Congratulations to rookies C.J. Smith and Lawrence Pilut on breaking through with their first NHL goals last night. Smith squeaked one past New Jersey Devils goalie Keith Kinkaid early in the second period to break a 1-1 tie while Pilut sent a seeing-eye wrister into the New Jersey net to finish off the scoring in Buffalo's 5-1 win.
Smith was denied on a golden opportunity early in the game as Kinkaid got his left pad down on a shot by Smith from just a few feet out before the Sabres forward dinked the rebound off the post from a very sharp angle with a wide open net. In the second period, however, Smith jumped on a turnover at the Devils blueline, wheeled to Kinkaid's left and sent a quick snap-shot that went between the goalie's body and blocker and dribbled towards the goal line. The puck seemingly crossed the line before New Jersey d-man Sami Vatanen fished it out, but the play went to a review where it was confirmed.
The only player on the ice who was sure it was in was Smith, who had circled behind the net after taking the shot. "I saw it was in," said a beaming Smith to the gathered media post-game. "Nobody else knew it was in so I kinda celebrated by myself."
There was no question when it came to Pilut's goal. With the Sabres putting on some strong pressure, Buffalo's Conor Sheary wheeled on the half-wall and got it to Pilut at the point. The 23 yr. old Swedish defenseman playing his first season on North American ice set himself up before sending a wrister that blew by Kinkaid with Sam Reinhart providing a screen.
Both Smith and Pilut have been playing very well for Buffalo since getting the call after playing some excellent hockey in Rochester. Smith was recalled by Buffalo on December 31. He left Rochester with 13 goals and 29 points, tying him for the Amerks lead. Pilut was recalled twice by Buffalo back in November. On the 21st he got the call but was sent back and then was brought back up on the 27th. At the time of his first recall his 22 points (3+19) he was tied for the AHL scoring lead and on his second recall he was tied for third. His plus-19 rating led the AHL.
The Sabres are getting healthy again and it will make for some tough decisions in regards to Smith and Pilut. Both players have looked better than some of their counterparts on the ice with Pilut looking as if he'd been in the NHL for years. The 23 yr. old has five points (1+4) and a plus-7 rating in 12 games and needs to stick and there's a growing chorus of fans in Buffalo that would like to see that happen. Like I told Amerks bench boss Chris Taylor last month while chatting with him, "I think I speak for all Sabres fans, you can't have Pilut back."
As for Smith, he plays the exact style of game that GM Jason Botterill and head coach Phil Housley want to see out of their forwards and he's been a notch or two above teammates and players at the AHL level. Although a goal and an even rating in four NHL games isn't scorching, he's been effective in limited minutes and seems to be getting more acclimated with each game played. The Sabres have a lot of dead weight clogging up the forward ranks and hopefully some of that will be moved in order to fit him in.
The Sabres scored five goals in the second period last night with 14 different players registering a point. As pointed out by Sabres PR, the five goals in a period was the most at home since they scored that many in a 5-1 win vs. Carolina on November 23, 2009. Those 14 points by different players ties a franchise record for most players with at least a point in a single period. It happened on November 2, 2006 vs. Tampa Bay and October 21, 2009 at Florida.
Eichel made a brief appearance in the NY Islanders game on Dec. 31 but has been out of the lineup since. Buffalo's record is a solid 2-1-0 with a 2-1 loss at Boston as their only blemish. In the two other games they defeated the Florida Panthers 4-3 and the Devils 5-1 last night. Although it's only a small sample size, we wanted to see who would step up in Eichel's absence and the best, most consistent forward was Jeff Skinner.
Skinner is a bad man and proved that he could score without Eichel. He scored the opening goal against Florida and added the game-winner vs. the Panthers plus scored that one last night.. The opening goal against the Panthers was pure effort to find a shooting lane then a quick snapshot off the post and in. Both of his other goals were pure snipes as neither Florida goalie Roberto Luongo nor New Jersey's Kinkaid gave him very much room and he still managed to send it home. Skinner led the team with 13 shots on goal in those games and in goals (3) as well. There were others like forward Tage Thompson who was a force in all three games, and the defense in general, but Skinner was the man.
Seven Sabres other than Skinner scored goals in Eichel's absence: Thompson, Reinhart, Rasmus Ristolainen, Smith, Casey Mittelstadt, Jake McCabe and Pilut. Some of those players added one assist to their resume in that stretch while Vladimir Sobotka, Zach Bogosian and Conor Sheary had two assists each to lead the team. Evan Rodrigues, Johan Larsson, Kyle Okposo and Rasmus Dahlin each had an assist to get on the score sheet.
The only players that didn't were forwards Jason Pominville, Remi Elie and Zemgus Girgensons (who played in only one game) along with defenseman Marco Scandella.