On Nov. 27, as the Buffalo Sabres tallied their 10th straight win, a 3-2 overtime victory over the San Jose Sharks, excitement and euphoria filled KeyBank Center. They seemed as sure of a thing as ever to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2010-11 season.
That feels like eons ago.
The Sabres’ 10-Game Winning Streak
Looking back, “The Streak” may have been the worst thing to happen to the team at the time. While wins are wins–they all look the same in the standings–the 10-gamer skyrocketed fan expectations for a team that most had pegged for a wild card team at best. Flying high among the NHL’s elite teams was new territory for a team that hadn’t visited the playoffs in seven seasons.
“I think during [this] streak you can look at it and see how many different heroes we’ve had,” said Sabres captain Jack Eichel. “There are guys stepping up in key situations.”
Fans had begun to discuss likely opponents the team would be hosting in the first round of the playoffs. There was chatter around second-year head coach Phil Housley being in the running for the Jack Adams Trophy and for Jack Eichel as league MVP. It was incredibly easy to turn a deaf ear to every analytic that said the streak was not sustainable and it was nearly impossible to not get caught up in the hoopla. Fans were soaking in the energy of a surging team.
Related: Sabres Success Is a Coin Flip
One-Goal Games Tell the Tale
During the streak, hardly any of the Sabres’ wins were decisive. Only one was by more than a goal. Seven went beyond regulation. For the most part, they were nail biters–a flip of the coin that came up heads for the Sabres every time.
Since the streak ended, the team is a disappointing 7-12-4. That’s just seven wins in 23 games. And of the 23 games, 13 have been decided by one-goal, with 10 of them as losses. Puck luck has evened out. “It’s unfortunate because we played a heck of a game and we’re not coming out of here with any points,” said Housley after their latest loss to the Vancouver Canucks.
Though some may cling to the thought that the Sabres have played better than their record, mired in a free fall in the standings, their record reflected the opposite during the streak. To say the team has struggled since is an understatement.
Despite an elite, productive top line featuring Eichel and Jeff Skinner, pitiful secondary scoring has made it a rarity for the team to find its way into the win column. Many fans whose hopes had been raised by the early success are now frustrated, clamoring for Housley to be replaced. Others are whining about Eichel not carrying this team with superhuman powers.
The Sabres’ Season in a Nut Shell
Through 48 games, the Sabres have a record of 24-18-6 and 54 points. They’ve won 24 games and lost 24 games. They’ve finally found some home-ice advantage, going 14-6-3 at One Seymour H. Knox III Plaza. They’re 10-12-3 on the road. They’ve scored 140 and allowed 144 for a minus-four goal differential.
Playoff-wise, chances are better than 50-50 they’ll be watching the playoffs on television again come April. Sportsclubstats.com has them pegged with only a 42.9 percent shot at making it to the dance.
They’re in the hunt, prepared to play meaningful games down the stretch. At the start of the season, that’s pretty much what many expected: battling with the Florida Panthers and Montreal Canadiens in the Atlantic Division for a wild card spot. The crème de la crème–the Tampa Bay Lightning, followed by the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins are atop the Atlantic Division.
Meeting and Exceeding Expectations
The Sabres finished last season with 62 points. This season, they’re on-pace for 92 points. A 30-point improvement and a playoff berth battle isn’t just impressive, it’s what everyone had high hopes for this season. The team is competitive most nights, they’re learning what it takes to win and they’re gaining experience along the way.
“You talk a lot about the process and the way we have to play,” said veteran winger Kyle Okposo. “I think our identity’s forged now. Now we’ve got to get results. Now we’ve got to make sure we’re limiting those mistakes away from the puck and it’s time for everybody to take a step. We’ve got to take a step as a team.”
The streak was an amazing, exhilarating ride with every game counting as two points for the Sabres. It was real. It’s not like the league can ask for the 20 points back. Fans who argue that if the 10 wins were set aside as an aberration are creating their own narrative. The wins gave fans, players and coaches a taste of success. It proved that this team is capable of winning. It also gave permission for fans to get much too excited too early in the season. The normalized play and disappointment that’s followed have been an utter buzzkill.
Had the wins during the streak been sprinkled throughout the Sabres’ first half of the season, the team would be right about where everyone had thought. The expectation of making the playoffs only emerged after the streak gained momentum. At the moment, the reality is that they’re an average team.
To give themselves a chance to win, they need consistent effort with limited errors. They simply don’t have the firepower nor the defense to play fast and loose; they get burned far too often. Their secondary scoring and lack of quality defensive depth are glaring problems often masked by goaltenders Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark standing on their heads.
Count Your Blessings
Since taking over the reins as general manager of a horrendous Sabres team, Jason Botterill has been constantly overhauling and revamping the team’s roster. He’s determined to groom prospects in Rochester as he builds in Buffalo. There are plenty of bright spots in the lineup: Jeff Skinner, Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Rasmus Dahlin, Lawrence Pilut, Linus Ullmark and even Zach Bogosian have made great strides. Players such as Marco Scandella, Kyle Okposo and Casey Mittelstadt, among others, have struggled.
That said, neither Housley nor Botterill are losing their jobs this season. This is a fairly young team with plenty of potential that is prone to streaks. An amazing 10-game win streak shouldn’t warp or skew perceptions of this team too much. Despite their recent slide, the Sabres are still on track for a dramatic improvement. Besides, no matter how you look at it, battling for a wild card spot is a lot more fun than being in 31st place.
Jeff has been covering the NHL for over a decade for various sites. He’s been with The Hockey Writers as a lead Sabres writer three years, while also writing a satire column called “Off the Crossbar.”