Oilers, Sabres sagging despite being led by McDavid, Eichel

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — While keeping open the possibility of a late playoff push, Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid acknowledged how much losing has worn on him this year. In Buffalo, Sabres captain Jack Eichel grew irritated when asked about his team’s inability to win consecutive games in nearly three months.

”I don’t have an answer for you right now,” Eichel said following a 5-2 loss at Toronto on Saturday, a day after beating Pittsburgh.

What’s becoming abundantly clear since McDavid and Eichel were selected with the top two picks in the 2015 draft is it takes more than the arrival of a so-called “once-in-a-generation” star to transform a losing team into a contender.

”It’s a team sport. Things don’t get fixed with one player,” Sabres forward Kyle Okposo said before a 4-3 loss to the Oilers on Monday night. ”They can certainly help. But it’s a collective effort.”

The game against Edmonton was an example of Okposo’s viewpoint. Eichel scored twice, including his career-high-matching 25th, but the Sabres squandered a 3-1 second-period lead.

McDavid and Eichel are the faces of their respective franchises based on both production and salary. The 22-year-old McDavid is in the first season of an eight-year, $100 million contract, and the 22-year-old Eichel is in the first season of an eight-year, $80 million deal.

Their respective teams have barely made a dent in the standings, with both entering the final month of the season in jeopardy of missing the playoffs.

The comparisons are striking.

The Oilers have advanced to the playoffs just once with McDavid, in 2016-17, when they were knocked out in the second round by San Jose. Buffalo is in the midst of a franchise-worst seven-year playoff drought, and finished last overall twice with Eichel.

Both teams also have changed GMs and coaches since 2015. The Oilers fired general manager Peter Chiarelli and coach Todd McLellan in separate moves this season. The Sabres dismissed GM Tim Murray and coach Dan Bylsma in April 2017.

It doesn’t come close to the expectations right after the 2015 draft in Florida, where the Canadian-born McDavid was picked first and the American Eichel second, to the delight of each team’s respective fan base.

As much as McDavid and Eichel dislike the comparisons to each other, they’re in agreement in saying how unfair the expectations were.

”I don’t think that’s possible at all,” McDavid said of one player changing a franchise’s trajectory. ”I don’t think in this league, where it’s so competitive each and every night, that one guy can change it.”

McDavid has won two scoring titles and was the league’s MVP in 2017.

Overall, McDavid’s 348 points (120 goals, 228 assists) in 271 games are third among NHL players since 2015-16. Eichel has 249 points (98 goals, 151 assists) in 272 games, and ranks 29th over the same span following Monday’s game.

Inconsistency has all but scuttled the Sabres’ playoff chances this season.

In going 13-22-6 since a 10-game winning streak in November, they’ve gone from briefly sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings to 11th, and nine points out of contention.

It’s a slide during which Buffalo has failed to win consecutive games since Dec. 11-13. Eichel has been among the few constants. His worst point drought lasted five games.

”It’s a team game and you need everyone pulling in the same direction,” said Eichel, who has a career-best 72 points this season. ”It’s the best league in the world. You can’t expect it to be easy. And I think we all expected it to be hard, and I think it has been.”

The Oilers slipped out of the playoff race following a 1-8-2 skid that began on Jan. 19. Edmonton has rebounded by going 5-1-2 in its past eight, but still sits 11th in the West, and six points out of contention.

With 33 goals and 59 assists, McDavid is the first Oilers’ player to reach 90 points in three consecutive seasons since Jari Kurri (1983-1990) and Mark Messier (1987-90).

”Connor does a ton for us, and obviously, you see the offensive numbers, but it’s more than that,” forward Sam Gagner said when asked how the Oilers might miss the playoffs despite McDavid’s contributions.

”We still feel like we have an opportunity to get back in this,” Gagner added. ”We’re still in the playoff picture. And hopefully we can get there and put that issue to rest.”

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WATCH LIVE: Flyers host Sabres on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the Buffalo Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This game figures to be crucial as both teams chase the Hurricanes and Penguins, who are tied with 72 points for the final Eastern Conference wild card spot. Though the Sabres (10th in East) sit one point ahead of the Flyers (11th), their recent play has them going in opposite directions.

Philadelphia is 13-3-1 in its last 17 games and are coming off dramatic 4-3 overtime win vs. the Penguins in Saturday’s Stadium Series game. Meanwhile, the Buffalo is 1-4-1 in its last 6 games, including Monday night’s 5-3 defeat at Toronto. The Sabres have not won two in a row in over two months.

After snapping a four-game losing streak on Saturday against Washington, and then taking a 1-0 lead into the first intermission yesterday against Toronto, it appeared that the Sabres were building some momentum. However, Buffalo allowed four goals in the second period, saw Carter Hutton get pulled, and ultimately lost 5-3.

The Flyers have had a couple days off since their improbable comeback victory in the Stadium Series game at Lincoln Financial Field. Trailing 3-1 with just over three minutes to play, Philly rallied to tie the game before Claude Giroux – in his 800th career game – scored the OT winner.

Just when it appeared that Carter Hart was finally providing some stability in net, he was pulled in back-to-back starts last week before getting ruled out for at least 10 days with a lower-body injury in advance of the Stadium Series game. In stepped Brian Elliott, who made 40 saves to defeat the Penguins in his first start since November 15 (he did appear twice in relief of Hart earlier in the week). Elliott will start again in this game.

