Ralph Krueger

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NHL on NBCSN: Eichel looks to keep points streak going vs. Blues

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Buffalo Sabres. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Before the season Jack Eichel talked about the Sabres needing to have consistency, night in and night out, in order to bounce back from a 2018-19 campaign that ended in ugly fashion after beginning so successfully.

The Sabres are still in search of consistency having dropped 13 of their last 19 games after beginning the season 9-2-1. While his teammates have had their struggles, Eichel hasn’t, and has been the most consistent and reliable of any of his Buffalo teammates.

Through 31 games Eichel leads the team with 18 goals and 42 points. He’s currently on pace for 48 goals and 111 points, which is territory a Sabres player has not reached since 1992-93 when Pat LaFontaine and Alex Mogilny had seasons to remember.

Eichel enters Tuesday’s game against the Blues on a 13-game points streak, the longest of his career, and has gone consecutive games without recording a goal or an assist only twice this season. Tim Connolly holds the Sabres franchise record having picked up a point in 16 straight games during the 2009-10 season.

[COVERAGE OF BLUES-SABRES BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

A year ago Eichel hit career highs with 28 goals and 82 points and feels the pressure as captain to lead a turnaround in the Queen City.

“I think it is almost impossible to not feel it,” Eichel, the NHL’s Third Star of the Week, told NBC Sports before the season. “I think with the drought our franchise has been in and the ups and downs we’ve went through and being a high pick and coming in with a lot of these new young players like Rasmus [Dahlin], I think that we feel pressured to perform and bring success to Buffalo. It can be tough at times for sure, but sometimes it brings out the best of you and brings out that competitive side.”

How much of an influence has Eichel’s offensive prowess meant to the Sabres? Half of his 42 points have helped the team tie or take the lead.

“I think more than anything he’s now a leader who understands that sometimes it’s quality over quantity, and he can still concentrate on his game,” said head coach Ralph Krueger. “He’s just been a very natural captain, he’s enjoying it, he’s communicating in a really good, consistent way and he’s very positive in his influence on the team whether we’ve had a good day or a bad, and that’s what we need to continue.”

What’s working for Eichel? It’s the quality of shots he’s taking, not the quantity. His shots per game average is slightly down this season (3.58) from his career average (3.62) and from last season (3.98). The shots are going in as his shooting percentage has risen to 16.2% this season compared to 9.2% in 2018-19.

“I’ve been kind of shooting low,” Eichel said last week via the Sabres website. “I feel like in the past, I’ve had a lot of opportunities and just passed them by just missing the net. … You try and go high and miss the net, you don’t give yourself a chance to score or maybe someone else a chance to score. You don’t know what’s going to happen. Just trying to shoot different places, I think, and knowing that sometimes it doesn’t matter how hard you get it off. It’s just about surprising the goalie.”

Kathryn Tappen will host Tuesday night’s studio coverage alongside analysts Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones. Brendan Burke and Pierre McGuire will call the action from KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y.

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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 respond with shutout win over Red Wings

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There are plenty of reasons to doubt the Buffalo Sabres, but Friday evening the club responded with an important victory following a disappointing effort the night prior.

Jake McCabe potted his first of the season, Sam Reinhart notched a power-play goal and Linus Ullmark recorded his third-career shutout as the Sabres prevented Thursday night’s 6-2 loss against the New York Rangers from having a ripple effect.

“It definitely as a coach helps when you have confirmation. Nothing ever replaces winning in sports,” Sabres coach Ralph Krueger recently said. “And we know the opposition will have more and more respect for us as we go on here, and we will need to be better every day to continue having success.”

Buffalo has been down this road before, posting a 17-6-2 record to open up the 2018-19 regular season. However, the Sabres’ 2-0 win against the Red Wings could be the mark of a team that is ready to turn the corner.

Last November, when the Sabres’ impressive 10-game winning streak came to an end, Buffalo dropped five consecutive games and its game dipped dramatically. The team only secured 16 victories in the final 57 games and missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs by a wide margin.

But this year feels a bit different.

“When we play the right way, you see the results,” defenseman Colin Miller told The Athletic. “If we play within our system, I think we’re going to have a good chance every night. It’s fun hockey right now.”

Krueger’s impact on the Sabres has been felt in every aspect of the game through their 9-2-1 start. But his ability to allow his players to utilize their creative instincts has been most prominent on the man advantage. Buffalo’s power-play unit is operating at close to a 30% clip and is currently one of the five best in the NHL.

Victor Olofsson has been front and center with his six power-play goals. But, Jack Eichel leads the team with eight points on the man-advantage including an assist against Detroit. Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin has been able to effectively quarterback the group from the point, giving the Sabres options from multiple positions.

“You need to be creative within each game and take each game with a different approach to neutralize some of that pre-scouting that’s going on,” Krueger told the Athletic. “But what we have is an extremely skilled group when it comes to puck possession and the opportunity that lies within it. It’s been a lot of fun. They’ve bought into the principles and we give them a lot of freedom to create within that.”

The Sabres will be forced to prove the doubters wrong given their recent history. But with an imaginative coach and a lethal power-play unit, they have the chance to snap their postseason drought.

