The new-look Buffalo Sabres have an old-school problem: special teams.
Through their first seven games, their power play ranks 24th in the league, converting at a 13.8 percent clip (four goals scored in 29 chances–the most power plays of any team in the NHL thus far). The team’s penalty kill ranks 28th, allowing six goals on 20 chances (69.6 percent).
It’s still early, but, with the team’s absolutely atrocious 5-on-5 production, if it weren’t for the few power play goals and some stellar goaltending, this team would be even worse than last year in the standings.
The Sabres’ Powerless Power Play
The Blue and Gold’s power play is 4-for-9 in its three wins and a horrendous 0-for-20 in four losses. The Jekyll and Hyde-like showing is indicative of a team trying to find a shred of consistency. They’re 3-for-15 on home ice and a dreadful 1-for-14 on the road. In their last three losses, they went 0 for 7 vs. the Colorado Avalanche, 0-for-6 vs. the Vegas Golden Knights, and 0-for-5 vs. the San Jose Sharks. In a word: woof.
“We had key times in the game where our power play could have shined, and we didn’t execute,” said Housley. “I think one of the things that we have to get back is just shooting pucks and keeping it simple. I mean, that’s really all they did. They just tried to get the puck to the net.”
The first-line unit has been comprised of Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Conor Sheary, Kyle Okposo and Rasmus Ristolainen. There have been some sweet tic-tac-toe plays between Eichel, Reinhart and Sheary, including lamplighters against the Arizona Coyotes and New York Rangers, but the rest has been anything but pretty.
In their five power plays against the Sharks, the Sabres managed just seven shots on goal. At times, it was painful to watch. They struggled to gain the zone, their possession was soft, they overpassed and failed to create traffic in front of the opposing goalie.
Looking hard for a silver lining? By through seven games last season, the Sabres had given up five shorties. This season, the stat still haunts them as they’re one of only three teams to have already surrendered two shorties (the others are the Anaheim Ducks and Philadelphia Flyers). Baby steps.
Time to Mix Things Up
For Housley, it’s time to go back to the basics. He’s juggling his power play units. Skinner, Mittelstadt, Dahlin, Pominville are joining Eichel on the first power play unit. The second unit will consist of Sheary, Reinhart, Okposo, Rodrigues and Ristolainen.
Housley’s message to his group was simple; get pucks on net and crash the crease. “We made [Sharks’ goaltender Martin] Jones work,” said the Sabres bench boss. “When you don’t get rewarded in those areas, sometimes it can get frustrating. But we have to continue to do that and we have to continue to get more pucks to the net. Eventually, it’s going to break.”
“We talked about making decisions on a day-to-day, game-by-game [basis],” said Sabres coach Phil Housley. “Obviously, we didn’t get the results, so we’ve got to make some decisions and try to put some new lines together today to see the chemistry. I thought we had a really good practice today.”
“You get into ruts like this and you have to just shoot pucks,” said Kyle Okposo. “You have to go back to fundamentals. Pucks to the net, pucks to the net, pucks to the net. You have to go back to volume, volume, volume. And then the back-door plays and the seam plays, all that stuff comes.”
Last Season’s Power Play Roller Coaster
The Sabres power play last season was ice cold from opening night through the end of the calendar year. They were at the bottom of the league, having scored only 14 goals with the man advantage. Then, from Jan. 1 on, they suddenly became red hot. They lit the lamp a league-high 35 times in 44 games (tied with the Boston Bruins).
The change, right around the Winter Classic, stemmed from the group’s shoot-first mentality. They established a net-front presence and got the puck to the net. From there, everything fell into place.
The power play goal scoring performance in the second half of the season was similar to the 2016-17 season, when the team converted at a league-best 24.5 percent with the extra man. The same five players: Eichel, Reinhart, Okposo, Ryan O’Reilly and Ristolainen formed the power play unit.
A Chance to Turn Things Around
The Sabres lack of production at 5-on-5 puts even more pressure on their special teams. This season, the team has only 13 goals in seven games (30th in the league), a familiar statistic from scoring woes of past seasons. If the team is going to have any success, it needs to start clicking. The team completes its five-game Western road trip, facing the Los Angeles Kings Saturday afternoon in Staples Center and the Anaheim Ducks on Sunday.
Jeff has been covering the NHL for over a decade for various sites. He’s been with The Hockey Writers as a lead Sabres writer three years, while also writing a satire column called “Off the Crossbar.”