Citing dramatic improvement over last season’s 62-point, 31st place finish, Buffalo Sabres head coach Phil Housley is pumped for his team’s upcoming playoff run. “Most everyone counted us out,” said the sophomore bench boss. “Boy, they sure look silly now.”
After a convincing 5-2 win over the Ottawa Senators at home Thursday night, the Sabres have but one game remaining in the 2018-19 regular season. They only need to collect 25 more points in that game to assure themselves the final wild card spot.
“Of course, it’s possible,” said veteran defenseman Zach Bogosian, failing to take the bait by a Sabres beat reporter who called the team toast. “We believe in one another in this dressing room. We know if we play for one another, stick to coach’s game plan, it can happen.”
This team is showing plenty of resolve and never-give-up attitude despite the analytics community hammering home “facts” that the Sabres were mathematically eliminated weeks ago. Pending unrestricted free agent Jeff Skinner has upped his game, netting two goals in his last 23 games. Rasmus Ristolainen has a massive lead atop the NHL’s plus-minus board.
Sabres Line Combinations
When it comes to player deployment, Housley has been a genius. Despite woeful Corsi numbers, he continually paired Marco Scandella with rookie blueliner Rasmus Dahlin. He’s kept forward Tage Thompson in the lineup and often played him as a defenseman in practice. And he’s featured prospect Alex Nylander on the bottom line playing only a handful of minutes with proven snipers Johan Larsson and Zemgus Girgensons. The results speak for themselves.
If these young men are going to thrive playing for the Sabres, they need to have ice in their veins. They need to be exposed to adversity for many years. They need to disappear into an abyss of losing and experience a losing culture with fans booing them off the ice after every period. It builds character.
Housley, the masterful Hall of Famer who ran the Nashville Predators’ defense two seasons ago, has routinely juggled his forward lines this season. He often gave his new combinations a single shift, sometimes two per night to prove themselves and provide immediate results. Without an onslaught of goals, he’d then invariably reunite the trio of Jack Eichel, Skinner and Sam Reinhart, expecting utter domination.
Housley’s Double Reverse Psychology
On the outside, Housley appears to be making a series of questionable, unconventional moves. But on the inside, the scheming coach snickers to himself and points out his genius. “I like to zig when others zag. It keeps everyone guessing.”
Instead of bringing up any one of a number of prospects from the Rochester Amerks, he’s repeatedly directed huge minutes to struggling veterans like Scandella, whose advanced stats suggest he be given a month in the press box to chow down on some popcorn.
Resolute, Housley powers on through the criticism. At one point last week during a line change in a game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, he repeatedly yelled for Nathan Beaulieu to take the ice until Sabres equipment manager Dave Williams quietly reminded the coach he’d been traded for the Winnipeg Jets’ sixth-round pick a month ago at the NHL’s Trade Deadline.
Analytics on His Side
In a one-on-one interview, Housley rattled off numerous analytics to illustrate his team is crushing it this season. The team’s 6-on-3 play with offensive zone starts is on fire. They’re outscoring their opponent 4-0. Savage. Their possession time in their half of the neutral zone by left-handed wingers on home ice is improving, too. Finally, their special teams’ unit is slaying opponents: when down by three goals with the man advantage and on back-to-back nights, their shot share and high-danger chances are above league average.
Stunned by his reply, the reporter bee-lined to his editor, requesting to be reassigned to covering obituaries and auxiliary clubs.
Coaching His Way to the Top
Housley has said all season that the team needs to respect their own net, establish a net-front presence and have a shot mentality.
“It wasn’t until yesterday that I knew he wanted us to do all of those things in the same game,” said an anonymous left-shot Sabres veteran forward from Trebic, Czechoslovakia with a minus-20 to his credit in 69 games. His name may rhyme with Schmadileer Schmobotka.
The Sabres visit the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday to round out the regular season. It’s going to be a challenge to accumulate nearly 20-some-odd points to skyrocket up the standings. “Everyone says games at the end of the season count so much more…I believe them,” said Stan Politzki, a lifelong fan from Cheektowaga.
If the Sabres fail to win tonight, they’re in danger of missing the postseason for the first time since 2018. Loss after loss, coaches and players have clung to moral victories and bad puck luck. They point to the 57 minutes of decent hockey they played on a given night, desperately trying to draw attention away from the three-minute span where they let in four goals.
Entering the season, fans yearned for an entertaining team that showed passion and excitement. They got it in the month of November. Since then, not so much.
*Relax. It’s satire.
Enjoy more ‘Off the Crossbar’ columns.