Marcus Johansson

Are the Sabres the real deal?

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It’s way too early in the season to be asking this question, but we’re going to do it anyway. Are the Buffalo Sabres the real deal?

Through six games, the Sabres have rattled off a 5-0-1 record and they have the best goal differential at plus-12. Not bad, not bad at all. New head coach Ralph Krueger has seemingly pushed all the right buttons and his players have responded in a positive way. Now, all he has to do (easier said than done) is keep it going for 76 more games!

“Anytime you get off to a good start and get results, confidence naturally comes with that,” forward Jeff Skinner said after Monday’s win over Dallas. “What you have to do is keep working at your game and use the confidence in a positive way. We still have things to work on, we still have things we want to improve. Being able to get off to a good start results-wise is nice. Now we have to keep that momentum going.”

There’s a few things that stand out when you take a look at why they’ve been so good. First, their power-play has been lethal. Raise your hand if you thought Rasmus Dahlin, Jack Eichel and Victor Olofsson would all be in the top six when it came to power play points to start the season. What? Anybody? Thought so.

Buffalo has scored at least one tally on the man-advantage in five of their six games. They scored three power play goals against the New Jersey Devils, two against the Columbus Blue Jackets and two against the Montreal Canadiens.

The Sabres’ power play was ranked 16th last season at just under 20 percent. This year, they’re clicking at 42.9 percent while the league average is right around 21 percent. As dynamic as they are when they’re up a man, there’s no way they’re going to roll at over 40 percent all year. To put that number into perspective, the Tampa Bay Lightning, who had the best power play in the league last year, were firing at just over 28 percent.

One of the other strong parts of their game has been their goaltending. Carter Hutton has been rock-solid between the pipes and Linus Ullmark has been really good, too. Hutton, who has started four of the team’s six games, has a 4-0-0 record with a 1.74 goals-against-average and a .931 save percentage this season. He’s coming off a 25-save shutout in a 4-0 win over the Dallas Stars.

“A lot of it is the fact that they both get to play then they both feel like they have a little bit of a rhythm going,” assistant coach Mike Bales, who works with the goaltenders, told the Sabres’ website. “One guy’s not going to sit for too long. So, they always feel game-ready because of that too. It helps a lot.

“You can practice all you want, but when you get into games it feels a little bit different. The traditional, old-school way of doing it where you have one guy play 65 games and the backup would come in and mop up once in a while, wouldn’t get that many starts, was tough on backups for rhythm and feeling ready so I think having two guys going all the time helps them be ready when they do play.”

Whether or not Hutton and Ullmark can keep this going remains to be seen, but it’s imperative that they get great goaltending if they’re going to earn a playoff spot in 2019-20. Ullmark hasn’t been a regular in the NHL for as long as Hutton, so it’s tough to get a gauge of what he can do over a full season. As for Hutton, he’s a veteran and he’s been around the league a lot. He got off to a very strong start last year before fading in a hurry in the second half of the season.

Another reason they haven’t lost in regulation yet is because of their balanced scoring. Through six contests, Buffalo has had 10 different scorers. Olofsson leads the way with five goals, Skinner has four, Marcus Johansson, Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel each have three, Conor Sheary has two, while Johan Larsson, Marco Scandella, Kyle Okposo and Dahlin have all found the back of the net once. Now that’s balance.

As fun as the Sabres have been, it’s tough to envision them staying ahead of teams like Boston, Tampa Bay and Toronto, but they don’t have to finish atop the Atlantic Division to have a successful season. Making it back to the postseason in a Wild Card spot would be a huge success. They still have plenty of work to do before they can reach that point, but this team filled with youth seems to be on the right track.

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: Sizzling Sabres; Devils can’t beat Hart

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Three Stars

1. Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres

Buffalo is off to a hot start, and to little surprise, Eichel is leading the way.

You know that a player is explosive when he can begin the season with seven points in four games despite going pointless in two of those contests. Wednesday represented Eichel’s best work of 2019-20 yet, as he generated two goals and two assists.

Eichel is a driving force of a hot Sabres power play that went 2-for-5 against the Canadiens, and Eichel assisted on a Marcus Johansson OT game-winner that happened soon after a penalty expired.

Eichel had quite the peripheral output, too, getting those two goals on eight SOG.

2. J.T. Miller, Vancouver Canucks

Considering the absolute beating Vancouver handed Los Angeles, it’s not surprising that an 8-2 game produce a top Vancouver performance. Canucks GM Jim Benning must feel great about seeing Miller have a one-goal, three-assist performance during the home-opener.

