It’s not often that a professional sports team loses 18 games consecutively. In fact, only three teams have surrendered more losses in NHL history, as the Buffalo Sabres tied the 2003-04 Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins ended up with Sidney Crosby, and a player of that caliber is not going to be around to fix this team. However, since the Sabres ended their losing streak on April 1, the team has gone 6-3-2 in the following eleven games. During that stretch, Taylor Hall, Curtis Lazar, and Brandon Montour were traded away, and Anders Bjork was acquired from the Boston Bruins. Drake Caggiula was claimed off waivers from Arizona, and the team recalled Arttu Ruotsalainen from the Rochester Americans.
Despite all of the moving bodies, this team has been respectable, even without Jack Eichel, who has a herniated disk and will not play for the remainder of this season. With Linus Ullmark injured week-to-week with a lower-body injury, Dustin Tokarski stepped up and won his first NHL game in five seasons. The Sabres are playing spoiler in the East division down the stretch and are making it difficult for teams to beat them.
In this article, I will dive into the players who have stepped up in this winning stretch and how the team can continue to play spoiler for numerous teams in this division.
Which Sabres Have Stepped Up?
Almost every player in the Sabres lineup has improved their performance during this winning stretch. Rasmus Dahlin is playing freely and using his terrific skating ability to skate into the offensive zone. Dylan Cozens has five assists in his last five games and has looked great on a line with Ruotsalainen and Bjork. Sam Reinhart has excelled playing as a center and has proved that he can play well in the absence of Eichel. Let’s highlight five players and profile how they have improved their game over the course of the season.
Since the firing of Ralph Krueger, Dahlin has become a different player. He is using his combination of speed and skill to burst into the offensive zone and makes creative plays to set up scoring chances. Below, look at this play against the Penguins, where Dahlin nearly scores a highlight-reel goal. The eye test has shown us that he’s improved, but what do the numbers say? Since April 1, he has eight points in his last nine games and has a goals for percentage (GF%) of 64.29% at 5v5. He is playing like the player that got him drafted first overall in the 2018 NHL Draft.
The evolution of Reinhart’s game has been interesting. He has become a solid top-six forward, and in the absence of Eichel, has become the team’s first-line center. He scored two goals in the game against the Penguins yesterday and had really improved his shot since the beginning of his career. He will score thirty goals at some point, and he might even do it multiple times. Looking at the numbers, I have found his isolated impact for his even-strength, and special teams play, and it is fascinating. He an interesting skill set, where he doesn’t drive play at an extraordinary level, but he is a great defensive forward with terrific finishing ability.
Ruotsalainen should have made the Sabres at the beginning of the season. He scored 26 seconds into the game against the Penguins, off the 2-on-1 with Cozens feeding him the pass. He has played as a winger recently and is showcasing his lethal shot since getting called up from Rochester. There is no excuse as to why Cody Eakin has played over him the majority of this season, as Eakin has an expected goals for (xGF%) of 36% in his forty-four games played. Although Ruotsalainen only has a 36.9 xGF% in his six games played, he is getting more confident in every game he’s played. He will be a regular in the lineup next season
During the recent series against Pittsburgh, Don Granato stapled the Cozens line against Crosby, and they played pretty well. Playing as the team’s second-line center, Cozens has been able to generate scoring chances and improve the play of his teammates. Bjork has loved playing with Cozens since arriving from Boston, as he has three points in four games. An interesting stat about Cozens is he leads the team in shot assists sixty 60 minutes at 5v5, in four games tracked from Corey Sznajder since the coaching change. It is a small sample size, but he is driving the play on that line.
On THW’s Sabres Scoop, Jack, also known as JFresh Hockey, joined our show and mentioned how Tokarski appears out of nowhere every five seasons. From making highlight-reel saves at the World Juniors to filling in for an injured Carry Price during the Eastern Conference Finals, he has quite the resume for a third-string goaltender. He has re-appeared again, and this time, it is for the Sabres. In his past four starts for the team, he has gone 2-1-1 with. a.934 save percentage and was named the NHL’s first star of the week. He provides the Sabres a chance to win every game and has been filling in for Ullmark quite nicely.
These players have stepped up for various reasons, from the coaching change to an increased deployment in the lineup. With these incredible individual performances, the Sabres have been playing spoiler in the East division. Teams like Boston and the New York Rangers are trying to lock into that fourth spot in the division, but it hasn’t been easy. There is still one question that remains as the team heads down the stretch.
Will the Sabres Continue to Play Spoiler?
The Sabres play the Bruins four times out of their remaining eleven games of the season. They traded Hall to them, along with Lazar, in exchange for a second-round pick and Anders Bjork. After the trade, analysts and fans deemed that the Sabres received an underwhelming return in exchange for a top-line winger. The play of Bjork has given hope to Sabres fans that he will be a solid middle-six winger for this team, and he could help play spoiler in the Bruins playoff aspirations.
The team that will most be affected by their play against Buffalo is the New York Rangers. They play the Sabres on April 25th and 27th as part of a two-game series. They are currently fifth in the East Division and are four points back on Boston for the fourth spot. There is an opportunity for the Sabres to eliminate the playoff hopes from Rangers fans if they can defeat them in any of those games, especially since Hall has given the Bruins an extra boost of confidence. New York has won four games in a row, but they will have to keep the streak going even to sniff the postseason.
There are finally some positive thoughts for Sabres fans as the season dwindles by the day. There are players worth keeping around and are proving themselves with the increased role. Whether Cozens or Reinhart, this team has a young core that can be a playoff team is constructed properly. For now, the focus is playing spoiler to other teams in the East division and building a fun atmosphere where players enjoy coming every day.
Jordan Jacklin is a freelance writer who covers the Buffalo Sabres here at The Hockey Writers. Jordan is a student at Ryerson’s Sport Media program and uses analytics and video scouting to evaluate your favourite players in the game.