Sabres Morning Skate: Losing Ground

The Buffalo Sabres entered the week on a four-game losing streak and the struggles continued for the majority of the week. They started the week with a 4-1 loss against the Blues in St. Louis. The two teams were tied at one entering the third period, but the game went south in only a matter of 1:35. The Blues potted two quick goals early in the third and the Sabres were unable to recover.

The next game against the Tampa Bay Lightning didn’t go much better. The undermanned Sabres were outplayed by the Lightning throughout most of the game. Tampa Bay was playing without captain Steven Stamkos after his long-term knee injury, but they didn’t miss a beat in thumping the Sabres by a 4-1 score.

Buffalo went into the weekend facing the most difficult opponent of the week in defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. The chances of coming away with points were extremely low. However, thanks to a strong performance from goaltender Anders Nilsson, the Sabres were able to steal two points from the Penguins with a shootout victory. Nilsson made 46 saves on 47 shots to lead the Sabres to a much-needed victory.

The six-game losing streak resulted in the Sabres losing a lot of ground in the standings. It was good to see them pick up two points to end the week, but the gap to the pack has grown slightly. Entering Monday’s games, they sit six points out of third place in the Atlantic Division, currently held by the Boston Bruins. In the Wild Card race, they sit five points behind the New Jersey Devils. The current gap is obviously not insurmountable only 18 games into the season. However, ideally, they don’t want to fall too much further behind prior to getting back their key players. Staying in the mix will go a long way to keeping the playoff hopes alive when the big pieces come back.

Anders Nilsson Pushing Hard

Nilsson has been a great story so far this season. Coming into the season not many were really sure of what to expect from the 26-year-old Swede, but he’s shown that he’s a more than capable backup goaltender and may be pushing to prove he’s more than that. In five starts this season, he’s 2-1-2 with a 1.74 goals against average and a .951 save percentage. His last three games have been even more impressive with a 2-0-1 record, 0.97 goals against average and a .976 save percentage.

Nilsson has looked smooth and calm in net all season. His big 6-feet-6-inch size is the ideal mould that general manager Tim Murray likes with his goaltenders. Starting goalie Robin Lehner also measures up at the height of 6 feet 6 inches. The combination of size and speed has allowed Nilsson to really excel this season. The question now is has Nilsson done enough to take away some starts from Lehner? At this point, he’s likely earned the opportunity to see the crease at least once a week. However, Lehner has played well so far this season and has done nothing to lose his hold on the No. 1 goaltender status. Competition is healthy and Nilsson’s play is certainly worth watching as the season unfolds.

I thought he was at his best just being solid in net, really calm… – Dan Bylsma on Anders Nilsson

Big Names Quiet

The Sabres’ scoring woes continue as they remain the lowest scoring team in the league. We’re near the end of November and they’ve still been unable to score more than two goals in a game this month. Everyone is well aware of the injury issues that have contributed to scoring woes, but they’re not entirely to blame.

Evander Kane
Photo: Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers

Big-name players that are still in the lineup have failed to produce over the last two weeks for the club. The big offseason pickup, Kyle Okposo, has only scored one goal in his last 10 games. He’s been creating chances during his goal drought, but has been unable to finish the opportunities. Okposo’s frustration has been visible on the ice and in his demeanor post game. If he was playing poorly, I think there would be a bigger concern, but the scoring chances are there. It seems like only a matter of time before he finally breaks through.

Evander Kane is another player who is off to a slow start. He’s only played in seven games but has only registered one assist thus far. Coming off of four cracked ribs, Kane should be given a little rope to work his way back into the flow of the game. If the production does not start to pick up over the next few weeks, the pressure could really start to build for the 25-year-old. The Sabres need Kane to produce at least at the 20-goal level he did last season. Not only now, but when the team gets healthy as well.

It must be a joke right now, if you score two goals against the Buffalo Sabres, you’re gonna win the game. – Evander Kane

The Sabres’ defense finally recorded their first goal of the season with a Cody Franson power-play goal against the Lightning. Buffalo needs to get some sort of production from their blue line.

Rasmus Ristolainen is a player that they rely heavily on to bring production from the point. After a hot start, the Finnish native has only put up one assist in his last 10 games. The injuries to Zach Bogosian and Dmitry Kulikov may have caused the team to ask Ristolainen to focus more on his defensive game.

nhl milestones
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The need for more production from the defense group was part of the reason the Sabres decided to call up Taylor Fedun, who brings an offensive upside to his game. In his two games this week, he’s recorded two points and appears to be fitting in much better than the struggling Casey Nelson.

The Week Ahead

The Sabres will play two games this week against the Calgary Flames and Detroit Red Wings at home to wrap up a four-game homestand. Then they’ll end the week making a visit to Washington, DC, to take on the Capitals. It’ll be interesting to see if the big win against the Penguins on Saturday carries into this upcoming week.

Also, the Sabres may start to get some players back this week in Kulikov and Ryan O’Reilly. It’s by no means a certainty they return to the lineup, but O’Reilly was back on the ice yesterday, which is a promising sign. This week will also mark the six-week mark of a six to eight-week injury timeline for Jack Eichel. The 19-year-old has been on the ice the last few weeks and his return may not be too far in the distant future.