With a 3-3-1 record so far this season, you’d be hesitant to put money on the Buffalo Sabres as a shoo-in to make the playoffs. But, there are some indicators that make a case for the Blue and Gold being more competitive than we might think. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Sabres are nipping at the heels of the top teams in the league during 5-on-5 play in a few underlying statistical categories that are typically predictive of success.
The team ranks third in the league in high-danger chance percentage (64.3%), fourth in the league in expected goals percentage (57.4%) and eighth in overall Corsi percentage (53.4%). The Sabres have been better than each of their first seven opponents this year in the above categories except for once, when they were outdone in shot attempts by the Philadelphia Flyers 51-49 during a 6-1 Buffalo win on Jan. 18.
More often than not, Buffalo is in the attacking zone getting high-danger chances and making shot attempts at the net. If they keep doing that, they are more than likely to start potting a few more goals.
A Pair of Surprising Sabres
Meanwhile, a pair of Sabres defensemen — Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe — now rank among the league’s top 15 defenders in Corsi percentage. The two currently have the 11th best possession numbers among all NHL defensive pairings who have played at least 30 minutes together this season.
Entering play on Wednesday, only the Edmonton Oilers’ Ethan Bear and Darnell Nurse have been on the ice for more even strength goals as a pair. Ristolainen continues to impress this season. His goal on Jan. 15 versus the Washington Capitals broke a tie with Bill Hajt for the 10th-most goals by a defenseman in Sabres history. He now trails Tyler Myers and Jim Schoenfeld by two goals for eighth-most. Ristolainen’s first assist on Jan. 24 versus the Capitals moved him past Schoenfeld for the seventh-most career points recorded by a Sabres defenseman.
And, fun fact: Ristolainen holds the franchise record for most overtime goals by a defenseman with four and is tied ninth all-time among Sabres defensemen with six game-winning goals.
Goaltending Is Key
With the Sabres spending more time in the offensive zone, even a slight improvement from starter Linus Ullmark could make a big difference for the Sabres. The team’s save percentage numbers and lower-than-average shooting percentage in comparison to the rest of the league stand in the way of turning all that offensive zone time into goals for. Buffalo analyst Walter Zurowski of @TheChargingBuff notes these two below average categories could correct to the mean, pointing toward better results to come for the Sabres.
It’s unclear if there are moves to be made for Buffalo to improve their goaltending position, or if general manager Kevyn Adams would prefer to hit pause and see what he has with Ullmark and Carter Hutton for a little bit longer. All that aside, Ullmark is right up there among the top five goaltenders in the league in one particular statistic.
With 27 saves on 32 career shots faced, Ullmark’s shootout save percentage is .844 — good enough for fourth all-time among NHL goaltenders who have faced at least 20 shots. Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (.852) is the only active goaltender ahead of Ullmark. During Sunday’s 4-3 shootout win over the Capitals, Ullmark stopped all three shooters. He now sits with a career 5-3 record in the shootout, third place all-time within the franchise behind Ryan Miller (49) and Jhonas Enroth (10).
Sabres Power Play Is Humming
In their games against the Capitals on Sunday (3-for-5), and the New York Rangers on Tuesday (2-for-4), the Sabres scored five power-play goals. Entering play Wednesday, the Sabres have had a league-high seven different players score at least one goal on the power play, led by Victor Olofsson’s two. Jack Eichel sits tied for second in the league with five power-play points. The team’s power play is currently ranked eighth in the league, going 8-for-26 so far this season (30.8%).
Buffalo has been playing with discipline as of late, which if it keeps up, can only help the cause. Entering play Wednesday, the Sabres have been the least-penalized team in the NHL, with only 4:25 of penalty time on average per game. Buffalo has drawn 28 penalties so far from their opponents and have only taken 14 taken, giving them the best penalty differential in the league.
Mike Carter is a freelance writer and contributor for the Buffalo Sabres with The Hockey Writers and NHLTradeRumors.Me He is @mikecarterlives on Twitter. Mike has been writing professionally since 2012, with stints as a reporter in northern British Columbia and Edmonton, Alberta. He now calls Salmon Arm, B.C. home.