Going into the NHL's Christmas break with a win is much better than going with a loss, and being third in the division is much better than...well, we Sabres fans know where this team has been at this point in December the last seven or so years. And it hasn't been good.
What's been good for the Sabres, however, is that they've have been getting the job done in tight games even though there are definitive holes throughout the lineup, and it's taken them to an overall record of 21-11-5 which is good for 47 points. For as young a team as they are at their core, Buffalo's 11-3-5 record in one-goal games is near the top of the league.
Some of the big reasons for those numbers above have been a top line that's been hot and a defense that's solid and relatively deep (when healthy.) It's all been backed by goaltending that has had a tendency to come up big when needed at various points in the game while not posting overall top-flight NHL numbers.
Today we'll take a quick look at Buffalo's goaltending and defense 37 games into the 2018-19 season.
--Sabres GM Jason Botterill made a number of off season moves that have paid dividends for this club and stabilizing the goalie situation with the signing of free agent Hutton was one of them. Although his 2.58 goals-against average and .917 save percentage aren't gaudy by any stretch of the imagination, Hutton has been very solid and has given his team a chance to win nearly every time he's in net. This is the 33 yr. old's first gig as a starting goalie and there are a lot of positives which include his stickhandling ability and the way he's mentoring his backup, although he's had some clunkers and an egregious error or two along the way. Word on the street is that this year Hutton will be carrying a huge weight in net while next season could be more of a 50/50 split. The following season, his last under contract with Buffalo, could end up being more of a backup role.
--The backup mentioned above is Ullmark, who's in his fourth season with the Sabres organization. Ullmark was drafted in the sixth round (163rd-overall) of the 2012 NHL Draft and has worked his way up the pipeline. He performed well as a rookie when called into emergency service for the Sabres back in 2015-16 and was the Rochester Americans starter and team MVP the last two seasons. Botterill said Ullmark would be in the mix this season and he certainly has with a 8-1-3 record and a solid .922 Sv%. After posting his second shutout of the season on Saturday night, some are already making the call to the bullpen to have him dubbed as Buffalo's starting goalie. In due time, my friends. Ullmark still has his inconsistencies as evidenced by a 2.71 GAA despite having two shutouts in 13 games, but his strong positional play and how he looks big in the crease, plus the poise he's showed, has given us every indication that he could be a No. 1 goalie.
-- Most of the time we forget how young Dahlin is while marveling at some of the things he does on the ice. The top overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft is only a few months into his NHL career but the way he's adapted to the game has been impressive. The Sabres have eased the 18 yr. old into more ice-time and more responsibility and Dahlin has impressed every step of the way. Although he has made rookie mistakes, sometimes many of them in one game, he keeps on keepin' on and plays an extremely poised game. Dahlin is mobile and smooth-skating, has a high hockey IQ, is a wizard with his stick and has an overall skill-level worthy the all the pre-draft hype thrust his way. He already has 20 points on the season (4+16) which is good for second on the team amongst defensemen and third in the league amongst all rookies and though he still has a lot of learning to do, Dahlin has the wherewithal and drive to get there. Perhaps the biggest hurdle he's facing right now is dealing with the grind of an 82-game NHL season and some of that began to show a few games ago. Coach Phil Housley dialed things back a bit with a third-pairing designation in Saturday's game and Dahlin came through with a plus-1 rating an his first goal at home.
--The 24 yr. old "Angry Finn" struggled to start the season and his negative plus/minus rating was amongst the worst on the team. But something happened along the way and we're starting to see the emergence of the player he was drafted for. "Risto" could always skate well for a player of his size and is at his best when he joins the rush and works the offensive zone. He's been showing a very high confidence-level in those abilities with the way he's taking control and he's also been adding to those positive traits by playing with a load of sandpaper while leading the team with 116 hits, nearly double the next player on the Sabres. Although he may never be Bill Hajt from a defensive standpoint, having a 6'4" 215 lb. d-man heading up ice with a head of steam who possesses enough skill to both set up and finish makes for an intriguing weapon on the Sabres blueline. Ristolainen leads Sabres defensemen in all offensive categories with four goals and 20 assists while his 24 points is tied for 13th in the NHL amongst defensemen. His average time on ice of 25:42 is once again top-five in the league.
--Once again, Bogosian was injured this season and didn't play his first game until October 16. However what we've seen from him since his return has been very, very good. Bogosian was drafted third overall because he could skate very well for his size and had a skill package that netted him 18 goals and 76 assists in 127 OHL games. And he had a mean-streak in him as well. In 21 games after being traded for, Bogosian at least piqued our interest with his game but for the three years after nearly half of his time was spent on the injured list. He had hip surgery back in January and started out a little slow this year but has really been playing well. There's a lot of leadership emanating from him and he can be like a mean big brother on the ice protecting his siblings. Bogosian's been logging big minutes for the club and lately he's been paired a lot with Dahlin. The 6'3" 226 lb. Massena, NY native has been getting up ice and shoving the opposition around while registering seven points (2+5) in 32 games. All of those traits have contributed to Buffalo's early season success and we'll just leave it at that as we don't want to jin...
