It’s been a weird start to a weird season for the Buffalo Sabres, who have already played six games against only two opponents: the Washington Capitals, who they’ve played four times and the Philadelphia Flyers, who they’ve played twice. Suffice it to say, Jack Eichel, Taylor Hall and company are getting quite used to seeing Zdeno Chara, and to a lesser extent, Carter Hart and the gang.
One might hazard a guess to say that they’ve also grown quite tired of seeing the Capitals beat up on the Sabres, having lost the previous three meetings, that is until last night – when the Sabres finally prevailed, beating the Caps 4-3 in a shootout win. Captain Jack Eichel potted the game-deciding goal after a perfect showing in the shootout for the disputed number one goalie, Linus Ullmark.
Shorthanded Capitals Still Push Sabres to the Brink
The Capitals were without their three-time Hart Trophy winner (Alex Ovechkin), their number one centre (Evgeny Kuznetsov), one of their top defensemen (Dmitry Orlov) and their starting goaltender (Iyla Samsonov) for the second straight game. Since Tom Wilson left the previous matchup between these two teams after one shift, the shorthanded Caps inserted 2019 first-round pick Connor McMichael into the lineup to debut for his first NHL game.
Washington survived the first test with their COVID-shortened lineup on Friday, when they beat Buffalo in a shootout 4-3. But it was the Sabres who came out on top Sunday, albeit with a win that was far from easy. For the second straight game, a team that was not nearly in as great a shape as they will be down the stretch pushed the Sabres to the brink – and that might not be a good sign.
In a regular year, the first few months are when fans of teams that aren’t actually all that good start to get carried away with how well their team appears to be playing – only to watch them slide down the standings as the real contenders start to get into mid-season form. That being said, it’s not a regular year, and it’s always hard to judge who the legitimate contenders are with under ten games played. But the fact that a depleted Capitals’ roster was able to push a relatively healthy Sabres’ team to the brink two games in a row raises some question marks.
Then again, maybe the Sabres are one of those teams this year that will find their stride a little on down the line. With a shortened season weighing heavy on everyone’s mind, this team can’t afford to get too far behind before they find their form. It’s not time to panic yet. After all, the highly touted New York Rangers are still figuring it out, so who’s to say what this year brings for the Blue and Gold.
Up and Down Ullmark
We all know that goaltending is one of the biggest issues this team faces, and that was on full display Sunday with the up and down play of presumed number one goalie, Linus Ullmark. At times he looked solid, and at times he looked – well, less than that.
Take the first goal for instance. A shot from the point, without much traffic in front, somehow made its way through the five-hole and into the back of the net. Sure, the Capitals’ Nic Dowd made a slightly deceptive move by sliding his body in front of Justin Schultz’s point shot and let it slip through his legs, but most goalies in the league would have still been able to stop that one from going in.
That being said, in order to stop the puck from finding the back of the net, the Sabres also need to do a better job defensively. For an example of this, look no further than goal number two. Three Sabres’ players were caught on the half boards during a penalty kill as the puck went back to the point, leaving T.J. Oshie completely alone on an island in front of Ullmark Uninhibited to do what he can do with the best of them, Oshie made a beautiful tip on the shot for a goal.
Then we have goal number three, one where you could almost hear around the world the smack of Sabres’ fans foreheads hitting the palms of their hands and screaming out, “WHY!?”
As a loose puck made its way in front of the net, Ullmark missed on a poke check, as the puck found the deceptive Nick Backstrom, who beat the netminder for his 4th of the season. Maybe Ullmark was just too much in his head on this play. Aware of who the puck was bouncing towards dangerously in front of his net, he made the split-second decision to try and swat it away to the corner and just missed. We all make mistakes, we’re human, after all.
But perhaps, that mistake could have been avoided if Ullmark had the confidence to square up to the shooter. The shooter was on a poor angle, and the goaltender could’ve taken the shot in the breadbasket for an easy save. Either way, the puck ended up in the back of the net, and Ullmark immediately knew he had messed up.
Ullmark’s mistakes are probably why he played amazingly to finish the game. In overtime, he was solid, making a great glove save on a partial break by Schultz. Then, he made two saves on a clear-cut breakaway by (guess who?) Backstrom. In the shootout, it was Ullmark flashing the leather on Backstrom again to turn away the final shootout attempt and solidify the win. Safe to say, we won’t see him trying the poke check again any time soon.
Some Bright Spots
The win on this night was an obvious bright spot for the team. It took four tries, but they finally beat the Capitals. Though the Capitals were not at full team strength, it’s still a victory. Two more highlights included the play of Eichel, Hall and the team’s power play. Hall was speedy and all over the puck, while Eichel was well himself. Just an all-around dynamite player. While the bottom six are taking a while to prove their worth, the top six have fared decently this season.
The Sabres’ power play was the clear difference-maker, with all three goals coming on the man advantage. Buffalo moves into a tie with the Tampa Bay Lightning for the last spot in the NHL’s top-ten rankings of the league on the power play, with a conversion rate of 27.3%.
Eichel, won the game with an amazing shot in the shootout.
What were your thoughts on the game? Let us know in the comments below.
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.