The winning streak wasn’t just about having fun watching hockey again. It also gave us a pretty good look at this new version of the Sabres.
Written by Rise Sports: Matt Pitarresi, Marc Pitarresi, Jim McCoy
The upstart Sabres fell just short of making franchise history on Thursday night, falling by a goal to the powerhouse Tampa Bay Lightning in a frenetic affair, putting an end to their 10 game winning streak. Despite coming up short, the Swords’ exhilarating streak proved the team has the firepower to burn hot, the question will be whether they can continue to smolder.
A red-hot November ended on a bit of a cold snap, with the team dropping two straight games in Florida heading into December. They managed to pick up just a point on Friday night against the lowly Panthers, giving up a 3rd period lead in the process. Now it’ll be up to Phil Housley and Jack Eichel to rally the locker room and get the team back to winning form, starting Monday in Nashville.
As awesome as the winning streak was (it was), it also taught us a lot about this year’s Sabres. Let’s take a look at a few things we learned along the way…
Hockey Is Fun Again!
We can’t overstate this one enough. En route to 10 straight, the Sabres finally seemed to have found their identity as a team. With the right voices elevated within the locker room, the result is a young, fast, resilient team that never thinks they are out of the game. With six come-from-behind wins and seven OT/shootout wins, there’s been a flair for both drama and finishing (and outrageous cellys) that has been captivating. Whether it’s at KeyBank Center (the Sabres are 9-2-1 at home), out and about in Buffalo (#SkinnerForMayor), or even in the national media, the Buffalo Sabres are fun again!
This Is What NHL Depth Looks Like
Ristolainen burns Burns pic.twitter.com/SiE8al6EAZ
— Ben Mathewson (@Ben_Mathewson) November 28, 2018
In an analysis conveniently published just before the Swords went on their 10-game tear on November 5, Anthony Sciandra over at Die By The Blade pointed out that the Sabres scoring was awfully top-heavy: the Skinner-Eichel-Pominville line was accounting for 49% of the team’s goals. Since then, Pommer and his 9 goals and 9 assists have been replaced on the first line by Sam Reinhart. Pominville has balanced out the scoring on the bottom half of the roster, while first line Reino (6 goals, 15 assists) is picking up apples like an Instagram model in September, compliments of one Jeff Skinner’s finishing prowess. The scoring totals for the Sabres forward lines show a much more balanced attack over the course of the streak. Sure the numbers are still a little top-heavy, but that’s more of a testament to how hot the top 3 have been than anything else. Whether the second and third lines can keep pulling on the rope will be integral to how far this team can go.
Skinner-Eichel-Reinhart- 29 g, 47 a
Thompson-Mittelstadt-Okposo – 13 g, 17a
Rodrigues-Sobotka-Pominville- 13 g, 18 a
Elie-Larsson-Girgensons- 3 g, 7 a
The Carter Hutton Bet Is Paying Off
The Sabres took a gamble targeting Carter Hutton in the offseason, throwing a 3-year, $8.25 million contract his way after he posted a career year with a record of 17-7-3 with a .936 save percentage in 32 appearances with the Blues in 2017-2018 despite never serving as a true #1 goaltender. Since donning the blue and gold, the Thunder Bay native has posted a 12-7 record with a .913 save percentage in 20 appearances. Hutton was brought in to keep the crease, erm, warm, for 25 year-old Linus Ullmark, and at 32, he isn’t the goaltender of the future, but his strong play has been the backbone of Buffalo’s hot start. He’s been so good, Buffalo’s other star athletes are trying to take the credit.
Every since my dog “Sutton” oops I mean @CarterHutton joined the Tre White Goalie Academy @BuffaloSabres have won 6 str8.. I mean I’m no genius but look the work speaks for it self !! 🤷🏾♂️https://t.co/mwTtokjJLc
— Tre'Davious White (@TreWhite16) November 20, 2018
Plenty Of Work Still To Do
As previously stated, the winning streak is already well in the rear view, and the Sabres are instead fighting to prevent a three game skid. Such is the nature of an NHL season, and the resiliency of this team will be tested yet again. Winning seven of ten via OT/shootout obviously isn’t sustainable either, so there’s plenty of work still to do closing out games. A look at a few baseline advanced stats shows that the Sabres aren’t really generating enough chances or quality shots relative to what they’re giving up in 5-on-5 play. They’ve gotten by in large part on an unsustainable amount of their shots going in, and on a shooting percentage that will eventually come back down to Earth.
Over the last 10 games, the Sabres rank 30th in Corsi For/60, 30th in Scoring Chances For/60, and 31st in High-Danger Chances For/60 at 5v5. They are 9-1-0 in that span.
— Todd Cordell (@ToddCordell) November 27, 2018
One thing the Sabres absolutely need to keep doing? Score first. Before Friday night’s loss to the Panthers, the Sabres were 11-0-2 on the year when scoring first.
Deep in our heart of hearts, we know the Sabres are, for now, probably closer to fighting for one of the final two playoff spots than for the President’s Trophy. Still, that was a hell of a ride, and it’s hard to not have visions of playoff hockey dancing through our heads. The way this team gobbled up points through the first third of the season, if they can stay hot enough, they might just keep hold of a playoff spot the rest of the way. And that will be a lot of fun.