MORE: Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV Schedule

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

PHT Morning Skate: Perry on facing Ducks; Kakko’s frustrations

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Corey Perry on facing his old mates Thursday night: “It’s going to be exciting to see everybody. There’s a lot of good memories. A lot of good hockey people with that organization. You are going to have lifelong friends forever when you are there that long. We still keep in contact with certain people.” [NHL.com]

• How Ralph Krueger has helped turn around the 2019-20 Sabres. [ESPN]

• Will the Sabres fade away as they did last season? [The Hockey News]

• The Senators have recalled Logan Brown, reuniting him with childhood friend Brady Tkachuk. [TSN]

Artem Anisimov (two weeks) and Colin White (3-5 weeks) will miss some time for the Senators with injury. [Silver Seven Sens]

Kaapo Kakko was on the first line at Wednesday’s practice as he looks to change his fortunes with the Rangers. [NY Post]

• Luca Sbisa has been claimed on waivers by the Jets. [CP via Winnipeg Free Press]

• Red Wings defenseman Jonathan Ericsson cleared waivers. What now for him? [Free Press]

• With the Heritage Classic this Saturday (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN), a look at the best jerseys from the Canadian outdoor game’s history. [Hockey by Design]

• Cracks are starting to show in the Oilers’ good start. [Sportsnet]

• Interesting read on sleep science and the Blue Jackets. [Blue Jackets]

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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.

Surging Sabres not fearing repeat of last year’s collapse

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — With a new coach, an influx of talent and this being a new season, Jack Eichel doesn’t buy into fears the hot-starting Buffalo Sabres are due for a familiar collapse.

Nine games in, the Sabres are leading the Eastern Conference with a 7-1-1 record to match their best start since 2009-10. And yet, it’s difficult to forget what happened last year, when Buffalo was leading the NHL with a 17-6-2 record following a 10-game winning streak before proceeding to win just 16 of its final 57 games.

”I think we’ve grown up a little bit,” Eichel said Tuesday before the Sabres hosted the San Jose Sharks. ”I don’t think we’re guarded at all. I think you can learn a lot from last year, but I don’t think we’re worried about that as much as just trying to be a good hockey team every night.”

Aside from returning players being a year older, the Sabres captain credited first-year coach Ralph Krueger for introducing an upbeat message and simplified system to a team that struggled during Phil Housley’s two-year tenure.

”I think it’s enjoyable to come to the rink every day with the environment that’s been created right now,” Eichel said.

”Yeah, winning takes care of a lot of stuff, there’s no way to sugarcoat that,” he added. ”But I think the overall environment’s been a good one this year. I think guys feel a little bit more relaxed. It’s not as high strung.”

The 60-year-old Krueger in many ways is Housley’s polar opposite. Where Housley demanded the Sabres play a complex positional system, Krueger wants his players to play a more up-tempo, free-wheeling style.

Though Housley is a Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman and was a first-time coach, Krueger brings with him an array of worldly experience. His resume includes coaching Switzerland’s national team, the Edmonton Oilers and spending the previous five years running soccer’s Southampton FC of the English Premier League.

Krueger was hired in May, and became Buffalo’s fifth coach since Lindy Ruff was fired a month into the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, and takes over a team in the midst of an eight-season playoff drought – the NHL’s longest active streak.

General manager Jason Botterill is impressed with what he’s seen from a team that has so far handled adversity. After opening a three-game California road trip with a 5-2 loss to Anaheim, the Sabres responded with wins against Los Angeles and San Jose.

”I think Ralph has come with a clear message of what he’s looking for from our players,” Botterill said. ”And I think our players have been very open to receiving that message.”

The Sabres are benefiting from a balanced offensive attack, in which seven players have scored three or more goals. Their power play is leading the league with 11 goals, six coming from rookie Victor Olofsson. And Buffalo’s goaltending has been sound, with veteran Carter Hutton enjoying a two-game shutout streak.

Though realizing the season is still young, Krueger referred to the Sabres’ successful start as validating the plan he and his staff implemented this summer.

”It definitely as a coach helps when you have confirmation. Nothing ever replaces winning in sports,” Krueger said. ”And we know the opposition will have more and more respect for us as we go on here, and we will need to be better every day to continue having success.”

ZACH SCRATCHED

Botterill dismissed fears of Zach Bogosian missing the entire season, though he didn’t have a timetable regarding when the veteran defenseman will return after having hip surgery in April. Bogosian has been skating on his own the past two weeks.

”It’s difficult for him right now because he wants to be back,” Botterill said. ”But it’s also imperative for him for not only us this year but his career long-term that we get this right.”

D-DEPTH

Botterill isn’t concerned about a potentially crowded blue line once Brandon Montour returns from a hand injury sustained last month. The Sabres are currently carrying seven defensemen and have already informed Henri Jokiharju he’s not going anywhere even though he’s the only defenseman who doesn’t have to clear waivers in being demoted to the minors.

Calling it a ”great problem” to have, Botterill said he still has time to decide. He also explained the team’s depth at defense will be tested with Buffalo set to play 11 games in 19 days next month.

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.