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.

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.

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.

Lightning end Sabres’ winning streak at 10 games

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The Buffalo Sabres’ outstanding winning streak ended at 10 games, yet in a way, this performance was as convincing as any that this team is taking a quantum leap forever.

Yes, the Tampa Bay Lightning won 5-4 on Thursday, as Steven Stamkos tied it 4-4 on the power play before Cedric Paquette netted the game-winner.

It’s also sobering for the Sabres to realize that, they’re now ranked third in the hyper-competitive Atlantic Division. This narrow regulation loss leaves the Sabres behind the Lightning (37 points in 26 games) and Toronto Maple Leafs (36 points in 26 games but with more wins/ROW), as they have 36 points in 26 games with a 17-7-2 record.

Yet, if the Sabres can take a step back for a moment, this contest was another reminder that they’re making big steps forward.

For one thing, it sure felt like this contest had the nastiness of a rivalry match. Jack Eichel drew the Lightning’s ire after boarding Ryan McDonagh, while there was a mini-fracas after Zach Bogosian was checked a little late. Maybe this didn’t generate a bunch of full-scale line brawls, but this is the closest as you’ll get to a hateful game between the Sabres and Lightning, at least in November.

The Sabres didn’t seem to get discouraged as they absorbed some body blows from the Bolts.

Tampa Bay took a 1-0 lead on a rare Dan Girardi goal close to three minutes into the game, yet the Sabres responded not just with the tying goal but by taking their first lead of the game less than halfway through the first period. Sam Reinhart had a banner night, scoring two of the Sabres’ two goals, and Buffalo’s big names generally came to play.

There were a lot of positives to take from this game, even though the Lightning found a way to win. For one thing, Buffalo allowed quite a golden scoring chances for Tampa Bay, and Nikita Kucherov scolded them by way of this pretty goal on a 3-on-1.

If Thursday’s game stands as a preview for a series during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, hockey fans could be in for a treat. The way the Sabres are playing, the Lightning would be foolish to dismiss their chances in a best-of-seven format.

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.