Phil Housley

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

Rangers, Sabres prepared for cold, windy Winter Classic conditions

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NEW YORK – Jordan Nolan of the Buffalo Sabres wasn’t sure how effective his eye black would be should it be sunny during Monday’s Winter Classic against the New York Rangers at Citi Field. One thing he was sure about, though, was how cool he thought it looked.

Eye black. Lotion. Heated benches. Toques. Layers upon layers of clothing. These are some of the tools available to players when they take part in these outdoor games. The forecast for Queens, New York on New Year’s Day calls for a high around 16 degrees with a windchill making it feel like 1 degree.

As the game goes along, the players will be able to adjust to the elements, but early on, things such as sun, snowflakes and wind, which are expected to be around 16 mph, could affect play.

“All those elements are going to come into play,” said Sabres head coach Phil Housley. “Hopefully the wind will be at our back for three periods. I know that’s not going to be the case but we’re going to put a good game plan together just using other coaches’ experience here, being in this game and what it’s all about. We’ll be ready to go.”

Both teams got to experience the elements and adjust to their surroundings on Sunday during practice day at Citi Field. The cold was obvious, but wind was a noticeable factor, one that will play a role when puck drops on Monday afternoon.

“It’s in play,” said Sabres forward Kyle Okposo. “It depends which way you’re going. If it’s a crosswind it kind of blows your stick a little bit [and] makes you miss a pass by that much. [It’s] definitely a little bit of a factor but it’s the same thing for both teams.”

The first Stadium Series game at Yankee Stadium in 2014 between the Rangers and New Jersey Devils was delayed due to a sun glare. Even with eye black, glare combined with the unique sightlines a hockey rink in the middle of a baseball stadium brings can provide plenty of tough moments for both goaltenders and skaters. Sabres goaltender Robin Lehner called the sun “a little challenging,” while Ryan O'Reilly added that a few times he had difficult seeing while carrying the puck up ice.

Outdoor games are never a typical hockey experience, which is why most teams try to keep their game plan simple: get the puck in deep, get it out quickly, capitalize on mistakes. “The goals that happen are usually bang-bang plays,” said Sabres forward Kyle Okposo, who played in the 2014 Stadium Series at Yankee Stadium.

Between the Sabres and Rangers, 22 players have participated in at least one NHL outdoor game. There will be plenty of newbies experiencing the pomp and circumstance that Monday afternoon will bring and then you’ll have someone like Benoit Pouliot, who will be suiting up to play outside for the fifth time in his career.

Another outdoor game vet is Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqivst, who will be playing in his fourth. He’s won all three that he’s started and by this point he’s pretty well-educated on how to handle whatever conditions Mother Nature throws at him.

“It’s about layering up and understanding what you need to be wearing,” Lundqvist said. “The ice was great, really fast. I really enjoyed practice. It got a little cold in the end during the family skate. Overall, it felt to be out there. A little windy, but we’ll see [Monday]. I think it’s going to be a great hockey game.”

More 2018 Winter Classic coverage:
Sabres’ Jason Pominville ready for third outdoor game experience
Mike Emrick on calling the first Winter Classic, his favorite outdoor game venues (PHT Q&A)
Sabres hoping to use Winter Classic to jump-start positive second half

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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 hoping to use Winter Classic to jump-start positive second half

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NEW YORK — The climb in front of the Buffalo Sabres as the calendar turns to 2018 is a daunting one. Currently 16 points out of a playoff spot, playing any hockey beyond game No. 82 in April is unlikely, but as they prepare for the Citi Field Winter Classic game against the New York Rangers, the players are looking at it as an opportunity.

Playoff hopes may be lost, but after a very tough first half the Sabres have shown some signs of life. They’re still dead last in the Eastern Conference, but head coach Phil Housley’s message is sinking in and beginning to pay off.

“If you look at our games recently in the last two weeks we’ve played solid hockey, especially against really good competition, teams in playoff positions,” Housley said Sunday morning after the Sabres practiced at Citi Field. “I think our team is moving in the right direction, but certainly having this opportunity on the world stage can hopefully give our team a boost because we have been playing better as of late. Obviously, we’d like to be in a better position at this point in the season, but it is what it is and we’re going to try to bring our best [Monday] against a very good hockey team and another team that in a playoff position.

The final 44 games of the season will prove to be a vital evaluation period for Housley and general manager Jason Botterill. As the Sabres eye a top lottery selection in June’s entry draft, there are a number of pending unrestricted free agents who could end up as trade bait before the Feb. 26 deadline. That bait could bring in assets that will help the franchise’s turnaround over the next several seasons.

Evander Kane, who’s tied for the team lead in goals with 15 and is second on the Sabres in points with 34, is set to become a UFA on July 1. Same goes for forward Benoit Pouliot, defenseman Josh Gorges and backup goaltender Chad Johnson. Kane will most likely be gone by the end of February, but until then he’s be a part of the roster that would love to use a Winter Classic victory to jump-start a positive second half.

After a November that saw the Sabres win three of 13 games, they picked up 13 points in 14 games in December, which included five overtime defeats. Progress is there in Housley’s eyes and as January approaches — a month that features their bye week and the All-Star Break — the hope is that the climb continues to an uphill one.

“Any team is lucky to be part of something like this. I think we’ve been playing better,” said goaltender Robin Lehner. “It’s a good opportunity for us on a big stage to hopefully go out and get a win, keep the momentum going.”

More 2018 Winter Classic coverage:
Sabres’ Jason Pominville ready for third outdoor game experience
Mike Emrick on calling the first Winter Classic, his favorite outdoor game venues (PHT Q&A)

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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.