Tuch Exits Early, Kings’ Trap Stifles Sabres
Kids Day at KeyBank Center was a tepid affair as the Sabres hosted the Los Angeles Kings on Sunday afternoon. The home squad entered the game with a two-game winning streak on their side, but unlike the previous two games, they didn’t have their A-game going and the Kings walked away with a 3-0 win. Buffalo managed a measly 14 shots through 40 minutes of play and 19 shots total by the end of the game.
The 1-3-1 neutral zone trap employed by the Kings made this one a tough watch for the kids in the stands and those viewing at home. To make matters worse, the Sabres lost Alex Tuch to a potential injury as he drove the net on a short-handed situation and appeared to collide head/neck/collarbone first with the Kings’ goalpost. He exited the game late in the third period following the collision and did not return.
The best chance for the Sabres early on came when Skinner challenged the Kings’ defense in a one-on-two situation. Skinner walked through his man and. fired a high-danger shot into the right catching glove of Sabres draft pick Cal Petersen. Both goalies were tested early with 14 total shots on goal before the period was half over.
Like it has been for the past couple of weeks, it was the top-line trio of Tage Thompson, Alex Tuch and Skinner who mostly kept the Sabres alive offensively, with Thompson getting a beautiful chance on Petersen to end the first and the Sabres forward went backhand, forehand, back hand on a partial breakaway before attempting to put the puck over a sprawling Petersen. The Kings goaltender made a terrific play to stay with it. The second-line group of Casey Mittelstadt, Dylan Cozens looked good at times as well in the first. Mittelstadt had easily his best game of the year on Friday against Minnesota while playing left wing with those two, at least in part because the size and forechecking tenacity of Cozens and Okposo tends to open up space for the smaller – and shiftier – Mittelstadt.
Coach Don Granato likes that line so much that he also made it his second powerplay grouping which got the better of the man advantage opportunities following a tripping call to Dustin Brown in the first. Mattias Samuelsson drew that penalty and it’s starting to become apparent that #23 on the Sabres has a knack for subtly embellishing penalties, as was the case with Brown getting his stick between the Sabres’ defenseman’s legs. Samuelsson may have closed his legs around the stick to draw that call based on the Cheshire cat grin he had on face when he got back to the bench.
It has become clear that Cody Eakin is considered a good defensive forward only because he spends all of his time on the ice in the defensive zone. His line got hemmed into their zone for 40 seconds before icing the puck not once but twice. Eakin then had a glorious chance to get the puck out but instead decided to curl back into his own end and give it away which resulted in more time spent in the defensive zone. That sequence started a solid three-minute stretch where the Sabres were put in a wash cycle by the Kings without the ability to get out of their zone. Why he is playing instead of Mark Jankowski who is actually good at defense is anyone’s guess. When that line goes on the ice, it’s not just a waste of time offensively, it’s an absolute gong show defensively as well.
The second period was a real slog for the Sabres as they managed only two shots on net through the first 10 minutes of the frame. The player of the period and maybe of the game was Robert Hagg who had a terrific game overall for the Sabres. He’s a big-time shotblocker and he made a clutch defensive play on a partial breakaway to prevent a goal against Dustin Tokarski who was completely down-and-out on the play. It wouldn’t be surprising for teams to have interest in the physical defenseman at the trade deadline. Maybe the Sabres can get a mid-round pick and add another branch to the Rasmus Ristolainen trade tree.
Los Angeles overall completely dominated the second period with a stifling defensive game that flummoxed the Sabres. The Kings game plan is to stand up at their own blue line and force the opposition to dump it in, but the Sabres for whatever reason didn’t consistently counter this gameplan by dumping the puck in and chasing after it. Instead, they repeatedly tried to gain the line and skate through five defenders. Their success rate in doing so was evidenced by their measly five shots in the middle frame. Noted fast man Andreas Anthanasiou scored his 6th of the season for the Kings on a two-on-one keeper that he wired high to the glove side behind Tokarski.
Buffalo still had massive problems trying to get past the seemingly impenetrable Kings defensive wall through the first five minutes of the third period. Either they would dump the puck in and not have enough players entering the zone with speed to track it down, or they’d bang their heads against a wall and try to force their way into the offensive zone with the same predictable results. It was tough to watch.
This Kings team looks primed to be a tough out in the playoffs (if they can get in) with their stifling defensive play. It’s not pretty to watch, but it’s certainly effective and that’s all that matters when playoff time rolls around. There aren’t any style points awarded for wins.
Incredibly, the Sabres managed zero shots on goal after eight minutes of play in the third period before Tuch finally got a token shot on net near the halfway point of the final 20. John Hayden didn’t help his team’s cause when he took an unnecessary penalty in the offensive zone with a stick-holding infraction with 9 minutes gone, which gave the Kings a man advantage.
That line is absolutely infuriating.
Tuch looked like he hurt either his neck, head, shoulder or collarbone on the subsequent penalty kill as he drove the net with speed and went neck first into the right post behind Petersen. That was a tough sight to see as Tuch has been absolutely dynamite for the Sabres over the past two months. Hopefully for the Sabres’ sake it’s nothing too serious.
Anthanasiou and Dustin Brown would add empty netters to ice the game with under a minute to play. The Sabres are back at it on Monday against the Florida Panthers.