For the Buffalo Sabres, the Wheels On the Tank Are Falling Off

In an unexpected turn of events, the Buffalo Sabres are suddenly playing really well. For those who were expecting the Sabres to be in the Connor McDavid/Jack Eichel sweepstakes, the club’s recent play has cast gobs of uncertainty on this possibility.

The Sabres have gone 7-3-0 in their last ten games and, get this, they’ve actually been scoring goals. Through Buffalo’s opening seventeen games, the club scored an abysmal nineteen goals or 1.12 goals per game. In the last ten games, Buffalo has notched nineteen goals and has improved it’s overall goals per game average to 1.73.

While this still ranks the Sabres in last place for goals scored per game in the NHL, the club’s offense has improved in recent games. Goaltending continues to be solid for Buffalo and the Sabres have played better defensively. The stronger play has led to wins and helped Buffalo move up in the NHL standings.

[See Also: Is Goaltending the Buffalo Sabres’ Most Consistent Position?]

Even more interesting is the fact that the Sabres are no longer that far out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. No doubt, the club does have a long way to go to get into the mix. However, the Sabres have won their last three games and currently have amassed twenty-six points on the season.

There is now a seven point gap between the Sabres and the two teams tied for last place with nineteen points, the Carolina Hurricanes and Edmonton Oilers. Meanwhile, Buffalo is just six points behind the Florida Panthers which currently occupies the Eastern Conference’s last wild card spot.

While many had the Sabres pegged as the front-runners for McDavid or Eichel, the waters flooding the NHL’s basement have gotten muddy in recent games. Whether or not the Sabres can sustain their current winning pace remains to be seen. However, the Sabres are definitely showing some serious signs of life. This is leaving many asking the question, are the wheels on the ‘tank for McEichel’ philosophy are falling off?

 

How Did the Buffalo Sabres’ ‘Tank’ Fall Apart?

The Buffalo Sabres have won six of their last eight games. The watershed moment for the Sabres in the recent winning span of their schedule came during the home-and-home series against the Montreal Canadiens. At that point in the season, Buffalo had compiled just a 6-14-2 record which ranked the club in last place in the NHL. On the contrary, Montreal owned the NHL’s best record at that time and had won eight of it’s last ten games. The Sabres limited the Habs’ scoring chances in both contests and walked away with two improbable wins – one of which came during the shootout.

[See Also: Home-and-Home: A Buffalo Sabres Primer for Matches Against the Montreal Canadiens]

Buffalo followed up their wins against Montreal with another home-and-h0me against another Eastern Conference leader, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Buffalo got the better of Tampa Bay with a win in the shootout on home ice. The Sabres played an exceptionally strong defensive game in their win against the Lightning. A particularly important statistic in this game was the fact that Steven Stamkos spent more than twenty-two minutes on the ice but did not record a single point.

The Lightning flipped the scales on the Sabres in the second half of the home-and-home where Tampa Bay recorded a 5-0 victory. This is the only time Buffalo has been shutout and the highest goal total scored against in the club’s last ten games. Buffalo followed this game up with another loss, this time to the Florida Panthers. While the Sabres managed to score two goals, Panthers’ defenseman Aaron Ekblad led the way with three assists helping his team to get the win.

Since then, the Sabres have won three straight games and two of these wins have come against some high-ranking Western Conference opponents. Buffalo’s first win in this stretch came against the Los Angeles Kings. Jhonas Enroth made thirty-four saves while the Sabres put forth a strong defensive effort against the Kings. Most impressive in this game was how Buffalo out-hit the Kings by a thirty-one to twenty-two margin. Buffalo was rewarded for it’s efforts against the defending Stanley Cup champions with a 1-0 victory.

Next came the Calgary Flames, who have surprised many this season and currently own the NHL’s sixth-best record in the Western Conference. Buffalo went toe-to-toe with the Flames to earn the 4-3 victory. Tyler Ennis notched three assists, Matt Moulson scored twice and Zemgus Girgensons had a goal and a helper in the win.

