Backups help contribute to Sabres inspiring run

Things are going well at One Seymour H Knox III Plaza these days. The Sabres have won 10 of their last 13 games and has done so with a mix of tremendous goaltending and scoring from their top line.

Tyler Ennis was just named the NHL’s first star of the week after picking up five points in three games while his linemates, Zemgus Girgensons and Matt Moulson have helped to combine for 14 goals and 18 assists during this stretch. Their scoring accounts for nearly 50% of the goals that have been scored over this 13-game streak. Further, Jhonas Enroth has been a brick wall, picking up nine of the ten wins and posting a .920 save percentage or better in eight of the contests (once in a losing effort).

So, Buffalo’s surge can be credited to a number of factors. A scalding hot top line and equally impressive goaltending are the two biggest contributing factors, while additional continuity throughout the roster has likely helped to galvanize the lines and defensive pairings compared to the first month of the season. The sparing use of Brian Flynn and one-month absence of Nikita Zadorov clearly had a negative impact on the club compared to the team’s state with them as nightly fixtures.

One other factor that has likely helped to contribute to Buffalo’s recent run of impressive play is that their opponents have almost exclusively played their backup goaltenders in each Buffalo victory. In fact, since November 15, when the streak began, the Sabres have faced six starters compared to seven backups. The Sabres are 3-3 in games against those starters and undefeated against backups.

James Reimer, Troy Grosenick, Dustin Tokarski, Evgeni Nabokov, Kari Ramo, Al Montoya and Robin Lehner have each fallen at the hands of the Sabres with only two (Lehner and Nabokov) registering a save percentage above .900. Meanwhile, only Nabokov managed to allow fewer than three goals.

The Sabres do have three wins against starting goaltenders with victories against Carey Price, Braden Holtby and Jonathan Quick during this streak. Buffalo only managed five goals in those three games, however, as the play of Enroth helped steal two points in each contest.

Buffalo has blown through this winning streak with an impressive shooting percentage that falls right around 14% which is a very difficult mark to maintain over the course of an 82-game season. Look no further than October and early November when the team collectively couldn’t have hit water had they been thrown out of a boat. So in addition to getting tremendous play from a concentrated group of players, the team has also been shooting the lights out over the past 13 games.

Whether you want to credit the increased shooting percentage on the team coming together and understanding the message of their coaching staff or the slightly inferior goaltending the Sabres have faced is your prerogative. As is the case with the 2014-15 Sabres I’m sure that the fan base will be unable to find any sort of middle ground and will establish hard opinions on the sides of bad goaltending and infallible coaching and compete. The reality sits somewhere in the middle.

As noted, the Sabres haven’t had the pleasure of simply playing 10 cupcakes in a row. They needed to buckle down in order to steal wins against Price, Holtby and Quick while Nabokov was stout in a shootout loss earlier this month. However, there have been a few games in which the Sabres benefitted from sub-par goaltending.

The two wins that stand out most are the 4-1 victory over the Sharks and Saturday’s 4-3 OT win against Florida. Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth combined for 29 saves on 30 shots while the Sabres only managed 13 of their own. However, Troy Grosenick only managed to stop 10 while the Sabres added an empty net goal to bolster their lead. Grosenick finished with a .769 save percentage, easily the lowest posted against the Sabres during this run.

Buffalo’s win over the Panthers on Saturday was certainly helped along by Al Montoya’s average play. His .875 save percentage certainly speaks for itself as he fought the puck throughout the game and allowing one, maybe two soft goals. The list goes on as Reimer (.828), Ramo (.789) and Tokarski (.884) were all sub-.900 goalies against the Sabres with each allowing at least four goals. In fact, Nabokov was the only backup Buffalo has faced who didn’t allow three goals or more.

To paint a better picture of the goaltenders the Sabres have faced recently, here is a basic comparison of the season performance of the backup goaltenders the Sabres have faced during this streak and each starter for their respective clubs. Players in bold registered a sub-.900 save percentage against the Sabres:

Lehner 2.84 0.913 Anderson 2.58 0.925
Montoya 2.27 0.915 Luongo 2.37 0.924
Ramo 2.50 0.911 Hiller 2.48 0.913
Nabokov 2.81 0.897 Bishop 2.34 0.914
Tokarski 2.44 0.913 Price 2.38 0.922
Grosenick* 1.53 0.948 Niemi/Stalock 2.42/2.12 .919/.926
Reimer 3.25 0.909 Bernier 2.55 0.920
*Grosenick has 2 GP. One 45-save shutout and a 10-save loss vs. Buffalo


It will be interesting to see how many more teams trot out their backup against the Sabres in games that don’t come in a back-to-back setting. This recent run has been filled with inspiring play from players that are expected to be franchise cornerstones, but there is a dose of reality in store for many.

Despite their winning ways, the Sabres have continued to be routinely out shot and out possessed on a nightly basis. They’ve enjoyed a string of success against backup goaltenders while still being stymied by the starters they face. The expectation is that Buffalo’s shooters will cool and their goaltending will tail off and when that happens the Sabres will settle into a spot that’s commensurate with the level of coaching and talent on the roster. That may not be in 29th or 30th place in the NHL, but it’s likely a long way off from a Wild Card spot as well.

It’s food for thought, especially if Buffalo’s fortunes change in the near future.

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