The good news for the Buffalo Sabres is that they'll be playing against a team that went to the sixth round of the shootout on the road last night and will be flying back home for the second game of a back-to-back against them. The bad news is that Buffalo will be playing said game against the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals who've won four in a row and are led by captain Alexander Ovechkin who extended his 13-game point streak (16 goals, 6 assists) last night by posting his second consecutive hat trick.
There's been no Stanley Cup hangover for "The Great Eight" this season as he's been ready from the get-go, according to his head coach Todd Reirden. "[Ovechkin] came back after winning the Stanley Cup and was ready to go from Day One," said Reirden to the gathered media after Washington's come-from-behind win against the Carolina Hurricanes last night, "and he hasn't stopped since. He's doing it game after game, obviously. It's very impressive. He's been outstanding."
Ovechkin leads the league with 28 goals, is now tied for seventh with 42 points and he's got his team on a roll. Washington has won 11 of those 13 games during his streak and the Caps have gone from fourth in the Metropolitan division, four points out of the top spot, to leading the division by five points. They extended their present streak in dramatic fashion last night by overcoming a three-goal, third period deficit, killing a penalty in overtime then winning it in the shootout.
Here's how Hurricanes forward, and three-time Stanley Cup champion, Justin Williams put it to the local media last night after the game. "Once they got down, they started playing a different game and scored some goals because of it. There's a reason they are who they are. They had guys flying the zone, and they figured they were either going to lose it 7-1 or tie it up."
Such is the firepower and championship will of the Capitals.
The Sabres haven't exactly been chopped liver this season but going into Washington has always been a challenge. Buffalo is only 2-6-2 in it's last 10 games at Capital One Arena with their last win coming November 22, 2014. Buffalo is 0-4-1 since that win. Oddly enough the Sabres had their most success vs. Washington during the tank years going 3-1-2 vs. the Caps overall and 2-1-0 on the road.
Buffalo said goodbye to a five-game losing streak (0-3-2) with back-to-back wins and head into this weekend with a tough assignment as they play the Capitals tonight then head to Boston to take on the Bruins tomorrow. Perhaps the Sabres caught a break with Washington coming off of an emotionally and physically draining overtime game last night, but then again the Caps don't play again until Wednesday and Ovechkin seems to be on a mission once again. Which could make for a very difficult game.
A lot of attention has been given to the Sabres fourth line and their lack of scoring this season. Zemgus Girgensons and Johan Larsson have anchored Buffalo's checking line for most of the season and they've combined for 11 points (5+6) in 55 combined games and the Capitals offer an interesting comparison.
The Capitals this season have a fourth line anchored by Dmitrij Jaskin and Nic Dowd with the duo combining for 19 points (5+14) in 52 games. They've been particularly hot as of late scoring a goal and adding five assists in their last three games, which is pretty potent for two players whose average even-strength time on ice is 9:45 and 8:35, respectively.
Girgensons and Larsson have also been contributing for Buffalo lately with a goal each in their last two games and have logged even-strength average time on ice of 11:09 and 11:38, respectively, on the season.
Many times Sabres head coach Phil Housley has said that their fourth line has been one of the best lines on the ice for them despite the duo of Girgensons (11.86%) and Larsson (11.44%) having the lowest percentage of offensive zone starts, by far, on the team. By contrast, Dowd comes in at 32.98% while Jaskin is at 48.68%. The huge discrepancy is due in large part to Buffalo's duo being on the top penalty kill unit with Girgensons and Larsson both at 2:36 SH ATOI while in Washington, Dowd is part of a multi-layered PK with four Caps forwards logging more PK ice time than his average of 1:53/game. Jaskin is an afterthought on the PK (:08.)
Despite the heavy defensive responsibilities, Buffalo's fourth line has been able to flip the ice, get on the forecheck and create opportunities. Although a Roberto Duran "Hands of Stone" analogy is fitting on most occasions, they're doing what is asked of them with their duo contributing as many goals as Washington's duo.
Buffalo's top line of Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart have also been doing their part as they've carried the load for the team.
Over the last 17 games which includes a 10-game winning-streak followed by a five-game losing streak and these last two wins in a row, the Sabres scored 36 even strength goals in regulation. The top trio has accounted for 20 of those which is a pretty solid ratio of about 56%. Girgensons and Larsson have scored a combined four goals with Evan Rodrigues, who's spent much of his time on their line, adding another. With the Sabres first and fourth lines accounting for 25 of Buffalo's 36 EV goals in that span, that leaves the middle-six with a combined 11 EV goals (and no powerplay goals) in the last 17 games.
The breakdown of the middle six:
Tage Thompson, Casey Mittelstadt--3 goals each
Jason Pominville, Kyle Okposo, Conor Sheary--1
Luckily Buffalo has gone 12-3-2 during that span which puts them solidly in the Atlantic Division's top three, one point behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for second place but still only four points ahead of the Boston Bruins. However, it would behoove that middle-six, and the coaching staff, to figure things out before the Sabres find themselves in a nutty wild card race.
Speaking of the Eastern Conference, there could be a huge cluster in the middle of the conference at season's end. As of right now the Tampa Bay Lightning is the class of the conference with the Capitals surging towards them and there's no reason to believe that the Toronto Maple Leafs will finish anywhere else but second in the division behind the Lightning.
Over in the Metropolitan division the Caps are in the driver's seat of a seemingly weak division but the Pittsburgh Penguins on the move ready to overtake the second place Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Sabres lead every team in the Metropolitan division and are four points ahead of the Bruins, who hold the first wild-card spot with 38 points. The Montreal Canadiens have 37 points and there are four teams in the conference with 32 points.
Over the years the Sabres have bemoaned lost points in October and November leaving them to scramble for every possible point later in the year. With 26 of a possible 34 points in the bag over the last 17 games they've been able to create a cushion between themselves and that group of teams presently in the wild-card hunt.
It's something that shouldn't be taken for granted, but it's something they may look back upon with some pride.
While writing this blog it was announced that forward Patrik Berglund "has been suspended indefinitely by the organization due to failure to report to the team," according to the Sabres.
Berglund came over from the St. Louis Blues in the Ryan O'Reilly trade and has been in a bottom-six/reserve role for much of the season. He wasn't in the lineup the last two games due to illness, according to Housley via reports, and it's being said that he isn't reporting due to his decreased role on the team. In 23 games for Buffalo Berglund has scored only four points (2+2) and he's played in only nine of the Sabres last 17 games with zero points and a minus-8 rating to show for it.
The team had no further comment.