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Sabres storm back to extend Penguins’ early season misery

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PITTSBURGH — These aren’t the Buffalo Sabres you have come to know over the past seven years.

These also are not the Pittsburgh Penguins you have come to know, either.

The two teams continued on their early season paths — which are going in completely opposite directions — on Monday night as the Sabres stormed back and erased a three-goal second period deficit to pick up a 5-4 overtime win on a Jack Eichel goal, leaving the Penguins stunned and still searching for answers.

For the Sabres, it continues what has been the team’s best start in close to a decade, extending their current winning streak to six games and giving them a 10-2-2 record in their past 14 games. Everything is clicking for them right now, from new acquisitions like Jeff Skinner stepping in and making a massive impact on the top line, to new starting goalie Carter Hutton giving the team capable goaltending every night.

[Related: The Sabres are good]

Hutton did not have a spectacular game on Monday overall, but he still made some huge saves early in the game to keep his team in it. He also played a huge factor on the penalty kill to help kill off a two-man advantage in the second period when the team was already trailing by three goals.

Once they killed off that penalty, Zach Bogosian scored to cut the deficit in half.

From that point on the Sabres completely took over the game and absolutely manhandled the Penguins in their own zone for the final 25 minutes.

“I think obviously there is that desperation in our game there in the third,” said Eichel. “We’ve been in that spot before. We’ve been a resilient bunch. There is that belief in the room every time we go out there we can make a push and find a way to get a point or two. We definitely want to work on our starts, but it’s great to see the way the team sticks together. It’s a credit to all the guys in the room to stick with it even when things don’t go our way.”

“There is a bit of confidence now because we’ve done it a few times,” Eichel continued. “I think it’s a trust and a belief in each other that the next guy is going to get the job done and set you up for your next shift. We’re a pretty tight bunch for how many new guys have come into this team and we’re doing it for each other. Everyone goes out there and doesn’t want to let the guy next to you down.”

While things are going wonderfully for the Sabres right now things for the Penguins are … well …  bad.

How bad? Look at it this way: They are left trying to find silver linings after their past two games. Those games — a 6-4 loss in Ottawa where they mounted a late — and ultimately futile — third period rally, and an overtime loss to Buffalo on home ice in which they had a 4-1 lead (while getting a 29-second two-man advantage) with 15 minutes to play in the second period.

For a team that was winning Stanley Cups just a couple of years ago and entered the season with a roster it thought was capable of winning another one, that is an astonishing and sudden slide.

Coach Mike Sullivan is trying to remain positive.

“On a couple of the goals they score, we make a couple of mistakes and they end up in the back of our net,” said Sullivan.  “Just seems like the way it is going right now. There was a lot to like about our game and our effort. We certainly have to clean up some areas defensively but there was certainly a lot to like in this game as well.

There definitely was a lot to like about the first 25 minutes, especially when it came to the team finding some even-strength scoring from players they need to get it from.

Derick Brassard, who has battled injuries and inconsistent play since arriving before last season’s trade deadline, opened the scoring with a much-needed goal, while recent acquisition Tanner Pearson scored a goal and recorded an assist. Those two points exceeded his total for the season between the Kings and Penguins entering the game.

From there, everything went south.

Defensive breakdowns, an inability to smoothly and efficiently exit the zone, no sustained offensive zone pressure, and more sub-par goaltending (this time from Casey DeSmith) turned what looked to be a much-needed win into yet another loss.

That is now nine losses in their past 10 games as the Penguins are tied with the New Jersey Devils for the lowest point total in the Eastern Conference.

Sullivan was asked if it is too early for things to be getting “desperate.”

[Related: NHL’s most impactful offseason additions]

“I don’t think it’s ever too early,”said Sullivan. “Every game is important, every point is important, and we’re scratching and clawing through it anyway we can. We are well aware of the position we are in. None of us are happy about it. We have a proud group. I do think we are getting better in a lot of areas. We’re not getting the results. We very well could have in a number of games, tonight being one of them. We have to clean up some areas I know we are capable of being better, we have to make sure we do not get down ourselves, and we keep the right attitude and the right energy around the rink so we can pull together.”

How they are able to start getting the results and how they can pull it together still seems like a mystery, but they better start figuring it out.