Time will tell if Miller was worth the first-rounder the Canucks will give up for him – either in 2020 or 2021 – but he’s nights like Wednesday serve as an argument that Miller is the type of top-six forward Vancouver sorely needed.

3. Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers

For the first time in a career the Flyers are pinning a lot of hopes on, Hart achieved an NHL shutout.

While he didn’t need to make an enormous number of stops – finishing Wednesday with 25 – there were some that were absolutely of a high degree of difficulty. The one that will live on the longest came during a 5-on-3 power play, as he absolutely robbed Taylor Hall, which brings us to …

Highlight of the Night

How could it be anything other than Hart robbing Hall? More on that here, but enjoy the save again below:

Blooper of the Night:

Ouch, Kyle Palmieri.

Burn of the Night

Flyers have little chill, as the Devils found out.

Factoids

  • At 21 years and 57 days old, Hart became the youngest goalie in Flyers history to get a shutout, via NHL PR.
  • From NHL PR: the Canucks tied their most goals for a home opener with eight, and Miller’s four points ties Alexander Mogilny, Tony Tanti, and Greg Adams for the most in a home opener.
  • Buffalo’s Victor Olofsson scored his sixth NHL goal on Wednesday, and so far, all of them have come on the power play. Olofsson ranks among four players to start their careers that way, according to Statscentre.
  • The Canucks faced the Kings for their first regular-season game 49 years ago. In that case, it went Los Angeles’ way, as the Kings won 3-1.

Scores

BUF 5 – MTL 4 (OT)
PHI 4 – NJD 0
VAN 8 – LAK 2

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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.

Sabres have renewed hopes with Krueger on board as coach

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — New coach. New hopes. Maybe this is the season in which the Buffalo Sabres’ long-awaited turnaround finally begins.

”Let’s get through Day 1 first,” Kyle Okposo said with a laugh upon reporting for training camp.

It’s not as if Okposo doesn’t welcome the upbeat, motivational vibe new coach Ralph Krueger is introducing to a team the spent the past two years mostly underachieving under Phil Housley. An out-of-the-box hire if there ever was one, the just turned 60-year-old Krueger is highly respected in hockey circles and returns to the bench after spending five years as chairman of soccer’s Southampton FC of the English Premier League.

What gives Okposo reason for pause is how long it will take Krueger’s philosophies to sink in on a team called ”fragile” and ”soft” by players and previous coaches.

”There’s going to be a big buy-in,” said Okposo, who was struck by the message Krueger delivered during the team’s first meeting.

”I talked to five or six guys after. Ralph talked for 15 or 20 minutes, and every single one of them said they wanted to run through a wall after he was done talking,” he said.

The Sabres have been big on talk before in September. The trouble has been a persistent inability to translate what they say into actual success once the regular season begins, which is a big reason why they’re now on their fifth coach in six-plus years.

This is a team in the midst of an eight-season playoff drought – the NHL’s longest active streak – during which Buffalo has finished last in the overall standings three times. And the Sabres are coming off a season in which their maddening tendency to crumble at the first sign of adversity was largely evident.

After briefly sitting first overall in late November following a franchise-record-matching 10-game winning streak, Buffalo proceeded to win just 16 of its final 57 games to finish 27th overall with a 33-39-10 record.

”Yeah, we’ve been through a lot of tough times together in the organization with tough years. It’s been up and down,” captain Jack Eichel said. ”But I think you can use that experience to better yourself.”

Krueger’s vast hockey experience includes coaching the Swiss national team, serving as a consultant to Canada’s gold-medal-winning team at the 2014 Winter Games, and coaching Team Europe to a second-place finish in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. He also was an NHL assistant in Edmonton, and spent 2012-13 as the Oilers head coach before being fired following a 19-22-7 finish.

Known for being a hockey innovator, Krueger has introduced a mantra of ”Playing Connected” to Buffalo to build team unity both on and off the ice.

”I just want them to understand that we’re all in this together, and we all need to work together on this,” Krueger said.

WHO’S HERE: Krueger, forwards Marcus Johansson (free agency), Jimmy Vesey (trade with New York Rangers), and rookie first-round pick Dylan Cozens, and defensemen Colin Miller (trade with Vegas) and Henri Jokiharju (trade with Chicago).

WHO’S NOT: Forwards Jason Pominville (unsigned) and Alexander Nylander (traded to Chicago).

