It wasn't long ago that the Buffalo Sabres were returning home from Stockholm, Sweden after participating in the 2019 Global Series. Buffalo had just finished a back-to-back against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Sweden and were struggling after losing both of those games which led to a four-game losing streak in tow. The Sabres had a travel day from Stockholm back to the States, two league-mandated days off then one practice before they hit the ice at home against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Playing in the Global Series meant a compact schedule both prior to and after those two games and after coming home they were looking at a stretch of 21 games in 39 days which head coach Ralph Krueger labeled, "21 games to Christmas."
"The reality is we have the 21 games 'til Christmas and we're breaking it up into little groups. We've got five games, two-day pause; six games, two-day pause; six games, two-day pause; four games."
The Sabres lost to the 'Canes 5-4 in overtime then turned around and beat the Ottawa Senators, or should we say Jack Eichel beat the Sens as he scored every goal in a 4-2 Buffalo win. Those would be the only two games the Sabres would get points in as they finished their first block of games with a 1-3-1 record. The next grouping featured a particularly rough stretch where five of their six games were played in seven days. It kicked off with a back-to-back on the road in Florida and finished with a home-and-home against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Buffalo went 3-1-2 in that stretch. Onward to December and the next six games began with a Western Canada swing and a return home to face off against the Stanley Cup Champion St. Louis Blues. The Sabres finished that stretch 3-1-2 again.
Buffalo heads into Ottawa tonight with a chance to even up their record for the final group of four games as they're coming off of a 3-2 win against the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday afternoon. The Sabres had lost the prior two games, including an incredibly inept performance without Eichel against the Philadelphia Flyers the game before, but found their game against the Kings after a slow first period start. During the course of this "21 games to Christmas" the Sabres only laid one egg, that full-blown 6-1 stinker of a loss in Philadelphia. They had a bad third period in Tampa Bay (a 5-2 loss,) an equally bad second period in Calgary (a 4-3 loss,) and came up lame in the first 40 minutes of their last game against the Leafs (a 5-3 loss.)
Krueger has been doing yeoman's work behind the bench getting his pieces to work as he's been switching between using a traditional 12 forwards and six defensemen lineup and going 11/7. Using seven defensemen actually plays to Buffalo's strength as they have a stronger group of defensemen versus a forward group that's lacking and it also helps keep his D-men fresh by distributing ice-time more evenly. For instance, workhorse defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen was logging 24:07 of ice-time prior to the November 24 game against the Panthers in Florida when Krueger first introduced the 11/7 set-up. Since then Ristolainen is down to 21:13 average time on ice over and his overall game has greatly improved. While the big is scoring at a better clip, eight points (1+7) in 22 games prior and nine points (2+7) in 15 games since, Ristolainen saw his plus/minus go from a minus-3 prior to a plus-10 after the switch.
Tonight the Sabres play an Ottawa Senators team that's been playing some pretty solid hockey as of late they're 3-1-3 over their last seven games.
This is the second meeting of the season between the two teams. As mentioned, Buffalo won the first meeting and is 6-3-1 in their last 10 games vs. the Sens, 5-3-2 on the road, and have gone 11-3-3 in their last 17 meetings. Eichel still has his personal point streak of 18 games in tact even though the NHL says he no longer has an official point-streak because he missed the Philly game and linemate Victor Olofsson is riding a six-game point streak (4+4) in to tonight's matchup.
The Sabres are only 4-7 in overtime/shootout games this season.
Buffalo will have three days off for Christmas and are back at it on Friday vs. the Boston Bruins in the first half of a home-and-home. They head to Boston on Sunday before finishing off the 2019 portion of the season with a home game against Tampa Bay.