Captain Sidney Crosby is getting closer to a return, but there is only so much he can do. He also does not fix the issues on the blue line, in the goal crease, or in the bottom-six (though his return does push Brassard back down to the third-line role he was acquired to play in).

With Monday’s loss they now find themselves five points behind the Washington Capitals for the third playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division and seven points behind the second wild card team in the Eastern Conference. That is not an insignificant gap, even if it is still November. No team five or more points out of a playoff spot in 2017-18 on Nov. 20 (which is where the Penguins will sit on Tuesday) managed to make the playoffs.

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.

Soak it in: Buffalo Sabres are good

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Remember when the Buffalo Sabres were bad?

The answer is we all do. You don’t have to go that far back in the annals of hockey history to find some woefully bad Sabres teams.

But those days of Buffalo being the butt-end of jokes and all of that sort of thing seem to be over with. The western New Yorkers aren’t simply toiling as an embarrassing team anymore. It’s been a bit of a process to turn the ship around, but the fruits of that labor seem to be flourishing so far this season.

Case and point: Buffalo has now cobbled together five straight wins, including triumphs over the Tampa Bay Lightning — tops in the Atlantic Division — and the Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild, teams sitting second and third in the Central Division, respectively.

They’ve embraced the grind, have learned to weather storms and are still standing at the end of it.

In Winnipeg on Friday, the Sabres were outshot 12-4 in the first period and survived. In Minnesota on Saturday, they were again pelted in the opening frame, doubled up 18-9 on the shot counter, and still found a way to only be down by a single goal.

And in both games, they battled back in the third, tied the game and then won it late in regulation or in extra hockey, as was the case in Winnipeg. And they did it on back-to-back nights when you’d have forgiven them for packing it in early against Minnesota after Friday’s game, which needed 65 minutes and seven rounds of a shootout.

Summer acquisitions of Jeff Skinner and Carter Hutton have played massive roles in Buffalo’s ascent up the standings a month-and-a-half into the season.

Skinner has 14 goals and 21 points in 20 games this season after coming over from the Carolina Hurricanes.

Hutton is 4-0-0 in his past four games with a 1.42 goals-against average and a .950 save percentage.

Linus Ullmark is 4-0-1 in his backup role and Buffalo had the 11th best team save percentage coming into Saturday. 

Their penalty kill is in the top 10

Jason Pominville has turned back the clock with nine goals and 17 points thus far. Thirty-five years old and the wear and tear of 1,000 games? Pfft. Pominville is laughing at Father Time. 

And most importantly, they’re resilient.

“I just think we bent a little bit but we didn’t break,” Sabres head coach Phil Housley said after Friday’s win in Winnipeg. “I think last year we maybe would have broke a little more and gave the game away. We hung in there. That’s what’s great about this group, that they stick with it. We make some adjustments in between periods and they follow through with those adjustments. But it’s great for them, they’ve shown the resiliency up to this point in the season.”

The Sabres are simply an exciting team to watch these days and they’re positioning themselves to be in the playoff hunt, both this year and in the future.

Imagine that.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Carter Hutton makes early case for save of the year (Video)

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Desperation paddles saves are the best saves.

It’s not even close.

If you agree (and why wouldn’t you?) then here’s a dandy from Buffalo Sabres goalie Carter Hutton that you can pump straight into your veins.

What you don’t see here is the puck going into the back of the next after the whistle had blown.

After Hutton made the save, the refs blew the whistle as the puck was pushed across the goal line. The ref waived off the goal. The NHL’s Situation Room initiated a review on it and the ref indicated to them that he blew his whistle before the puck crossed the line. The call on the ice stood, preserving the save.

Everything leading up to that save fell into place perfectly.

Brutal defense by the Sabres to leave Elias Lindholm of the Calgary Flames wide open at the back door. Hutton is on the other side of the crease with no other option to get over other than to flail his right arm over. And a puck robbed of its life in the comfort of the back of the net.

As far as paddle saves go, this is right up there with the best of them.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Jack Eichel on Sabres’ changes, Dahlin, life as a top pick (PHT Q&A)

When Evander Kane was dealt last February, the door was opened for Buffalo Sabres forward Jack Eichel to return to his roots and switch from No. 15 to No. 9.