KEY PLAYERS: Jeff Skinner must begin showing himself worthy of Buffalo’s commitment in re-signing him to an eight-year, $72 million contract after scoring a career-best 40 goals. Eichel needs to build on a career-best season (28 goals and 82 points). The same goes for defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, a rookie of the year finalist as an 18-year-old last year, in which the Swedish-born player wowed fans with his deft skating and play-making abilities, while struggling at times adapting to the NHL’s smaller ice surface. Can Casey Mittelstadt shrug off his rookie year struggles and fill the team’s much-needed void as a second-line center? Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen‘s future remains in question. He continues to be the focus of trade speculation after spending the offseason suggesting he would prefer to play elsewhere.

OUTLOOK: It’s difficult to assess how good – or bad – the Sabres were the past two seasons under Housley, the Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman, who showed signs of being overwhelmed as a first-time head coach. On the plus side, GM Jason Botterill enters the third year continuing to add depth and youth to an organization left mostly barren under former GM Tim Murray. He could have a chance to stockpile even more talent by trading Ristolainen, who has an NHL salary-cap friendly three years left on his six-year, $32.4 million contract.

PREDICTION: Though it might be too much to suggest the Sabres ending their playoff drought under Krueger, they have the talent to at the very least stay in contention in the final weeks. Finishing with 90 points – something Buffalo hasn’t done since 2010-11 – would be considered an achievable goal.

Same squad, same goal: Bruins want another shot at Cup

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BOSTON — The Boston Bruins didn’t sign a bunch of pricey free agents over the summer after barely missing out on a Stanley Cup championship last season.

Instead, they handed out extensions.

After going to the last possible game of the season, losing to the St. Louis Blues in Game 7 of the Cup final, the Bruins are bringing back essentially the same roster for another try at their second NHL title of the decade. Coach Bruce Cassidy got a new deal, as did defensemen Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo; captain Zdeno Chara received a one-year extension in March.

”It was a good year, we fell one game short and now we’ve got to work on getting back to that position and not falling one game short,” Cassidy said. ”We’re going to try to, like I said, deal with it and just get on with the season. … I hope we don’t have a hangover. I certainly don’t intend on having one.”

Cassidy took the Bruins to an Eastern Conference championship in just his second full season on the bench, thanks largely to a core of players from the team that won it all in 2011. And he’ll have the same nucleus this year: Chara on defense, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand at forward, and Tuukka Rask in net.

Joining Bergeron and Marchand on the most potent first line in hockey is David Pastrnak, with David Krejci centering the second line. The 42-year-old Chara will team up with the 21-year-old McAvoy on defense, with Torey Krug (who’s 28) and Carlo (22) as the No. 2 pairing.

The mix of youth and experience is one of the team’s strengths.

”Look at guys around the league in their 30s, they’re really good players. Look at our guys in their 30s, we all had a really good season last year,” Krejci said. ”We’re not a year older, we’re just a couple months older. So I feel like we’re in good shape and we’re ready to go.”

Last year’s team finished second in the Atlantic Division with 107 points, then got a break when it didn’t have to face Tampa Bay or Washington in the rest of the playoffs – or any other division winner, for that matter. After beating the 100-point Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games in the first round, the Bruins didn’t play another 100-point team.

They took out the Blue Jackets in six games and swept the Hurricanes, then beat the Blues 7-2 in Game 6 in St. Louis to force a seventh game at home. But they couldn’t solve Blues rookie Jordan Binnington in the decisive game, and St. Louis skated around the Boston ice with the Cup.

”You know what, I don’t think we’re over it, I don’t think I’m over it,” Bruins forward Sean Kuraly said. ”But you move on, you know you’ve got hockey to play and I think playing hockey will help.”

The Bruins also know they weren’t at their best in June, after Chara took a puck off his face and played the last three games of the Cup finals with his broken jaw wired shut. He also had an unspecified lower body injury that took him out of the fourth game of the conference finals.

That forced the team to improvise on defense, where Kevan Miller was also out with a broken kneecap for the entire postseason. On offense, Bergeron and Marchand were also dealing with injuries.

They’re counting on a healthier team to get them back in position for the Cup.

Here are some things to look for from the Bruins this season:

WHO’S HERE: F Brett Ritchie, F Par Lindholm.

WHO’S NOT: F Noel Acciari, F Marcus Johansson.

KEY PLAYERS: With his three-year deal, McAvoy is now the heir apparent to Chara as the team’s top defenseman for years to come. The line of Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak combined for 260 points in the regular season and 59 in the playoffs. Jake DeBrusk went from 16 goals in his rookie season to 27 last year. Rask played a six-year low of 46 games last year and is back in goal.

OUTLOOK: The Bruins are deep on defense, blending the aged Chara with players like McAvoy and Carlo. They have the most productive first line in hockey, but they are still looking for a second line right wing after finding no replacement for Johansson in the offseason. And then there are the injury issues that can beset an older team, chief among them Bergeron’s groin problem that has lingered into training camp.

PREDICTION: If Chara, Bergeron (34 years old) and Rask (32) can hold up, the Bruins can look forward to another long playoff run. They can’t count on other teams clearing out the Eastern Conference for them in the playoffs, though, so they’ll need to close the gap on Tampa Bay if they want to raise another banner in the new Boston Garden.

Hughes, Hall, Hischier look to lead Devils back to playoffs

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NEWARK, N.J. — If you saw what Daniel Jones did for the New York Giants, you have an idea what Jack Hughes might be able to do for the New Jersey Devils.

The No. 1 overall pick in the NHL draft, Hughes has been nothing short of sensational in training camp and the preseason. The 18-year-old center has scored, set up goals and played two-way hockey. He has shown signs of being a dynamic young star forward, which the organization has lacked since moving to New Jersey in the early 1980s.

The addition of Hughes and general manager Ray Shero’s offseason moves to acquire defenseman P.K. Subban from Nashville and forward Nikita Gusev from Vegas and to sign veteran forward Wayne Simmonds to a one-year contract as an unrestricted free agent gives the Devils depth throughout the roster.

Don’t forget, center Nico Hischier is entering his third season after being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft. Taylor Hall is returning after being limited by a knee injury that required surgery. Kyle Palmieri has been a solid goal scorer and there are a lot of young enthusiastic players who want to go out and play coach John Hynes’ in-your-face style of hockey.

The Devils used to be an organization that rode its defense and goaltending. Last season, they scored 222 goals and gave up 275, a differential of minus-53. They finished with 72 points. Only Los Angeles (71) and Ottawa (64) had fewer.

That has to change if they are going to move forward this season.

And just in case you missed it, Jones, the sixth pick overall in the NFL draft, replaced Eli Manning as the Giants’ starting quarterback and revived hope for the season by throwing two touchdowns and running for two others in a 33-32 victory over Tampa Bay on Sunday. It was the type of spark the Devils hopes Hughes will deliver.

Five things to watch this season as the Devils try to get back to the playoffs:

TAYLOR HALL

Hall won the NHL MVP in 2017 with 39 goals and 54 assists and single-handedly got New Jersey into the playoffs for the first time since the 2012 Stanley Cup Final. Hall is coming off an injury-plagued season. He appeared in 33 games and had 11 goals and 26 assists, playing his final contest days before Christmas. The left wing had surgery on his left knee in February and is looking forward to better things.

WHO’S HERE

Hughes isn’t the only new face in town. Subban was acquired on the draft weekend in a major deal with Nashville. Simmonds is a tough guy who plays in close on the power play. Gusev spent the last seven seasons in the KHL, collecting 119 goals and 213 assists.

WHO’S NOT

The Devils emptied the roster at the trade deadline a year ago, dealing C Brian Boyle, D Ben Lovejoy, F Marcus Johansson and G Keith Kinkaid to playoff contenders. After the season, forwards Kenny Agostino and Stefan Noesen were not re-signed and D Steven Santini was part of the deal for Subban, who had a career-low 31 points in 63 games. F John Quenneville was traded to Chicago for F John Hayden.

KEY PLAYERS: Hall tops the list, especially with his contract expiring. Shero would like to get the 27-year-old former No. 1 overall pick signed, but his health is a concern. Hughes has tons of talent but is going to be a marked man in the NHL. He is just 18 and will be hit. Hischier might be the surprise. He seems to be improving. If he hit the nets more, the Devils will be tough. The goaltending looks very good. Corey Schneider is back to his former level of two years ago after hip surgery and Mackenzie Blackwood impressed after coming up from the minors and posting a 6-4-0 record with a 2.37 goals-against average.

OUTLOOK: Since Hynes took over as coach, there has been a pattern of good year, bad year, good year, bad year. This is year five and with the draft and all the moves, the trend clearly indicates good year. The Devils struggled in recent seasons on the power play, scoring on less than 18%. With Hughes, Hall, Hischier, Subban, Palmieri and defensemen Will Butcher and Damon Severson, that should improve. The penalty kill should remain among the best in the league with Travis Zajac, Blake Coleman and Kevin Rooney on the roster.

PREDICTION: After finishing last in the Metropolitan Division (31-41-10) for the second time in three seasons, the Devils have the talent to get back to the postseason. There are question marks, however. The 30-year-old Subban needs to revert to being one of the league’s top defensemen. Hall has to stay healthy. Hughes and Hischier have to deliver and the Devils can’t lose their focus, which they did too many times last season. They should make the playoffs.