Plenty of Northeast play on the horizon for the Sabres

As was illustrated last week, one loss can really be magnified with such a short schedule. Three losses can send a fan base into an absolute state of terror.

With two losses to the Canes followed by another defeat in Washington, a number of fans seem to be inching closer to the panic button as 10% of the 2013 schedule is now behind the team. Of course, that is only five games worth of a 48-game schedule.

The reactions to these losses seem to be fueled more by the way in which the games were lost more so than the actual outcome. However, there is still plenty of time to right the ship as the Sabres prepare to close out February with a pair of division games; their second and third within the Northeast Division this season. In fact, five of their next six games will be against Northeast Division rivals.

Buffalo’s win against Toronto was a practice in great goaltending and clinging on for dear life. You might say that the below average third period carried into the loss at Carolina two days later and has stayed with the team since. Ryan Miller’s stellar night against the Leafs last week was the catalyst in Buffalo’s victory; along with another great night from the team’s top line.

Tonight’s First Niagara Center debut from the Leafs is different only in that Toronto has suffered two ugly losses down in New York and are still searching for answers in the James Reimer/Ben Scrivens debate. Reimer impressed against Pittsburgh last week before getting lit up for five against the Rangers but wasn’t victimized by the Islanders as Scrivens was. I’d expect to see Reimer between the pipes tomorrow night.

Make no mistake, the Leafs aren’t as bad as many are making them seem. Their defensive prowess is certainly lacking, but that seems to be a league-wide trend as players continue to shake off the rust from their long layoff. However, they have some solid scoring depth and have managed to spread their talent in a way to create a very balanced attack. The absence of Joffery Lupul may not be prevalent at this point and may still serve as a catalyst for many Leafs players to step up to fill the scoring void left by his injury. Long-term, missing Lupul will hurt the Leafs, but I’m not sure it will be an issue tomorrow.

Buffalo played the Leafs well in many aspects last week and could use a similar approach to secure two points when they host Toronto on Tuesday. Although the main worry for the Sabres at this point may just be to uncover some secondary scoring.

Keys:

  • Score early and set the tone: Scoring first last week put the Sabres in a position of power as the Leafs were playing catch-up against a hot goaltender all evening. While JVR, Kessel, Kadri and the lot have plenty of potency, putting them in an early hole will be vital.
  • Manage the speed: One thing that I think Toronto benefits from is their youth and speed. While their top six lacks overall size, they have plenty of burners who can change a game in an instant. Just look at the pop Kadri had on his goal off the draw last week. He got to that carom like he was shot out of a cannon. Controlling that speed and initiating physical contact will keep the Sabres on a level playing field.
  • Special teams prowess: While the power play has tailed off significantly after the home opener, the penalty kill continues to do good work. A massive kill in the second period last week did a lot for ensuring a Buffalo win. Finding success with both units should ensure another.

Thursday’s game, for me, really begins to paint the picture of what this season will look like. While the first five games came over a seven-day span, there was time for recuperation along the way. Beginning with Tuesday against the Leafs and Thursday against the Bruins, the Sabres play a Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday schedule for two straight weeks. That means they play four games in seven nights for two straight weeks with only one day of rest between games at the very most. That stretch includes two sets of back-to-back games and is technically a nine-game stretch over 14 days when you count Sunday’s game against Washington.

What stands out is the lack of rest between these games. Having a back-to-back set of five games in seven nights isn’t something that happens on a regular basis in a typical NHL season. Managing fatigue will be a big part of this stretch and Thursday’s game is a start of that. The days between games will likely evolve from full practice days to optional skates and meetings as these type of stretches drag along.

John Scott, despite seeing very limited ice, will most certainly be in the lineup for this game. Whether or not he fights is a whole different story, but he was brought here specifically for this rivalry. Now, his role is going to be brought into question, but I know you will see him on the ice for this contest.

Boston hasn’t lost all that much with the transition to Tuukka Rask in goal after Tim Thomas flaked out and it should be noted that Rask is a fine goaltender worthy of a number one role. Solving him early is always a key because when he begins to settle in and feel the puck, he becomes very difficult to beat.

While the story many will track for this game will be Buffalo’s new-found toughness, the storyline I’ll be interested in will be Buffalo’s defensemen. Through five games the blueline has been hit or miss. Tyler Myers opened the year with three average outings before laying two strong games against the Canes and Caps. While there hasn’t been a single player who has stood out in a negative light, finding ice for Mike Weber and TJ Brennan could certainly inject some new life into a unit that has yet to find its stride.

Tyler Myers is an easy target to criticize – due to his Calder Trophy and subsequent regression – but I really haven’t seen anything from the entire group of six that has been impressive. Alexander Sulzer and Jordan Leopold have been as steady as you would expect while those you might expect more from have not. Christian Ehrhoff has been unnoticeable (both good and bad) and Robyn Regehr has looked slow at times. Yet, Regehr’s physicality has been on display in all five games. I’d actually rope Myers and Andrej Sekera into the same category. They have each play impressively and have had ugly outings. Sunday’s loss may have been Myers’ best game but Sekera’s worst. Meanwhile Sekera was very effective on Thursday while Myers struggled.

Ultimately I’m looking for more of a contribution from the blue line. This doesn’t mean three goals or Bobby Orr rushes from goal line to goal line. I’d like to see a game played where the defensemen control their zone, make strong first passes and have a firm grasp for the full 60 minutes. This was something this group did regularly last year but they’ve been lacking so far in 2013.

Keys:

  • Don’t lose control of physical attitude: It is great that the Sabres have some more sandpaper in their lineup. However, they need to practice a careful balance as to not get caught chasing the Bruins around looking for hits and fights. There is a difference between setting the tone and playing out of control. Despite what this rivalry has become, the Sabres need to maintain that.
  • Win the goaltending battle: As cliché as it is, if Miller is better than Rask the Sabres will win this game. This doesn’t mean that Miller needs a shutout or 35-save one-goal performance, he just needs to be the one who makes the timely saves in this contest.
  • Secondary scoring: If secondary scoring is still an issue at this point (based on the first five games it will be) then Lindy Ruff will need to take a long, hard look at the lines behind the HPV Line. No matter how potent that first line becomes, the Sabres won’t survive without three lines capable of producing.

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