Both the Rochester Americans and Buffalo Sabres had to travel after spending the Christmas break away from the ice. Rochester took a four-hour bus ride to Cleveland the day after Christmas where the Monsters (CLB) awaited them while the Sabres jumped on a plane for a two-hour flight to St. Louis to take on the Blues last night. Both left in the morning and played that night.
The Amerks faced off against the Monsters for the third time in less than two weeks in what's being promoted as the Great Lakes Rivalry Series. A restructuring of AHL divisions this off-season moved the two team some 260 miles apart into the North Division meaning the teams will play each other eight times a year. Rochester and Cleveland hadn't played each other since 2014-15 when the Amerks and the Cleveland team known as the Lake Erie Monsters battled it out in the Western Conference.
Rochester was 3-0 this season vs. Cleveland heading into Wednesday's matchup at Quicken Loans Arena as the Amerks won in November and won a home-and-home in mid-December. Earlier in the season the two teams were battling near the top of the standings but the Monsters faultered until just prior to the break when they won three games in a row. Rochester, on the other hand, had lost three in a row so something had to give and it was Cleveland. The Amerks scored goals on three of six powerplay opportunities en route to a 4-0 win.
Despite the long bus ride and the weight of a three-game losing streak weighing on them the entire break, the Amerks found their legs, skated a full 60 minute and took it to a sluggish Monsters club. Amerks coach Chris Taylor had three lines working and though they only scored one 5v5 goal, their work drew penalties leading to the three powerplay goals. Props to the penalty kill as well as one of the league's worst PK units snuffed out all four Cleveland powerplay opportunities.
In St. Louis, things were a bit different.
The Blues had won two straight heading into the break, five of their last seven and a team that had been near the bottom of the league earlier in the month seemed to be finding their legs and their identity which includes playing a rugged, Western Conference-style game. The Sabres started well in the game last night, despite the Blues putting the body on them early, but couldn't break through with a goal. St. Louis started to come to life later in the frame and thanks to some good goaltending by Jake Allen, the game was scoreless after one period of play.
After that the bottom fell out for Buffalo as the Blues broke the ice two minutes into the second period then tacked on two more just :54 seconds apart mid-way through the frame. The Sabres would cut the lead on a powerplay goal by Jack Eichel late in the period but former Sabre Ryan O'Reilly capped off the scoring with his 14th of the season with less than seven minutes to go in the third period for the 4-1 final score.
Once again, the Sabres got zero production from their bottom-nine in a game where their top line was facing a rather staunch two-way trio lead by O'Reilly, who's considered to be one of the better two-way centers in the game. Eichel and his linemates have been a force for weeks but O'Reilly's line shut them down. Of 18 even-strength shifts for Eichel, O'Reilly was on the ice for 15 of them limiting Buffalo's top line to zero goals and eight shots. And, as usual, O'Reilly controlled the faceoff dot winning 7/10 from Eichel.
Good two-way teams with size and physicality, who can play shut-down defense, have been trouble for the Sabres this season. From the Boston Bruins on opening night to the San Jose Sharks in mid-October to Florida and St. Louis this month, teams that make life difficult for Buffalo and keep them to the perimeter have dominated them. The Sabres top line has a ton of skill and can beat you in a more open game but when you make it about goals from the dirty, bloody-nose areas of the ice, they tend to shy away and play more of a perimeter game. Take that line out of the equation and the only thing left to worry about is the Sabres defensemen joining the play as the rest of the team has really struggled to find the net
Sabres benchboss Phil Housley still has a problem with secondary scoring and it would seem as if his decision to have Vladimir Sobotka and Remi Elie in scoring roles didn't (surprise) find a solution. Scoring-line winger Kyle Okposo has looked like a fish out of water on this club as constructed and Conor Sheary has been doin' some choppin' but no chips are flying. Okposo is goalless in his last 20 games and hasn't scored a point in his last 13 games, Sheary went without a goal in 16 straight before scoring an empty-netter against Anaheim in Buffalo's win just before the break.
After the game last night Housley was asked about the lack of secondary scoring and the team becoming a one-line team. "I think those are good questions for our players," was his response to the gathered media, "we've got to find a way and I'll continue to say it, if you want to score in this league you're going to have to get dirty once in a while and you're going to have to go to the net."
Housley followed that up with, "it's going to get harder as we move forward" which couldn't be more true. The Sabres will face teams with a stronger sense of urgency as the run for the playoffs heats up and if Housley's team is wilting in games like these, then the next few months looks tenuous at best.
Having said that, the Blues found the right combination to beat a Buffalo team that couldn't maintain their strong start. Also, you have to think that there was a little more incentive for O'Reilly and his teammates to take down the Sabres in their first matchup since St. Louis traded for him. Especially at home.
Tomorrow's another day as the Sabres return to KeyBank Center to face off against the Boston Bruins in an Atlantic division matchup. The Bruins got swamped 5-2 last night at home versus the New Jersey Devils and missed an opportunity to gain two points on Buffalo. As of now the Sabres are still third in the division, four points ahead of Boston. One would think that Boston will have a sense of urgency and will be intent upon making life difficult for Buffalo in every aspect of the game.
Rochester begins a back-to-back at home tonight vs. the Toronto Marlies (TOR) before heading to Utica, NY to face off against the Comets (VAN.)