For the past several years, come late November, the fate of the Buffalo Sabres season has basically already been determined. Though early in the season, it was easy to foresee the future. Dreams of the postseason had vanished. Instead of participating, the playoffs would be watched on television. The deep well of hope and promise has started to dry up. The only thing to look forward to was the draft lottery.
But after this past November, things could not have been more opposite. The team strung together a 10-game winning streak. Fans were lunging and jumping back on the Sabres’ bandwagon. Excitement had taken over the morgue-like atmosphere at KeyBank Center. Legendary Sabres play-by-play man, Rick Jeanneret even called the team “scary good.” In all senses, hockey was fun again.
Sabres Started Season on a Roll
On Nov. 27, after winning their tenth straight game, the Sabres were owners of the best record (17-6-2) in the NHL. They had raced out of the gate and were rolling, knocking off teams with confidence, bravado and consistency. Jack Eichel’s name was being mentioned as a possible Hart Trophy candidate. Sophomore head coach Phil Housley was being thought of as a Jack Adams candidate. Talk of the team, by fans and media alike, was not whether they would make the playoffs, but what seed they would get. They could already taste their first postseason since the 2010-11 season.
During “The Streak,” anything and everything was going the team’s way. The top line of Jack Eichel centering for Jeff Skinner and either Jason Pominville or Sam Reinhart was on fire. First-year starter Carter Hutton was making timely, key saves and stabilizing the goal crease. And rookie blueliner Rasmus Dahlin was living up to his pre-draft hype.
Instead of their opponents scoring, they were hitting goal posts or fanning on their shots. And the Sabres were making them pay for it. Time after time, the Sabres were buried their chances. They were coming from behind to win games. They were getting lucky bounces. They were capitalizing on chances. Even when down by a goal or two in the third period, the team never panicked. These Sabres always found a way to win.
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“The Streak” aka “The Anomaly”
Parity reigns supreme in the NHL’s salary cap era. Winning is tough; winning 10 consecutive games is a rarity. It takes a combination of skill, good fortune and some luck to string together that many games. The Sabres had all of these, winning nine of the ten games by a single goal and seven of those in overtime or a shootout.
Many of those in the media and hockey analytics community pointed to unfavorable stats, a discrepancy in high quality chances and warned that the success the team was riding was just not sustainable. It was only a matter of time before the team would fall back to reality. However, fans were deliriously excited with their team for the first time in years. They didn’t care how they were winning, rather just that they were winning.
Sabres in One-Goal Games
Sure enough, the odds finally took over. The fortunate bounces that the Blue & Gold were getting disappeared. The clutch saves by Hutton didn’t happen as regularly. And the wins stopped. One-goal wins, particularly those in overtime and in the shootout, started going the other way. The law of averages took over and the team’s started dropping games.
The streak which vaulted the Sabres into the NHL’s upper echelon became a distant memory. Especially since the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins started to stack wins, leaving the Sabres clinging to a wild card spot.
During the Sabres’ franchise-tying record streak, they were 7-0 in one-goal games. Since the Tampa Bay Lightning snapped the streak, the team is now just 1-4 in games that have gone to overtime or a shootout. Overall, for the season, the Sabres are 8-6 in overtime in overtime or shootout games. It’s basically a coin flip once the game extends beyond regulation time. In all one-goal games since the end of the streak, the team has struggled, winning only twice in ten games (2-6-2).
Winning Early Guarantees Nothing
As Jack Eichel said once the win streak ended, “The streak means nothing now…We’ve got to realize, we haven’t earned anything in this league. Just because we won a couple games doesn’t mean we’re just going to put our skates on and go out there and win. Every night you play, it’s a battle.”
Jack Eichel: "That's not us. That streak we were on, that's over. It means nothing now.. We've got to realize we haven't earned anything in this league." pic.twitter.com/kJ0Tb5m58Z
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) December 8, 2018
Since 2005-06, only two teams that began the season by winning at least 17 of their first 25 games have missed the playoffs (the 2015-16 Montreal Canadiens and the 2017-18 St. Louis Blues). Furthermore, only one team has registered a 10-game win streak and failed to reach the postseason (the 2017-18 Philadelphia Flyers).
The Flyers’ win streak created a false impression of how good the team really was, masking their defensive, goaltending and special teams inconsistencies. As a result, Ron Hextall, the Flyers general manager wasn’t a big seller at the trade deadline. He only flipped Mark Streit for Valterri Filppula. The mirage of success also delayed the promotion of prospects and hurt their draft status. Had the Flyers been buried in the standings, Hextall may have swapped Streit, one of his goalies and a veteran for draft picks, which could have opened up spots for prospects. Maybe he would still have a job, too.
No Need to Panic in Buffalo
The young Sabres are on a bit of roller coaster ride this season. It was to be expected. Their top line has led the way. Consistent secondary scoring is the key to their future success. During the streak, they received at least one goal from 17 different players. It’s nowhere to be found since.
“The Streak” was very real. It was a tremendous accomplishment, but it inflated and accelerated expectations for a team that is still several forwards as well as a defenseman or two away from being serious contenders.
There’s still half a season of hockey left to be played. Entering Tuesday’s game against the New Jersey Devils (a 5-1 win), their chances of making the playoffs were 59 percent. Roughly the same odds as calling a coin flip.
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.”