Lack of Offense in Opener Feels all too Familiar

Give the Sabres credit, they’ve gotten good at stamping out any glimmer of hope.

The Sabres entered their home opener in 2017 with 10 new faces and came away from the season-opening loss with a positive outlook that things were about to change. They played a fast game and even in a losing effort, looked like they were going to be a different club than in years past. What followed was anything but. The Sabres were disjointed, more often than not they were slow and their play was accurately reflected in the standings.

Despite another summer filled with roster turnover last night’s premier was more of the same from the Sabres. They passed up far too many shots and looked downright confused in the offensive zone at times. Defensive lapses resulted in three goals and the Bruins never looked truly challenged in the 4-0 win.

Given the roster turnover, it wasn’t hard to envision improved results for the Sabres this season. Yet the opener offered little hope at that outcome.

Of the laundry list of issues with the Sabres play last night – nearly every one of which was an issue last year – the inability to create offensively ranked as the most frustrating for me.

There were serious lapses in defensive coverage and I’m still not sure they know how to properly execute in the neutral zone, but to see them treat the attacking zone like an uncharted planet was perplexing. Their play certainly makes them an easy team to wager against if you’re placing NHL bets.

Jack Eichel’s line was particularly ineffective. I came away feeling that Eichel was pressing. Trying to make the perfect play or even get his linemates going right off the hop. Look no further than the quasi two-on-one Eichel had with Jeff Skinner which was broken up and eventually wound up in the back of the Sabres net.

Maybe they were trying to put on a show on opening night, maybe it was a simple case of over thinking things. But a few more pucks on net would’ve served that group well. Now it looks as if Jeff Skinner is going to be bumped from that top line, something that feels premature even considering how bad the Sabres were last night.

Of the few successes that unit had, one really stood out. Eichel collected a long outlet from Casey Nelson and made a short pass to Reinhart in stride that sent the newly inked winger in on goal after a toe drag. Beyond that and a goalmouth scramble in the second, I’m not sure there was much to write home about for Skinner, Eichel and Reinhart.

Ditto for Patrik Berglund’s line. Conor Sheary didn’t seem to come alive until he was bumped to Eichel’s wing in the third and Tage Thompson’s only real standout was a few adept small-area plays during Buffalo’s second period powerplay.

Casey Mittelstadt was probably Buffalo’s best forward on the night as he was confident on the puck, showed good vision and while he didn’t show up on the scoresheet, he was far more assertive than at any point of the preseason. He looks set to play between Thompson and either Remi Elie or Vladimir Sobotoka, depending on the latter’s health, on Saturday. Moving Okposo off his line seems like a mistake as I feel those two work well together. However, Mittelstadt and Thompson’s skillets ought to complement each other quite well.

I have some expectation that Eichel will simplify things come Saturday and work to get more pucks to the net. If Mittelstadt can elevate Thompson’s offensive game there’s a chance to have three viable lines when you factor in the new unit of Skinner-Berglund-Okposo.

My preference would see Berglund play a more traditional matchup role beside Zemgus Girgensons and Jason Pominville, allowing Evan Rodrigues to play further up the lineup and showcase his offensive skill set. I could see some hesitance in splitting up that group because they were the lone unit that was able to maintain any sort of significant zone time, but I loved Rodrigues with Okposo and Mittlestadt last year and I’d like to see more of that line this year.

I also think (keyword: think) that there’s no way they will be so ineffective in the games to come. You could count on one hand the number of extended cycles they had as a team and two of those ended in errant passes into the neutral zone. Eleven of their shots on goal came from the blueline (five from Marco Scandella alone) and I’m not sure more than three of them came through any sort of traffic.

To their credit, the defensemen were willing to be active in the offensive zone and jumping up in the rush. That’s something to be optimistic about. I have to assume they won’t find navigating the offensive zone as foreign of a concept as it looked on Thursday. They managed to make the Bruins look like they had six skaters at certain times. When they did flash their skill – and those two extended cycles are good examples of this – they looked fluid and dangerous. For lack of a better term, they looked like an NHL team. They just didn’t get any pucks on net when they managed to flash that ability.

Bottom line is they need points from this home stand. They need to head west with positive momentum and, news flash, they’re not going to do that without scoring some goals. There’s a a whole lot to clean up. The talent is there for a turnaround to happen, perhaps it’s just a matter of execution.

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