Since winning their 10th straight game on Nov. 27 to claim 1st place in the entire NHL, Buffalo has been a very below-average team. They have a 12-19-6 record over that span and have dropped from first in the NHL in 17th.

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

What: Buffalo Sabres at Philadelphia Flyers
Where: Wells Fargo Center
When: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Sabres-Flyers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

SABRES
Jeff SkinnerJack EichelEvan Rodrigues
Conor ShearyCasey MittelstadtSam Reinhart
Scott Wilson – Vladimir Sobotka – Jason Pominville
Zemgus GirgensonsJohan LarssonKyle Okposo

Jake McCabeRasmus Ristolainen
Rasmus DahlinZach Bogosian
Marco ScandellaBrandon Montour

Starting goalie: Carter Hutton

FLYERS
Claude Giroux – Nolan PatrickTravis Konecny
Oskar LindblomSean CouturierJakub Voracek
James van RiemsdykScott LaughtonMichael Raffl
Corban Knight – Ryan Hartman

Ivan ProvorovTravis Sanheim
Shayne GostisbehereRadko Gudas
Robert HaggAndrew MacDonald

Phil Myers

Starting goalie: Brian Elliott

Gord Miller (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa.

NHL on NBCSN: Okposo back and feeling ‘great’ following latest concussion

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the Buffalo Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The one bright spot in the Sabres’ continued free-fall Monday night was the 11:40 of ice time given to Kyle Okposo, who returned after missing four games due to a concussion. The 30-year-old forward took a punch from Tony DeAngelo of the New York Rangers on Feb. 15 and suffered his third such injury in the last two years.

The concussion he suffered in 2017 sent him into a dark period where he just wasn’t himself, worrying friends and family around him. So this latest incident had many worried for Okposo, wondering if he would ever play again.

After the fight, he joined the Sabres on their road trip to New Jersey before being sent back to Buffalo for evaluation. Doctors diagnosed him with another concussion, but he was back on the ice two days later and progressed from there.

According to Okposo, this latest concussion was “more precautionary than anything” and the discomfort was more in his neck than head.

Even with his history, Okposo didn’t look back and regret his decision with fight DeAngelo.

“No, I probably should,” he said via the Buffalo News. “It’s part of the game. I missed a grab and that’s what happened. It’s part of the game. I didn’t think we were playing well, just trying to give the team a little spark. It is what it is.”

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

The Sabres’ could use a spark right now as they’re mired in a slump that’s seen them win three times in 11 games and fall six points back of an Eastern Conference wild card spot. Getting a healthy Okposo back helps, as does adding Brandon Montour to the blue line via a trade with the Anaheim Ducks. But there’s still plenty of work to do in order to give themselves a chance. Follow tonight’s game against the Flyers, they have a back-to-back on Friday and Saturday against the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Toronto Maple Leafs, who beat them 5-3 last night. Time is running out to make their move in the East.

For Okposo, he knows his body and he feels he’s more than ready to continue playing on a regular basis, even with his injury history.

“I think there’s a physiological component to it, too,” he said. “You get hit and obviously I know my history more than anybody. There’s definitely that component of, ‘Am I OK?’ And then you start second guessing. You just got to find a balance.

“You’ve got to really be in tune with your body and your mind and be really honest with yourself and how you feel. I feel great.”

Gord Miller (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa.

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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.

Sabres’ Okposo feels good as he recovers from third concussion

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Buffalo Sabres forward Kyle Okposo tells The Associated Press he’s feeling good while recovering from his third concussion in less than three years.

A smiling Okposo made the comment Saturday while making his way through the press box to watch Buffalo’s home game against Washington.

His appearance came after coach Phil Housley said Okposo has begun skating on his own a little over a week since being felled by a punch to the face during a fight with New York Rangers defenseman Tony DeAngelo.

Okposo was cleared to travel for the team’s game at New Jersey on Feb. 17. He did not play against the Devils and instead was sent home, where he was diagnosed with a concussion.

Housley didn’t provide a timetable in saying he imagines Okposo returning to play this season.

”He skated again today and those are all good signs for us,” Housley said.

Okposo’s concussion history includes him missing the final two weeks of the 2017-18 season and spending nearly a week in a hospital after what he called a routine hit in practice. He also missed three games last March after suffering a concussion in a collision with Ottawa’s Bobby Ryan.

Sabres’ Kyle Okposo diagnosed with another concussion

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Buffalo Sabres forward Kyle Okposo has sustained his third concussion in less than three years.

The team announced the diagnosis on its Twitter account Tuesday, a day after Okposo was sent home for follow-up medical tests. The 30-year-old Okposo was hurt Friday, when he was felled by a punch to the face during a fight with New York’s Tony DeAngelo in the third period of a 6-2 loss to the Rangers.

Okposo did not return to play against the Rangers, but was cleared to travel with the Sabres to open their three-game trip at New Jersey on Sunday. He did not play against the Devils, and returned to Buffalo while the Sabres traveled to Florida to play the Panthers on Tuesday night.

This is the latest in string of concussions for the 12th-year player.

He missed the final two weeks of the 2017-18 season and spent nearly a week in a hospital after sustaining a concussion during what he called a routine hit in practice. The effects led to Okposo losing a considerable amount of weight and having difficulty sleeping.

He also missed three games last March after sustaining a concussion following a collision with Ottawa’s Bobby Ryan.