Examining Sabres’ current slide

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Buffalo Sabres fans finally had reason to believe.

After years of being stuck at the bottom of the NHL standings, the Sabres finally looked to be returning to relevance thanks to an incredible start to the 2018-19 season that featured a 10-game winning streak throughout most of November.

It was easy to get caught up in it (I did! Maybe you did! Most people did!)

When they won that 10th consecutive game on Nov. 27, the Sabres were sitting with a 17-6-2 record (by far their best start in years), had the best record in the league, and looked to be a near lock to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2010-11 season.

Keep in mind, between the 2005-06 and 2017-18 seasons there were 37 teams that won at least 17 of their first 25 games to start a season.

Only two of those teams (the 2015-16 Montreal Canadiens and the 2017-18 St. Louis Blues) ended up missing.

Not only would it have taken a massive collapse over the final three-quarters of the season to have that cushion get erased, but everything was going the Sabres’ way. Jack Eichel was taking another step toward superstardom. Jeff Skinner proved to be everything the front office could have possibly hoped for him to be when they traded for him over the summer. Carter Hutton solidified the goaltending position and top draft pick Rasmus Dahlin was making an immediate impact on defense. They were also getting every possible break.

But even with all of those positive developments there were some red flags as to whether or not the Sabres would be able to continue winning, and in the month-and-a-half since that winning streak ended their season has started to slip away from them a little.

A lot of those positive developments are still very much there. Eichel and Skinner have been magnificent together, while Dahlin is having one of the best seasons an 18-year-old defender has ever had. He looks like he has a chance to be the cornerstone defender the team has needed during this ongoing rebuild.

So what has gone wrong that has resulted in them sliding from the top spot in the NHL standings all the way down to the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, with just a one-point lead over the ninth-place Canadiens?

Let’s start with the obvious and point out that the 10-game winning streak was a huge anomaly.

That is not meant to be a knock on the Sabres because any team (even a great one) that goes on a 10-game winning streak has a little bit of luck and good fortune involved. You do not win that many games in a row at this level without a few breaks and bounces going your way.

The Sabres took that to the extreme during their streak. Nine of their 10 wins were decided by a single goal. Seven of those games were won in overtime or a shootout. Both of those numbers are impossible to maintain because one-goal games (especially overtime or shootout games) can come down to one weird bounce, one play, or one call. When every game is basically one giant coin flip, eventually your luck is going to run out.

Since their streak ended the Sabres are only 1-4 in games that have gone to overtime or a shootout. They were 7-0 in such games during the streak. For the season as a whole, they are 1-6 in overtime or shootout games outside of the winning streak.

In other words, when you live by overtime and the shootout, you will also probably die by overtime or the shootout.

They are also only 2-6-2 in all one-goal games since the end of the streak. They did not suddenly forget how to win those games. That is just the nature of the beast that is the NHL when so many of your games are decided by a single goal.

But why are they involved in so many one-goal games? Well, it’s probably because they just don’t have that much talent to separate themselves from everybody else, while they are totally dependent on their top line. They are getting nothing — almost literally nothing — outside of that top group.

For as good as Eichel and Skinner were during their winning streak, they were not the only players producing offense. Yes, Skinner had 10 goals during that stretch, including several game-winning goals, but the Sabres were getting contributions from other lines when it came to providing offense.

During those 10 games the Sabres only outscored their opponents by an 8-6 margin when the Eichel-Skinner duo was on the ice during 5-on-5 play.

As a team, they actually outscored their opponents by a 13-11 margin when neither was on the ice.

They received at least one goal from 17 different players. Seven players scored at least two goals. Six different players had at least seven points. Some of that was driven by a couple of hot streaks, some spikes in individual shooting percentage and again, maybe a little more good luck. All of it has dried up.

In the 17 games that have followed, the Sabres’ top-line (Skinner, Eichel, and Sam Reinhart) is dominating even more than it did during the winning streak. Reinhart has 23 points. Eichel and Skinner are both over a point-per-game. When all three are on the ice during 5-on-5 play the Sabres are outscoring teams by a 15-6 margin. They are, for the most part, carrying the play.

It is when they’re not on the ice that everything falls apart.

How little production are they getting out of the rest of the team?

When none of Skinner, Eichel, or Reinhart has been on the ice since Nov. 28, the Sabres have been outscored by a 19-9 margin. Only two players outside of that trio have more than five points over the past 17 games, and they’re both defenders. Rasmus Ristolainen has 12 points and Dahlin has six. Almost all of their points (nine of Ristolainen’s and all six of Dahlin’s) have come with the top-line on the ice.

No other forward on the team has more than three points over their past 17 games.

How can you win with so little production from three of your lines? The answer, of course, is that you can not.

That is the problem the Sabres still have to fix before they can solidify themselves as a playoff team and take the next step in their development.

Big picture, they are not as good they looked during their 10-game winning streak. A lot of things fell perfectly in their favor at the exact same time.

They also may not be as bad as they have looked since. Their current record is probably an accurate representation of what they are. And what they are is a team that has one great line, not much else after it, and on most nights will find itself relying on a coin flip to determine whether they win or lose.

They are better than they have been over the better part of the past decade and they have taken some big steps, but they are not quite there yet.

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.

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.

The Buzzer: McElhinney steals another; MacKinnon scores two more

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Three Stars

1. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche. Nathan MacKinnon is on some kind of a roll for the Colorado Avalanche. His two goals on Tuesday night were the difference in a 3-2 win over the Nashville Predators and gave him his fifth consecutive multi-point game. He now has at least two points in six of his past seven games, a stretch that includes six goals to give him 17 on the season. His 37 points on the season are second in the league, trailing only his linemate Mikko Rantanen. Rantanen set up both of MacKinnon’s goals on Tuesday.

