Sabres Fans Are Seeing Reasons to Cheer

It’s been quite some time since fans of the Buffalo Sabres have been able to cheer for a winning hockey team. Recently, they’ve had that chance.

Following a dismal end to 2016 in which the team won just three of their final 10 games, the Sabres have come out of the gate strong in 2017 earning at least a point in every game they’ve played in the New Year. Of those four games, the Sabres have three wins with one overtime loss.

Kyle Okposo Ryan O’Reilly and Rasmus Ristolainen – October 25, 2016 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Buffalo’s recent stretch of strong performances has turned the team from a bottom-dweller into a possible playoff contender. Going into the New Year, the Sabres were tied for last in the Eastern Conference.

Through 40 games this season, Buffalo earned 41 points, good for 13th in the Eastern Conference. Although the team sits at seventh in the Atlantic Division, they are just seven points out of a wild-card playoff spot. And with 40 games played, Buffalo has at least one game in hand on most teams in the playoff hunt.

The playoffs are still a longshot for the team from the Queen City. However, the Sabres are currently giving their fans something to cheer about, which is something they haven’t done in quite some time.

Reinhart Bounces Back

Sam Reinhart – October 25, 2016 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

One of the more prominent stories of the Sabres’ 2016-17 season has been Sam Reinhart’s lack of production. Coming off of a 42 point rookie season, the second overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft was expected to have a break-out 2016-17 campaign.

Despite scoring two points in the first two games of the season, Reinhart fell into a slump that only ended recently. Through the first 20 games, the Vancouver-native posted nine points. He went through a stretch in November in which he scored just three points in 11 games. While Reinhart wasn’t having a terrible season, he wasn’t having the explosive season that fans were expecting.

Thankfully, the forward has found his scoring touch of late. The former WHL Rookie of the Year has 12 points in his last 10 games and is now second on the team in scoring. Through the team’s four games in 2017, he has six points.

Reinhart’s recent production has sparked the team’s offense. The Sabres, who at one point this season averaged less than two goals per game, have scored at least three goals in every game they’ve played in 2017. “We’re happy with where we’re at,” Reinhart said when asked about the team’s recent offensive outburst following the team’s 4-1 win against the Philadelphia Flyers on January 10th. “We’re taking it one day at a time.”

If his production continues, there is a strong possibility that the young Canadian will finish with 50 or more points, making it a break-out season after all.

Backup No Longer?

Like Reinhart’s production, the Buffalo Sabres’ goaltending situation has been a major topic of discussion for Sabres’ fans this season. Although starting goaltender Robin Lehner hasn’t played badly, many fans are calling for backup Anders Nilsson to become the starter due to his strong outings in a limited number of appearances.

Objectively, Nilsson is having a better season than Lehner. Nilsson’s 2.37 goals against average is better than Lehner’s 2.53. The 26-year-old’s .930 save percentage is stronger than that of his fellow Swede. Unlike Lehner, Nilsson has won more games than he has lost this season.

Anders Nilsson – October 25, 2016 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However, goaltending has not been the Sabres’ problem. Both goaltenders have been consistent, but neither player has been able to prove themselves as the team’s starter. Recently, Nilsson has been given that opportunity, and he seems to be taking the ball and running with it.

Like the team itself, Nilsson has had a strong 2017. The 6’6″ goalie has started three out of the team’s four games this year, posting a record of 2-0-1. The former third-round draft pick has stopped 39 shots in each of his last two outings. At times this season, Nilsson has single-handedly kept the Buffalo Sabres in hockey games.

While Nilsson has certainly had a stronger season than Sabres’ management expected, are they willing to make him the full-time starting goaltender? If the Lulea, Sweden native continues to have near-40 save outings, the team won’t have a choice. The Sabres have to start the goaltender that gives them the best chance to win. Recently, that goaltender has been Nilsson.

He will get another start tonight in Tampa Bay, as Lehner is suffering an illness. If Nilsson provides yet another strong outing for the team, the possibility of the Swede being named the full-time starting goaltender will increase.

The playoffs are still a long shot for the Sabres. Sneaking into a wild-card spot will be difficult for the young team. However, the team’s recent performances have given fans hope. Hope for the future. Hope that the team hasn’t given up on the season. Hope, even, that the team will be able to sneak into the playoffs.

Although things haven’t been great for Sabres fans in recent years, they are finally giving their fans something to cheer about.