It almost felt like the Buffalo Sabres would never win a game again.
Heading into Wednesday’s 6-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, who they had lost to just two days prior after blowing a 3-0 third period lead and losing 4-3 in overtime, the Sabres were riding a humiliating 18-game winless streak. Tied with the 2003-04 Pittsburgh Penguins for the longest skid of its kind in the 21st-century NHL, the Sabres hadn’t picked up two points in a game since a 4-1 win over the New Jersey Devils on Feb. 23. In the 36 days between wins, Buffalo saw the firing of former head coach Ralph Krueger, trades of centre Eric Staal (Montreal Canadiens) and goaltender Jonas Johansson (Colorado Avalanche), and failed to sell enough tickets to fill KeyBank Center to 10 percent capacity. It’s been a rough ride for the Sabres the past five weeks or so, but the end of a record-tying winless streak could mark the start of a new chapter for this struggling team.
Linus Ullmark’s Return Gives the Sabres Hope
In 35 games this season, the Sabres have only managed to pull out seven wins. Six of those victories have come with Linus Ullmark in net. The Swedish netminder went down with a lower-body injury in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Devils on Feb. 25, the first game of Buffalo’s record-tying winless streak. He remained out of the lineup until March 29, when the Sabres infamously choked a three-goal lead to the Flyers in the final 20 minutes of regulation and ultimately lost in overtime. In his second game since returning from injury, Ullmark managed to put Buffalo’s skid to a halt, recording a .969 save percentage to defeat the Flyers, 6-1.
While Ullmark was out, the Sabres’ crease was shared by Carter Hutton, Jonas Johansson and Dustin Tokarski. The three goaltenders have combined for a 1-18-2 record for Buffalo this season. To compare, Ullmark has held his own, with a 6-5-3 record and .920 save percentage, a solid stat line considering the team’s abysmal performance in front of him this season. With Ullmark finally back in net, the Sabres are in much better hands. 22 points out of a playoff spot, it’s likely too late for Buffalo to make any sort of playoff push now, but Sabres fans can at least hope to watch some more enjoyable hockey games, specifically wins, in the final 21 games of the season.
An Eventful April Ahead, Hall Expected to Be Traded
The Sabres have 16 games scheduled in the month of April, playing every 1.9 days on average. Not only will the team be busy on the ice, but general manager Kevyn Adams will also be working hard to move some of Buffalo’s assets ahead of the trade deadline on April 12.
The most notable piece expected to be traded, Taylor Hall’s days with the organization appear to be numbered. There is still talk he may be interested in returning to Buffalo this upcoming offseason as an unrestricted free agent, but it seems unlikely he will finish the 2020-21 season as a member of the Sabres.
With just two goals and 16 assists over 35 games this season, the former Hart Trophy-winner’s value has plummeted over the past few months. Despite his team-leading 82 shots on goal, he carries a shooting percentage of only 2.4 percent. Although he is still an effective player, he hasn’t done the job he was assigned to do in Buffalo. Time is ticking with the deadline just 12 days away, so Adams will likely pull the trigger in the coming days in an attempt to get the best bang for his buck when he presumptively deals the underperforming winger to a playoff contender.
The Sabres’ next game is scheduled for Thursday night at home against the New York Rangers. Buffalo carries a 3-11-3 home record into the matchup as they look to rebound from an 18-game winless streak with a two-game winning streak. After Ullmark’s back-to-back starts and Carter Hutton being out with a lower-body injury, Dustin Tokarski is the expected starter for the Sabres.
Tom Pepper is a Toronto-based hockey content creator covering the NHL/Seattle Kraken at The Hockey Writers. He joined THW in June 2020 and began blogging about the Kraken, his favourite NHL team, in June 2021. In addition to blogging, he writes the Kraken News & Rumors column and co-hosts the THW What’s Kraken show on iHeartRadio. Outside of THW, he studies at the Ryerson School of Journalism and covers U Sports hockey at the Eyeopener student newspaper. He primarily analyzes hockey using the eye test and traditional statistics. Follow him on Twitter at @TomPepper.