The Buffalo Sabres are 3-3-0 in 2018-19 and on the surface it looks pretty good, especially for a team that finished dead last in the NHL last season. Within that record is a trio of wins that were solid and losses that were lopsided. Buffalo's wins were against the NY Rangers (3-1,) Vegas Golden Knights (4-2) and Arizona Coyotes (3-0.) The combined record of those three teams is 6-12-1 and their goal differential is a minus-18. The Sabres three losses were against the Boston Bruins (0-4,) Colorado Avalanche (1-6) and Golden Knights (1-4,) all of whom were in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs. Their combined record is 10-7-2 and their goal differential is a plus-7.
It's not hard to figure out that in this young season the Sabres have been able to defeat lesser teams, or in Vegas' case a team not playing well on the road, but have had a lot of trouble with the better teams including the Golden Knights at their home rink.
The faults we've seen in this year's edition of the Sabres is disparaging in that we've generally been seeing the same things happen for a few years now. Some of that includes getting off to slow starts and falling behind, poor passing and the inability to beat good goaltending or finish their chances. They've had difficulties with a strong forecheck and are unable and/or unwilling to go to the greasy areas of the ice when facing a collapsing defense.
"We've got to make sure our execution has to be ready when the puck drops," coach Phil Housley told the media yesterday. "Not 10 minutes into the game or at the end of the first period. The way we attack the game. Especially entering the offensive zone, getting more pucks to the net and more people there, stopping and paying a price to score some goals."
Sometimes it seems as if it's a systemic issue with the coaching staff seemingly unable to make any adjustments. Other times it seems as if some (many?) individual players would rather cheat up-ice or play on the perimeter and let someone else do the dirty work. Most times it seems as if it's a combination and when they play a team like Boston or Vegas that are both strong on the forecheck, quick to the puck and collapse in the defensive zone while waiting to counterpunch on the break, it turns into an easy win for the opposition.
There's a predictability to the Sabres and we've been seeing that on the powerplay as well. It's a tale of two powerplays as Buffalo is a combined 4/9 with the man advantage in their three wins and 0/15 in their three losses which includes and 0/7 effort against the Avalanche and 0/6 last game against Vegas. Buffalo's powerplay centers around Jack Eichel where he's in the right circle ready for a one-timer or working a triangle with a man below the line and one in the slot. When neither is working, it doesn't seem as if they can generate much in the way of opportunity.
The Sabres are in the midst of a season-long, five-game road trip that continues in San Jose, CA tonight with a visit to the Shark Tank, which is one of the toughest arenas to play in. The Sharks made some moves dating back to last season's trade deadline that have many seeing them as a Stanley Cup contender. San Jose traded for Sabres winger Evander Kane at the 2018 NHL trade deadline and he helped them reach the second round of the playoffs before the upstart Golden Knights defeated them in six games.
In the off season the Sharks added to an already solid blueline featuring former Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns by trading for Ottawa's Erik Karlsson, a Norris winner himself.
San Jose is off to a slow start and head into tonight's contest with a 2-3-1 record and will be returning home after a five-game road trip. The Sharks went 2-2-1 on the trip outscoring their opponents 15-14, although eight of those goals came in one game (Philadelphia.)
The Sabres are a surprising 6-3-1 in their last 10 games vs. the Sharks and what's even more interesting is that they won all four contests while in the throes of their tank years from 2013-15. The "Eichel-era" Sabres so far have gone 2-3-1 against San Jose with their last win coming at home in overtime on February 7, 2017. Buffalo lost both contests last season by the identical 3-2 score.
It's anybody's guess which Sabres team will show up tonight.
Some notes from the pipeline:
--Buffalo enters tonight's game with 12 goals-for which ties them with the Florida Panthers for 26th in the league while their 2.00 goals/game ranks them 28th. They're also tied for 28th in 5v5 goals with six. One person not having much of a problem scoring goals is Victor Olofsson
. Unfortunately for the Sabres he's in Rochester playing for the Amerks right now. The former seventh round pick (2014, 181st-overall) is second in the league with five goals while his 12 points leads the AHL. Olofsson was named the AHL player of the week for last week.
--After a rough start where they dropped back-to-back home games to begin the season, the Amerks are on a roll. Rochester is on a four-game winning streak scoring 18 goals in those games. Olofsson scored all five of his goals during that streak, defenseman Zach Redmond
has lit the lamp four times with winger Alexander Nylander
(2016, eighth) scoring twice. Olofsson leads the league with 12 points, Redmond is fifth with 10 and Nylander comes in tied for 10th with seven points.
--Amerks defenseman Lawrence Pilut
, a Buffalo 2018 free agent signing, is tied for second in the AHL with 10 points (2+8) and has a plus-7 rating.
--In addition to Olofsson, Nylander and Pilut, all younger players looking to take the next step and have an impact at the NHL level, the Sabres pipeline is getting stronger. Goalie Ukka-Pekka Luukkonen
was named OHL player of the week to start the season. Luukkonen won all five of his starts, had a 1.78 GAA and a .944 sv% during that stretch. Although he's cooled off a bit for the Sudbury Wolves, the 2017 second round pick (54th) is looking pretty strong after opting for the Canadian Hockey League over playing in his native Finland.
--Another player who made the move to the CHL was center Matej Pekar
. The 18 yr. old Czech native had been in the USHL last season and it looked as if he'd be there again before entering college, but he made the move to the Barrie Colts, also of the OHL and has been playing great. Pekar has 11 points (6+5) in 10 games and was just signed to his entry-level deal by the Sabres.
--Barrie's head coach, Dale Hawerchuk, is a NHL Hockey Hall of Famer that played for the Sabres and he, loves the way the kid plays the game. "He's a gamer all the time," Hawerchuk told the press. "He lives and breathes the game." It's not unlike what we heard from Pekar's coaches at Muskegon. His former coach John LaFontaine called him "an ultimate team player" with "a passion and work ethic that's off the charts." Lumberjacks assistant coach Mike Hamilton called him a "phenomenal young man."
For more from those two coaches as well as some background here's a two-part profile piece on Pekar. Click here
for part one and here
for part two.
Quick update from Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News, Carter Hutton in net tonight, Patrik Berglund a healthy scratch.