * * * *

Of course, the NHL is only one breeding ground for great saves. There are leagues across the world that produce the same quality.

The first save was good. The second was stellar. The third was just embarrassing for the team on offense:

I’ve said it before (probably above) and I’ll say it again, paddle saves are the best saves.

Here’s a beauty from the BCHL:

Some goalies don’t get a save-of-the-year candidate in their career.

Kyle Keyser of the OHL’s Oshawa Generals got two in four days.

Paddles, man.

Paddles.

PHT’s Sean Leahy did a whole post on this save.

Again with the paddle. But holy moly, this is bananas.

No Russian translation required.

And don’t forget to watch the Top 18 saves of the season from NBC Sports.

More PHT Year in Review:
• Bloopers
Moments

Goals
Players

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: Capitals host Sabres on NBCSN

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Friday night’s matchup between the Buffalo Sabres and the Washington Capitals with coverage beginning at 6 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This is the second of three meetings between the Sabres and Caps this season, following Washington’s 4-3 shootout win six days ago in D.C. The season series will conclude on Feb. 23 in Buffalo.

Buffalo is coming off a 5-2 loss at home to Florida – a game the Sabres led 2-1 after two periods. Buffalo had been 9-0-2 when leading after 40 minutes this season. In the 10 games since Buffalo’s team-record-tying 10-game win streak, they’ve gone 3-4-3.

The Sabres are getting the vast majority of their offensive production from their top line of Jeff Skinner, Jack Eichel, and Sam Reinhart. Skinner has already surpassed his goal total from last season (which was 24 in 82 games with Carolina), so given that he’s in a contract year, more and more attention is being paid to his future.

Though Alex Ovechkin was held off the scoresheet on Wednesday, he’s still scored 29 goals in 33 games, and is on pace to crack the 70-goal barrier. No one has scored 70 goals since Alexander Mogilny (with the Sabres) and Teemu Selanne both scored 76 in 1992-93.

With one more goal, Ovechkin would join former longtime Capital Mike Gartner as the only players in history to score 30-plus goals in each of their first 14 NHL seasons (Gartner did so in his first 15).

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Buffalo Sabres at Washington Capitals
Where: Capital One Arena
When: Friday, Dec. 21, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Sabres-Capitals stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

SABRES
Jeff Skinner – Jack Eichel – Sam Reinhart
Conor ShearyVladimir SobotkaEvan Rodrigues
Zemgus GirgensonsCasey MittelstadtKyle Okposo
Remi ElieJohan LarssonTage Thompson

Rasmus DahlinZach Bogosian
Lawrence PilutRasmus Ristolainen
Marco ScandellaJake McCabe

Starting goalie: Carter Hutton

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie
Jakub VranaEvgeny KuznetsovTom Wilson
Andre BurakovskyLars EllerBrett Connolly
Chandler StephensonNic DowdDevante Smith-Pelly

Michal KempnyJohn Carlson
Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen
Jonas SiegenthalerMadison Bowey

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

WATCH LIVE: Maple Leafs, Sabres meet in Atlantic Division clash

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres with coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Tonight’s matchup features two of the top teams in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference. The Maple Leafs are riding a four-game winning streak and are 11-3-0 in their past 14 games, while the Sabres have dropped three straight, including a 2-1 loss last night to Nashville.

After missing 14 games with a shoulder injury, Auston Matthews has three goals and an assist in two games since his return. Matthews has 13 goals in 13 games this season, the best goals per game mark of any player in the league. Toronto native Jeff Skinner has been electric for Buffalo this season, leading the Sabres with 20 goals (t-2nd in NHL). He had just 24 goals all last season with Carolina and played in all 82 games.

This will be the first of four meetings between these clubs this season. They will also meet in Toronto on Feb. 25 and March 3, before ending their regular season series on March 20 in Buffalo. The Leafs and Sabres have alternated wins and losses over the past six meetings.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Toronto Maple Leafs at Buffalo Sabres
Where: KeyBank Center
When: Tuesday, Dec. 4, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Maple Leafs-Sabres stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

MAPLE LEAFS
Zach HymanJohn TavaresMitch Marner
Patrick Marleau – Auston Matthews – Kasperi Kapanen
Par LindholmNazem KadriConnor Brown
Tyler EnnisFrederik GauthierAndreas Johnsson

Morgan RiellyRon Hainsey
Jake GardinerNikita Zaitsev
Travis DermottIgor Ozhiganov

Starting goalie: Frederik Andersen

SABRES
Jeff Skinner – Jack EichelSam Reinhart
Tage ThompsonCasey MittelstadtKyle Okposo
Remi ElieEvan RodriguesVladimir Sobotka
Patrik BerglundJohan LarssonZemgus Girgensons

Rasmus DahlinZach Bogosian
Lawrence PilutRasmus Ristolainen
Nathan BeaulieuCasey Nelson

Starting goalie: Linus Ullmark

Kenny Albert (play-by-play) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y.