Finally, the Sabres added to their recent winning-ways with a 4-3 overtime victory over the Florida Panthers. Buffalo lost defensemen Josh Gorges and Andrej Meszaros to injuries in this contest. The club relied upon Tyler Myers, Nikita Zadorov and Rasmus Ristolainen who each logged more than twenty-one minutes. Fittingly, Tyler Myers notched an assist while Nikita Zadorov had a helper and scored the overtime winner for the Sabres.

 

 

Buffalo Sabres, So What’s the Plan?

While tanking seemed to be in the cards in the early-going of the season, the course seems to be altered in recent games. For those fans who are still pulling for the tank, Rick Jeanneret’s famous call that the team was once ‘scary good’ comes to mind. Only this time, ‘scary good’ means that the Sabres’ recent winning ways are moving them further and further away from the McEichel sweepstakes which is really scary for those who were embracing the tank.

It isn’t clear if Buffalo can sustain their current pace or even play well enough in the longer-term of this season to walk the line of mediocrity. However, the club is presently moving forward with a full head of steam and is showing no signs of slowing down. Until proven otherwise, the Sabres’ current play suggests that the wheels on the tank are falling off.

So then, what is the plan? Will the Sabres’ management see where this goes and let the current roster play out? Or will GM Tim Murray and the Sabres’ brass make a deal or two to put the wheels back on the tank? The goal for any NHL franchise is to win, but should a rebuilding team be winning this early in the rebuild?

Granted, the recent stretch of wins is a microcosm of the NHL season. The Sabres could easily go sour from here and move back towards the NHL’s basement. Yet until this happens, the current direction of this phase of the rebuilding process is a bit cloudy.

With some speculation in the rumor mill this past week regarding Sabres’ forward Chris Stewart and Buffalo’s goaltenders, perhaps a trade may happen sooner rather than later. Sabres’ GM Tim Murray has said he is willing to entertain offers for any of his players but a trade won’t happen unless he feels he is getting good value in return.

Historically, for the Sabres at least, the best deals seem to be had at the trade deadline. In the trade that many have said was the beginning of Buffalo’s rebuild, the Sabres sent forward Paul Gaustad and a fourth round pick to the Nashville Predators in exchange for a first round pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. Buffalo ultimately swapped this first round pick with Calgary’s to select forward Zemgus Girgensons.

Gaustad scored just seven goals and ten assists for the Sabres the year he was traded to Nashville and yet Buffalo was able to acquire a first round pick for him. That was a few years ago under former GM Darcy Regier so the market and the landscape of today is vastly different. However, it might serve GM Tim Murray best to wait and make any deals at the trade deadline. If the Sabres can continue their upward climb in the standings enough to compete for a playoff spot, who knows, Buffalo potentially can enter the trade deadline as a buyer rather than as a seller.

[See Also: What Kind of Sabres Fan Are You? Part III: The ‘Tank for McEichel’ Philosophy]

Final Thoughts

Many predicted that the Sabres would finish near the bottom of the NHL standings again this season. However, Buffalo has had a good stretch of games which has moved the club out of the NHL’s basement.

It isn’t clear if Buffalo can sustain their current pace but the fact is that the Sabres are starting to show signs of life. Seven points currently separate Buffalo from last place yet the Sabres are only six points out of a wild card spot.

With fifty-two games remaining in Buffalo’s 2014-2015 season, there is indeed a lot more hockey to be played. The Sabres are playing with much more confidence, earning victories against some of the NHL’s better teams, and aren’t showing any signs of slowing down.

With some difficult games against the Senators, Jets, Avs, Bruins, and Red Wings in tow, the question of whether or not the Sabres can sustain their winning ways will begin to be answered. Regardless of which side Sabres fans fall on with regards to the rebuild, the team is playing some entertaining hockey and fans are getting a bird’s eye view of some of the club’s up-and-coming talent.

Whether there are trades to be made or not in the Sabres’ near future, the club appears to be turning a corner. If they can sustain it, the season suddenly got very interesting and this is a one hundred and eighty degree turn from the difficulties Buffalo encountered earlier this season.