Sabres-talk lately has centered around lack of secondary scoring, as it should, and even though they got some of that last night, neither of their two goals came from the middle six forward group. Defenseman Marco Scandella opened the scoring with a nice follow-up on a Jeff Skinner rush and Johan Larsson scored shorthanded to put Buffalo up 2-1 in the second period. Buffalo's top line was the driving force on Scandella's goal, but other than that they were shut down and the group of players composing Buffalo's second and third lines went AWOL once again as none could find the scoresheet.
The formula for beating Buffalo right now is fairly simple, contain the top line and apply pressure on the rest of the team until mistakes are made then capitalize on them. Boston is the master of that and they did so again last night. They kept it tight and then in the third period they dominated. The Bruins outshot the Sabres 18-5 in the period and scored the game-tying goal with less than four minutes to go on a powerplay where the puck never left the Buffalo zone. For the entire 1:14 duration of that powerplay Boston won both faceoffs, one missed shot, had two blocked shots and a couple of missed passes plus four shots on goal. That series of events led to the Bruins taking advantage of a tired Sabres PK with an uncontested, tipped shot that beat Sabres goalie Carter Hutton to tie the game.
Buffalo had a powerplay opportunity of their own in overtime, but the Bruins shut them down. The Sabres OT powerplay consisted of one lost faceoff and one missed shot on goal by the first PP unit and one missed shot by the second PP unit. A minute later, the Bruins scored.
They say that in the NHL you should have a good idea as to what your team is by Thanksgiving and at the time the Sabres were riding a winning streak that would eventually tie a franchise high of 10 games. With their top line playing dangerous hockey and everyone contributing in some way, shape or form, Buffalo was able to roll on with wins in a variety of ways while coming out on top nine times out of 10 in one-goal games.
We knew that the Sabres weren't a top-flight NHL team during that string, although it was a blast while it lasted, and even though they did make it to the top of the league for a brief moment, they were bound to fall back to earth. Since that streak ended on November 29, Buffalo is 4-6-4 and only 1-3-4 in one-goal games. Overall the Sabres are 21-12-6 and their 48 points in 39 games has them on a pace for 100 points, which is far above predictions.
The reality of the rebuild right now is that the Sabres have a superstar, a finisher, an 18 yr. old rookie phenom and everybody else. Atop the "everybody else" category is a set-up man and a workhorse followed by a group of role players led by a consistent checking line and a mobile group of defensemen. Good teams that are hard on the puck, know how to play shut down defense and have enough offense to put up three or more goals seem to have Buffalo's number. The Sabres are 1-3-1 in their last five games and during that skid have scored nine total goals. Skinner (2) and Jack Eichel were good for three and Buffalo's defense also contributed three goals--one each by Rasmus Ristolainen, Rasmus Dahlin and Scandella. Of the remaining three goals, two were scored by Larsson (including Buffalo's first shorthanded goal of the season last night) and the other was scored by Conor Sheary into an empty net.
As a one-line team that needs a jolt, the question in Buffalo now is, where will that jolt come from if it comes at all?
Buffalo GM Jason Botterill seems steadfast in following his plan of a proper rebuild every step of the way by not mortgaging the future even if his process includes death spirals. It happened last season. With his Sabres barreling to the bottom of the league, Botterill made one move--a trade for bottom-six forward Scott Wilson on December--while the season skidding out of control. With that in mind, the smart money is on no impact moves this season. WGR550 Sabres beat reporter Paul Hamilton has been steadfast in saying that Botterill won't make any huge moves. "He is not changing his plan for this team," Hamilton tweeted last night. "He has said that. That means there are no rentals or no short term moves."
Which is exactly the way it should be with this team and where it stands now in it's re-rebuild.
With every loss the season is devolving into a chicken/egg game where we're left to wonder whether it's the players or the coaches who should be bearing the brunt of criticism. More than likely it's a combination of both as Housley group of players in his mid-six forward group that look like misfits while he's been unable to help that group succeed in one way or another. While the top line would be successful in almost any situation and the defense has really become engaged, the middle six is lost and will need to find their own way out. Some change will come to the lineup in the form of Wilson who has yet to play a game after breaking his ankle in training camp, but he's bottom-six at best and would be great in a fourth line role. It would seem as if the time has finally come to call up a forward from Rochester.
Yes, we know that the Amerks are playing well and had been first in the division until last night. And yes, we know that the Sabres recalled defenseman Lawrence Pilut, who was having a stellar season in Rochester (16 games, 3 goals, 16 assists, +19 rating,) and that his NHL play is making it very difficult for them to send him back down. But as a feeder for the big club, when the need arises the AHL club is there to provide the player and this Sabres team needs something.
Rochester is off until Wednesday and dependent upon the health of Buffalo backup goalie Linus Ullmark, a corresponding roster move would make room for a forward. Ullmark was sidelined by the flu against Boston and if available for tomorrow's game, goalie Scott Wedgewood could be sent back down to make room for a forward. The Sabres have three wingers to choose from, each with varying skill sets. The most consistent of the three has been LW, C.J. Smith who's tied for the team lead in scoring with 29 points (13+16) and has been hot as of late with six goals and 10 points in his last eight games. Smith plays a well-rounded, all-situations game and would be a good third-line add.
Other options include two wingers with higher upside. Victor Olofsson is tied with Smith for the scoring lead and has a wicked shot while Alexander Nylander has an impressive skill package that's slowly coming to the fore. Based upon their skills, both could be inserted in the top six.
However, Sabres fans shouldn't get their hopes up. By the looks of it Botterill will stand pat while Housley and his charges will be left to figure it out on their own. Which means...more of the same.