2. Curtis McElhinney, Carolina Hurricanes. Did you expect Curtis McElhinney to be the savior for the Carolina Hurricanes this season? Of course you didn’t, but he has been a rock for them in net lately and continued his strong play on Tuesday night by making a career-high 48 saves in a 2-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens. With that performance he has now won each of his past four decisions and allowed just five goals on the past 150 shots he has faced. That is a .966 save percentage during that stretch.

3. Shea Theodore, Vegas Golden Knights. Pretty much everybody had a hand in the Golden Knights’ big win over the Chicago Blackhawks, but Shea Theodore had perhaps the biggest night of them all by logging more than 23 minutes, scoring a pair of goals, adding an assist, and finishing as a plus-four. The Golden Knights are starting to get on a roll to climb back up the Pacific Division standings.

More big performances from Tuesday

Oscar Klefbom scored in overtime to give the Oilers a win in Ken Hitchcock’s home debut. That goal came just after Connor McDavid appeared to score the winning goal, only to have a replay review determine the puck never fully crossed the goal line.

Shea Weber made his 2018-19 debut for the Montreal Canadiens and was not exactly eased back in. He played a team-high 25 minutes, attempted 13 shots, got three on net, and assisted on their only goal in their 2-1 loss to the Hurricanes.

Brady Tkachuk scored a pair of goals — just three minutes apart — for the Ottawa Senators to help them erase a 3-1 deficit with less than 10 minutes to play in the third period.

— The Pittsburgh Penguins received two goals from their fourth line (and one from their third line) to defeat the Winnipeg Jets. They have now collected eight out of a possible 10 points in their past five games. Sidney Crosby scored his 10th goal of the season on yet another ridiculous backhand shot.

Dustin Brown had another big game for the Los Angeles Kings, recording two more points and scoring the game-winning goal in overtime to lift them over the Vancouver Canucks.

— The Arizona Coyotes rallied from a 3-1 third period deficit to beat the Minnesota Wild thanks in large part to a pair of goals from Josh Archibald.

Highlights of the Night

Rasmus Ristolainen helped the Buffalo Sabres push their winning streak to 10 games with this incredible individual effort against the San Jose Sharks.

Even with Weber back in the lineup it was starting goalie Carey Price taking care of the physical play for the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday.

Matt Duchene scored the goal of the night to help lift the Ottawa Senators to a come-from-behind win against the Philadelphia Flyers. This came just a few minutes after Tkachuk scored his two goals to tie the game.

Factoids

The Philadelphia Flyers have used a lot of goalies this season. They added another starter to the list on Tuesday night. The result was more of the same.

The Vegas Golden Knights crushed the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday night by scoring eight goals. That is a franchise record.

Ryan Miller backstopped the Anaheim Ducks to a big win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, and in the process moved one step closer to the top of the all-time wins list for American-born goalies.

Scores

Buffalo Sabres 3, San Jose Sharks 2 (OT)

Ottawa Senators 4, Philadelphia Flyers 3

Carolina Hurricanes 2, Montreal Canadiens 1

Anaheim Ducks 3, Tampa Bay Lightning 1

Colorado Avalanche 3, Nashville Predators 2

Arizona Coyotes 4, Minnesota Wild 3

Pittsburgh Penguins 4, Winnipeg Jets 3

Vegas Golden Knights 8, Chicago Blackhawks 3

Edmonton Oilers 1, Dallas Stars 0 (OT)

Los Angeles Kings 2, Vancouver Canucks 1 (OT)

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Sabres have won 10 straight games

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Jeff Skinner keeps scoring goals and the Buffalo Sabres keep winning games

Skinner’s overtime tally on Tuesday night against the San Jose Sharks was not only his 19th goal of the season, it also pushed the Sabres’ current winning streak to 10 games, tying a franchise record.

This latest win pretty much sums up what this streak has been about — close games, overtime games, and Jeff Skinner goals.

[Related: Sabres on top of PHT Power Rankings]

Some quick facts…

  • It was the ninth game during the streak that was decided by one goal. According to the NHL, this is only the second time in league history a team has won that many one-goal games during a winning streak of 10 games or more. The 2012-13 Pittsburgh Penguins are the other.
  • It was the seventh game during the streak that required overtime or a shootout.
  • Skinner has scored 10 of his 19 goals this season during the streak.

The fact the Sabres are winning so many close games and overtime games suggests there is a bit of luck to this this streak, but every lengthy winning streak for every team requires at least some amount of luck. You also can’t take away the wins that already happened and the Sabres are sitting in a pretty good position right now with a 17-6-2 mark through their first 25 games.

Even if they see a bit of a regression the rest of the way they have given themselves a nice cushion when it comes to earning a playoff spot. Keep in mind the eighth playoff team in the Eastern Conference during the 2017-18 season finished with 97 points. Buffalo now only needs 61 points in its remaining 57 games to reach that mark. That is well within reach.

The fact the Sabres are in this position a quarter of the way through the season is a huge development when you consider they had the worst record in the league this past season. But the offseason additions of Skinner, Conor Sheary, starting goalie Carter Hutton, and the arrival of top pick Rasmus Dahlin have all played a huge role in the quick turnaround.

Along with Skinner’s tally, Rasmus Ristolainen scored a highlight reel goal to get the Sabres on the board in the second period, while Hutton stopped 36 of the 38 shots he faced.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.