With a 3-1 win over the Arizona Coyotes last night, the Buffalo Sabres completed a four-game homestand with a 2-1-1 mark after starting out the stretch with two straight losses. The back-to-back wins, even if they were against lesser teams, should give them some positive momentum heading into a tough weekend coming up.
Buffalo has been struggling with a number of issues lately which includes a barrage of injuries on the blueline as starters Marco Scandella and Jake McCabe were lost to injury and reserve d-man Casey Nelson also went down. For the first time all season the Sabres were forced to use a callup in a game as 2018 free agent signee Lawrence Pilut made his NHL debut on defense November 30. After Nelson was injured against the Toronto Maple Leafs, journeyman Matt Tennyson got the call for his first NHL game of the season last Saturday. From the time Scandella went down against on November 27 to Tennyson's first NHL game of the season, the Sabres found themselves in the midst of a five-game losing streak (0-3-2.)
In addition to the blueline blues, Buffalo was also having trouble scoring outside of their top line. Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart scored 10 of the Sabres 12 goals during that losing stretch and did all the scoring in the last four games of that season-worst streak.
And if that wasn't enough, starting goalie Carter Hutton tweaked something at practice prior to last Saturday's game and missed his next two starts.
Granted, it's not like the Sabres lost a superstar like Eichel or key players like Skinner, Rasmus Ristolainen or Rasmus Dahlin, but for a team that had 14 of their last 16 games decided by one goal, injuries like that disrupted their balance and put their depth to the test.
It took a come-from-behind effort against the NHL's worst team to right the ship for Buffalo. The slow, plodding Kings had a 3-1 lead heading into the third period but were down to four defenseman after losing Drew Doughty and Dion Phaneuf and they couldn't hang on. The Sabres powerplay, which was only 1-13 during the losing streak, came through with two goals on eight opportunities including the game-winner in overtime. Buffalo followed that win with a solid performance against Arizona last night and ended up with four of a possible six points against three teams in the bottom third of the league.
Beyond the wins and the points that kept them third in the division, the Sabres had more notable positives which is something they'll need plenty of heading into a tough, back-to-back roadie this weekend. First they head to Washington on Saturday to meet the defending Stanley Cup champion Capitals who've won 10 of their last 12 games then it's off to Boston on Sunday to take on the Bruins who are on a three-game winning streak and are only four points behind them in the standings.
The Sabres got some secondary scoring the last two games which keyed those wins. Checking line winger Zemgus Girgensons undressed Doughty, the 2016 Norris Trophy-winner, then showed of some sniping ability as he rifled a quick shot top-shelf against the Kings and later in the game fellow fourth-liner Johan Larsson tied it when the puck went off of his skate while barreling towards the crease. Rookie Casey Mittelstadt found some open space in the slot and sniped the opening goal against the 'Yotes last night only :48 seconds into the game while fourth-liner Evan Rodrigues jumped on a loose puck in the neutral zone and sent a rocket low, far-side to put Buffalo up 3-1.
Save for the Larsson goal, which was simply about driving towards the net with stick on the ice ready for a deflection, those were skill goals which is very encouraging.
The Sabres might need more scoring as their defense had been hanging on for dear life lately. With all the injuries Buffalo has had, the've needed to rely upon a top-three to carry a huge weight. Their workhorse, as usual, has been Ristolainen who logged over 31 minutes against the Kings and followed that up with a game-high 27:34 last night against the 'Yotes while 18 yr. old Dahlin and veteran Zach Bogosian have averaged 23-plus minutes the last two games. That will probably continue into this weekend unless one of the injured players, most notably Scandella, returns to the ice.
This weekend could be considered a defining moment for this edition of the Sabres as they less than whole on defense and have a tough, back-to-back roadie against two tough Eastern conference opponents. However, in coming away with two wins in a row they should have some wind at their sails, and by the looks of it they'll need all the wind they can get.