Sabres Weekly: First Game in Two Weeks, Missing Pieces & New Faces

The Buffalo Sabres played their first game in 15 days, marking the end of the team’s COVID-19 pause following their weekend series against the New Jersey Devils in the last few days of January. While a few players still remain in protocol, the number is not nearly as many as it was last week, and the team actually got some players back in the last few days.

Ahead of their morning skate, the Sabres saw the return of three players from the team’s COVID-19 list: defensemen Jake McCabe and Brandon Montour, and forward Tobias Rieder. The only one of those three to suit up for the game was Rieder, who was one of the players to actually become symptomatic after testing positive for the virus. “It was a really tough couple days,” said Rieder, of his experience with the virus.

Also returning for the game from the COVID-19 list were defenseman Rasmus Dahlin and head coach Ralph Krueger. Taylor Hall was another player to return a couple of days earlier. The Sabres were facing a red hot New York Islanders team heading into the matchup, and dropped the game by a score of 3-1. The Islanders are now riding a seven-game point streak, and have won four of their last five games.

Sabres Still Missing Some Key Players

While they have gotten most of their players back now, the Sabres are still missing some NHL regulars who have made a big difference in games so far this season. Rasmus Ristolainen, rookie Dylan Cozens, Curtis Lazar, and Casey Mittelstadt are all still on the team’s COVID-19 list.

These players were certainly missed, as Ristolainen in particular has been one of the best players on the team to start the 2020-21 season. A mangled blue line plagued the Sabres against the Islanders all night, and Ristolainen’s veteran leadership and steady defensive play would have certainly done something to alleviate the pain.

Rasmus Ristolainen Buffalo Sabres
The Sabres missed Rasmus Ristolainen in Monday’s 3-1 loss to the New York Islanders, as they were forced to ice a weak group of defensemen. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Lazar’s grit and two-way play would have added to the Sabres’ lackluster effort as the game went on, too, and the team was left wanting for Cozens’ skill and explosiveness. It will be key moving forward to try and get these players back up to game speed once they do return to the lineup, hopefully sooner than later.

Taxi Squad and Amerks Players Don’t Help Much

That “mangled blue line” mentioned above was missing half of its usual members, who were replaced by call-ups from the Sabres’ taxi squad and their AHL affiliate Rochester Americans. Brandon Davidson, Will Borgen, and Matt Irwin filled out the blue line in place of Ristolainen, McCabe, and Montour, and what the Sabres were missing in those players became apparent during the game.

Irwin is the only one of the group to have found a comfortable spot in the lineup on multiple nights so far this season, with Davidson and Borgen getting their first real taste of NHL action in this season. Steven Fogarty skated on the Sabres’ fourth line in the game.

It’s hard to pick on the new guys in the lineup too much for this loss, especially since Coach Krueger relied heavily on his best players, giving them as much ice time as possible in the contest. Suffice it to say, though, that the Sabres are hoping to get the regulars back in their usual spots, and the call-ups back to the taxi squad or to the Amerks.

Sabres Need to Get Into the Win Column this Week

The Sabres currently sit at dead last in the Mass Mutual™ East Division, with a 4-5-2 record and 10 points on the season. The New Jersey Devils also have 10 points, but also have a pair of games in hand on the Sabres.

Now five points out of fourth place in the division, and thus five points out of a playoff spot, the situation at hand is beginning to feel all too similar for the Sabres and their fans. The points gap in the division standings is widening, other teams are grabbing points, and the Sabres are sitting idly by while it happens.

There’s a bright side to all this, though: five points is no insurmountable feat, and the Sabres have some upcoming opponents who they have played well against earlier in the season, and an opportunity to get back into the win column.

The Sabres will play the Islanders again, the Washington Capitals on Thursday, and the New Jersey Devils on Saturday to wrap up the week. It is important that they take advantage of these teams they have beat before (save the Islanders), and start to claw their way back into the playoff race.

They are certainly not out of it, and they can prove that by stringing together some wins this week. If they successfully do that, next week we could be talking about a team in a playoff spot.

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