Sabres Morning Skate: Road Warriors

The Buffalo Sabres won two out of three games this week. Both of those wins came on the road against the Minnesota Wild and Ottawa Senators. They were an impressive road team last season, going 19-17-5, which was the 14th best road win percentage in the league. That trend has carried over into this season with a 4-1-2 record thus far, which is currently the second-best winning percentage in the NHL through Saturday’s games.

Buffalo would lose their lone home game of the week to the Toronto Maple Leafs, but in fact was probably their best performance of the week. They put a season high 43 shots on goal, but Leafs goaltender Fredrik Andersen was on his game that night with a few highlight-reel saves. Unlike on the road, the Sabres have struggled at home this season so far, going 1-3 and losing the games by a combined 10-5 score.

Injury Updates

Overall, the team has won four of their last five games and is crossing days off the calendar as important pieces come closer to returning to the lineup. General manager Tim Murray gave an encouraging update on Evander Kane this week in a radio interview with local sports station WGR 550. Murray indicated Kane was working out and scheduled to do contact workouts at the end of the week and, if all goes well, he could join the club next week. This is certainly encouraging news as many expected him to be out to until at least the end of November. It’ll  be nice to get Kane’s speed and scoring ability back into the lineup

God bless him he felt he could play tonight – Tim Murray on Evander Kane’s injury recovery

Zach Bogosian, Buffalo Sabres, NHL, Fantasy Hockey
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The news on the injury front did have some bad news as well. After leaving the game early against the Wild, it was announced Zach Bogosian would miss weeks with an MCL sprain. That injury his a tough hit to a Sabres blue line, which has struggled at times this season. Bogosian is one of the strongest skaters on the defense, which is another area the group struggles with.

Casey Nelson will slot into the lineup now to fill the void. After some bad turnovers in his first game against the Leafs, Nelson was much better against Ottawa on Saturday. The Sabres will need him to find some consistency as head coach Dan Bylsma appears to be going with the plan of spreading the minutes out fairly evenly among the six defenders.

Defensive Shake-Up

The Bogosian injury has also caused Bylsma to mix up his defensive pairings. The big one is the long-awaited pairing of Dmitry Kulikov and Rasmus Ristolainen. It was widely believed that Kulikov was brought in this summer to run shotgun with the Sabres’ top young defenseman. However, after a preseason injury to Kulikov and the hold out of Ristolainen, the two started the season apart. Bylsma also seemed intent on keeping Ristolainen with his partner from last season (Josh Gorges). The 32-year-old Gorges is no longer a top-pair defenseman at this point in his career, resulting in the constant second guessing of the coach’s decision.

Kulikov and Ristolainen sparingly played together through the first nine games of the season but played their first game against Ottawa as full-time partners. Ristolainen’s former partner, Gorges, was then paired with Nelson to counter the early struggles of the 24-year-old. In training camp, Nelson and Gorges had good success together. Bylsma is hoping they’ll be able to find that connection again for the next few weeks at least.

Lehner Standing Out

After a slow start to the season, Robin Lehner is playing the way the Sabres had hoped over the last week or so. He currently holds a 2.14 goals-against average, which is currently eighth among all goaltenders to play at least five games through Saturday. Also, his .929 save percentage is seventh in the league. The 25-year-old has really turned it on his last four games, going 3-1 with a .961 save percentage and a 1.25 goals against average.

The team has needed to rely heavily on Lehner with the injury situation and he’s stepped up. Lehner is the primary reason the Sabres were able to skate away with two points against Minnesota and certainly against his former team (Ottawa). He’s eliminating the question if he’s a legitimate No. 1 goaltender with his play.

The Week Ahead

Buffalo will play four games this week. Two within the division and all four in the Eastern Conference. The first two matchups will be against division foes Bruins in Boston on Monday and Senators at home on Wednesday. Ending the week, the Sabres will have a home-and-home against the New Jersey Devils in their first two meetings of the season.

Taylor Hall Devils
(Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports)

The Devils games at the end of the week could be where Kane makes his return to the Sabres lineup. As I mentioned previously, barring a setback, the Sabres expect to have the 25-year-old back by the end of the week. Buffalo has struggled to score and getting back a 20-goal scorer will be a big upgrade with Eichel still a few weeks away from making his return.

Around the Division

Montreal Canadiens – 10-1-1 – 21 points

The Canadiens continue their hot start to the season. However, they did receive their first regulation loss this week in a shocking 10-0 loss at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Backup goaltender Al Montoya was left in for the entire game, taking it on the chin to keep Carey Price off the ice on back-to-back nights. Outside of that game, Montreal has picked up where it left off last season prior to Price being injured.

Games this week: Boston Bruins, Los Angeles Kings, Detroit Red Wings, and Chicago Blackhawks

Tampa Bay Lightning – 7-4-1 – 15 points

Tampa Bay has finally started to get going after a slow start. Steven Stamkos is playing well after signing his new long-term contract over the summer. The Lightning won two of their three games this week by a combined score of 14-6.

Games this week: Florida Panthers, New York Islanders, and San Jose Sharks

Ottawa Senators – 7-4-0 – 14 points

The Senators have been a surprise to start the season. You can’t talk about Ottawa without mentioning the enormous courage and inspiration that goaltender Craig Anderson is playing with. The tragic cancer diagnosis of his wife, Nicholle, has been hard on Anderson. Again, nothing but prayers for the Anderson family.

Games this week: Nashville Predators, Buffalo Sabres, Los Angeles, and Minnesota Wild

Toronto Maple Leafs – 5-4-3- 13 points

Mitch Marner
Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

The Leafs are off to a surprisingly good start. After a hot start by young stars Auston Matthews and William Nylander, fellow rookie Mitchell Marner has started to turn it on. In more good news for Toronto, newly acquired goaltender Andersen has found his groove after an awful start. Defense continues to be the thing that’ll likely hold the Leafs back this season.

Games this week: Los Angeles Kings, Philadelphia Flyers, and Pittsburgh Penguins

Detroit Red Wings – 6-6-1 – 13 points

The Wings are still struggling to find consistency. After winning six straight, it’s been five losses in a row. The injuries certainly are not helping, but Detroit is not getting the production they need from top players as well.

Games this week: Philadelphia Flyers, Vancouver Canucks, and Montreal Canadiens

Boston Bruins – 6-5-0 – 12 points

The Bruins are another team that has struggled to find consistency. Last year’s free-agent signing in Matt Beleskey was a healthy scratch this week for Boston with no points so far this season. Tuukka Rask is off to a fantastic start, but he may have too much weight on his shoulders.

Games this week: Buffalo Sabres, Montreal Canadiens, Columbus Blue Jackets, Arizona Coyotes, and Colorado Avalanche

Florida Panthers – 5-6-1 – 11 points

Along with the Nashville Predators, the Panthers are perhaps the most surprising poor-start team in the league. The long-term injury to Jonathan Huberdeau appears to be having a big effect on Florida. Top-line players like Aleksander Barkov are really struggling to make an impact. The Panthers have the talent to turn it around, but the start is certainly concerning.

Games this week: Tampa Bay Lightning, San Jose Sharks, and New York Islanders