The Buffalo Sabres have lost five straight games and have dipped below .500 for the first time this season following their 3-1 loss to the Boston Bruins last night. The vibes per 60 (V/60) are dropping off precipitously among fans who were finally ready to hop aboard the Sabres train when the team was 7-3-0 at the beginning of November.
The team is now 7-8-0.
There is no judgement from this part of the internet for those who are ready to call this winless 5-game stretch an extension of the past 10 years of bad hockey but predicting the Sabres’ demise following this segment might be a touch premature.
Talk from the Sabres analyticsphere indicates that the losses are the result of poor puck luck and a tough stretch of games against Carolina, Tampa Bay, Arizona, Vegas and Boston. Four of those teams are outright juggernauts, and the overall record of those five combined teams equates to a combined record of 46-16-3, meaning those teams are most definitely not pushovers.
In analyzing the underlying analytic numbers from Evolving-Hockey, it does appear that the Sabres are controlling more than their fair share of shot attempts and they’re simply not seeing the results that one would expect from that kind of play. The five-game rolling Corsi differential – essentially a measure of the shot attempts versus the opposition’s shot attempts – shows that the Sabres are on the right side of things, despite the results. Does this mean that they’re going to start dominating games and win the next five straight? Absolutely not, but it’s also not time to panic and say the season is over when we look at how badly the goaltenders have fared so far in November.
So perhaps it’s worth giving the Sabres a small pass for their disastrous start in November given their decent underlying numbers over that period.
There were plenty of strange bounces throughout this stretch, and both Sabres goaltenders repeatedly saw pucks pinball off his own teammates for deflected goals against. It’s also fair to say that Sabres simply need more saves from their goaltenders, even if the goals against aren’t – strictly speaking – due to the goaltenders. Comrie played three-out-of-five games during this losing streak and posted an .853 save percentage during his trio of games while Craig Anderson put up an .887 save percentage in two contests. In watching the games, it’s hard to pin any of those individual losses on the goalies due to the high volume of point-blank, high-percentage scoring chances against. Still, it has to be said that save percentages of .853 and .887 simply are not good enough to win most games in the NHL.
While it’s hard to lay the losses in these games at the feet of the goaltenders, it’s also hard to say that either one was good enough to win the Sabres a game, and as anyone who watches the NHL with any regularity knows, occasionally a team needs their goalie to win a game. The Sabres haven’t gotten one of those performances since Halloween.
The worst game of the five losses was undoubtedly against Arizona, a team so comically inept that allowing them to gain a single point in a game is akin to letting your 3-year-old nephew beat you at Mario Kart. It simply can’t happen. Credit to the Desert Dogs: they threw out a couple well-timed banana peels and the Sabres spun out and flew off the map yelling “mamma mia.”
The other games were played against Stanley Cup contenders in Carolina, Boston, Tampa Bay and Vegas. As for that last team, Jack Eichel has returned from the land of the injured and has ascended to the superstar status we all knew he could achieve. Sure, fans no doubt wanted a repeat of last season’s contest wherein the Sabres stifled him and got him off his game by booing him mercilessly. Eichel, however, proved that he has acclimatized to his new villain role and showed up against the Sabres in the same way he used to show up against the Maple Leafs back when he still donned the blue and gold. He silenced the crowd with a terrific hat trick performance. Again, these things happen. Superstars don’t stay silent for long.
Still, analytic moral victories only get a fan base so far, and there’s no doubt that the team will need to prove their worth over the next five games against Vancouver, Ottawa, Montreal, Tronna and St. Louis. Those five teams have a combined win record of 30-35-8 meaning the Sabres have fewer excuses should things go sideways over this segment.
The absolute baseline for wins for this stretch is 3, and if the Sabres continue to tumble several games below .500, it will become easier and easier to write them off as yet another disastrous incarnation of a seemingly cursed franchise. Maybe, though, the Sabres will be able to rattle off a mini win streak here, or at least a mini points streak. The Sabres are due for some overtime contests this year, with only one game having extended past 60 minutes (against Chicago). A 3-1-1 stretch over these next five games would vault the Sabres back into an interesting position in the NHL, while a continued mediocre slide would further the narrative that this October’s start was yet another in a string of hot starts that turned into dud finishes during the playoff drought.
The next five games will go a long way in sorting out which is true: are the Sabres a team on the rise, or is this year yet another disappointment?