--Up until his injury in late November, McCabe was probably having the best season of his still young career. McCabe is pretty good on his skates and loves to play a physical game and he also has a penchant for creeping into open space in the offensive zone. If he can ever be a little more accurate with his shot, the 25 yr. old might get close doubling his career high of four goals set in his rookie year. McCabe plays a solid all-around game and can carry a lot of weight on the blueline when he's on the ice. Although not a top-pairing d-man, when he is on his game he's a solid second-paring defenseman who can anchor a penalty kill and he very much looks the part. McCabe does have has his moments, but most of the time he recovers from them, sometimes in the very same sequence. That's a good trait to have for a player and so far this year he seems to be coming into his own.
--I think I speak for nearly every Sabres fan when I say very politely to coach Chris Taylor and his Rochester Americans, "You can't have Pilut back." Although the 22 yr. old rookie has only played eight games for Buffalo, he sure looks like he belongs. Pilut's skating is very smooth while his poise, vision and stickwork seem to get him out of almost any defensive zone situation. The 22 yr. old rookie was called up by Buffalo on November 27 and left Rochester with 22 points (3+19) and a plus-19 rating in 16 games with 10 of those points coming on the powerplay. By no means has Pilut been perfect with the Sabres, nor has he really injected offense into his game to this point, but the way he's been able to adapt to the speed of the NHL game as a rookie has been impressive. Based upon the small sample size thus far, this looks to be a very, very good free agent signing by Botterill and the Sabres.
--Bogosian's health, McCabe's strong game and Pilut's fit thus far with the big club has pushed Scandella down to the third pairing and it's good for him as well as the team. The 28 yr. old had been struggling with top-four minutes but was strong as an anchor for Buffalo's penalty kill prior to an injury which saw him miss a chunk of time from late November to mid December. Upon his return Scandella's ice-time went from 23:33 in his first game back to the high teens in two of the last three games and with his spot in the d-corps rounding out Buffalo's top-six, it looks as if the Sabres have a solid group that can at least compete with any team in the league.
--The turnaround with Beaulieu from last season to this season has been pretty remarkable. As mentioned a few times, the 26 yr. old first round pick (2011, 17th, MTL) has a real nice skill-set and is a very good skater and puck-mover. Beaulieu also has a lot of sandpaper in his game and is not afraid to drop the gloves if the situation calls for it. But the biggest thing hampering him from staying in a top-four/top-six role was his penchant for egregious turnovers on almost a nightly basis. This year he eliminated much of that and was playing very well before an injury sidelined him. For as much as we may want Pilut to stay, when the walking-wounded on defense and forward Scott Wilson return to the lineup, Beaulieu's return and the strong play he had prior to missing time may end up putting the waiver-exempt Pilut back in Rochester when all's said and done.
--One of those walking-wounded defensemen is Nelson, who was pretty solid in a reserve role before being placed on injured reserve on December 8. Nelson was another good free agent addition by the Sabres as the former Minnesota State Mavericks defenseman has been paying his dues while playing for both the Amerks (118 games) and Sabres (77 games) since signing with Buffalo in 2016. He plays a quiet game while simply getting the job done and can be called upon to hold the fort in a reserve role. The 26 yr. old is out of waiver options and is another reason why Pilut might end up back with the Amerks once Buffalo's defense gets healthy. Nelson has a goal and four assists in 22 games for the Sabres this season and leads all Buffalo defensemen with a plus-6 rating.
--The Sabres have gone through the Tennyson experiment twice now and in both instances it's not gone very well. A rash of injuries hit the d-corps and Tennyson got the call for a four-game stretch producing zero points and a minus-4 rating in just over 10 minutes of ice-time per game.
--Many had wondered why Guhle didn't get the call before Tennyson but his play in Rochester just didn't warrant it. The 21 yr. old was struggling mightily and his confidence was low at the time and Tennyson seemed like the better play. When Guhle is on his game the 6'2" 196 lb defenseman is using his speed and athleticism in an aggressive way but the organization wasn't seeing nearly enough of that to give him the call. With Tennyson faltering and Guhle beginning to find himself again, Guhle got the call for two games and played well with zero points and plus-1 rating while averaging 11:41 minutes of ice-time. He's back in Rochester and will continue to log
all-situations minutes for the Amerks as they try to emerge from a three-game losing streak prior to their Christmas break.
--For a while there we weren't sure how long it would take for Hunwick to recover from a neck injury suffered this off season. Hunwick was acquired by Buffalo on June 27th (along with forward Conor Sheary) from the Pittsburgh Penguins for experienced depth on defense but the injury delayed his Sabres debut until December 16, a full 36 games into the season. At age 33 his time is slowly fading and we're not really sure what the team has in store for him at this point other than a depth role on a defense that's getting stronger as the year progresses.