“For a long time, the number nine has always been a part of my identity as both a person and as a player,” the now Sabres captain said in a July statement. “The opportunity opened up to switch and I felt it was the right time to make the change as I begin the next phase of my career as a Sabre.”

Eichel wore No. 9 during his one year at Boston University and when he represented the U.S. as a youth international. The legendary Maurice “Rocket” Richard also played a role in why he chose the number.

“He played a lot a long time before me, but my dad was a big fan and my uncle, who was a diehard Canadians fan,” Eichel told NBC during the NHL Players Media Tour last month. “I wore 9 as a kid. That’s the 9 I think about when I think about the number 9. So I just think it’s a really good forward number, fast skater, skill guy, shoots the puck, makes a lot of plays, I think it’s just a great hockey number.”

Eichel and the Sabres are off to a good start in 2018-19, taking 10 out of a possible 18 points through nine games. The captain leads the team in scoring with three goals and nine points. He’s enjoyed his time recently centering Jeff Skinner, who was acquired over the summer as part of general manager Jason Botterill’s continued roster reshaping.

We spoke with Eichel about the changes in Buffalo, Rasmus Dahlin and USA Hockey.

Enjoy.

Q. What will it take for the Sabres to make the playoffs this year?

EICHEL: “I think more than anything just consistency. You gotta bring it every night, so it’s that consistency, it’s that coming together as a group, trusting each other, believing in what we’re doing, and I think we can accomplish that.”

Q. Has the culture changed over the last little while? 

EICHEL: “It has. I think it’s changed more so from the end of last season to now. I think whenever you have little success as we did last year, you’re gonna have to step back and look at what you’ve been doing, probably change some things with the team itself and the culture, and change some things. [They] have done a good job of bringing some new guys in that will kinda get rid of that sour taste that we had the last few years, that haven’t been there before. They are excited with that. You bring in the first overall pick, excitement around the team, and I think just starting a new culture, it should be a winning culture; culture where nothing else is accepted other than the best, and it’s something that doesn’t just happen. It’s accomplished over time.”

Q. What strikes you about Rasmus Dahlin, his maturity? 

EICHEL: “I think a lot of things. I think his game speaks for itself. We all know how good a player he is, he’s a very polite, no ego to him, he’s a really nice kid. I enjoy being around him and we’re very lucky to have him.”

Q. You’ve been through a similar situation as a top of the draft guy. Did you talk to him about it? The expectations? 

EICHEL: “Not so much expectations. I’ve spoken to him a bit, but more so how to handle yourself, what to expect. It’s a bit of a change for him. He’s never lived in the United States before, so he’s going through a lot of new things, and on top of that he’s being asked to play in the NHL, as an 18-year-old defenseman. It’s not easy, but I think the easiest thing for him will be the hockey, everything else will take a little bit of time, but I know he’ll do a great job.”

Q. What has the USA Hockey National Team Development Program meant for hockey in this country? 

EICHEL: “I think it’s been probably one of the most important pieces in the United States’ success the last few years in terms of internationally and producing good players. I think the entity would be an amazing program, and [I’m] so fortunate that I was able to go there. If you go there with the right mindset it’s just amazing what they can do for you. You look at some of the players that come through there and it speaks for itself. And it’s not easy by any means, it’s definitely a pretty tough thing to go through. There’s a lot of adversity as a young 16-year-old to go there and go through the things you go through, and I think majority of the people by the end of it would say it was a great experience. To get so close to your teammates, you learn so much about growing up and you’re really prepared well for the NHL and, ahead after that, business or hockey life. Wherever you’re going, it teaches you a lot of life lessons.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

Video: Sabres’ Dahlin starts, finishes play for first NHL goal

Associated Press

Rasmus Dahlin has scored his first NHL goal.

The No. 1 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft was rewarded for following the play he helped create, pinching in from the point to latch on to a Jeff Skinner pass out front.

Dahlin started the play, picking up the puck in his own end before dumping it to Skinner in the neutral zone. Arizona couldn’t handle the transition and the rest is history now.

It’s still unclear what Antti Raanta was doing on the goal. The Arizona Coyotes goalie bit hard on Skinner’s move, leaving his goal wide open for Dahlin to poke the puck in.

Dahlin had a single assist in four games while averaging 19:07 of ice time per night heading into Saturday’s game, third highest among Sabres defensemen.

Oh, and he made history with the marker.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck