The Sabres have a goal prevention issue. Many have boiled it down to a goaltending issue, but it’s not that simple. Although, it’s played a big role.
Tage Thompson just tied the franchise record for goals in a game as part of a 9-4 win. The Sabres have scored four or more goals in seven of their last 10 games but are just 5-4-1 in that span. The Sabres have scored the most goals in the entire league but are six points out of the Wild Card race. It’s a peculiar situation they find themselves in and their inability to keep pucks out of their net is one of the most frustrating aspects of what’s been a promising season.
Buffalo is currently in the top half of the league in xGF% according to Natural Stat Trick and that positive goal differential is commendable considering the next closest differential belongs to the Flames who are dead even as of this writing and sitting 21st in the league in overall standings.
The Sabres’ recent loss to the Lightning was a contest that highlighted more than a few of Buffalo’s most notable struggles on the year. The penalty kill struggled, they surrendered a third period lead and their goaltending wasn’t up to snuff. Given how quickly things fell apart on the Sabres, I wanted to go back through the game and see how it all unfolded. Below are each of the six goals from the Tampa game broken down into a handful of key steps as each goal developed and was scored. It illustrates nicely just how many different factors came together to sink the Sabres and how many of these issues have been present in many of the team’s contests this year.
Goal 1 – Brayden Point
The first goal came on the power play with the sequence triggering off a somewhat odd scenario at the blue line where Kyle Okposo seemed to be looking for a call on a hand pass or offside. The puck gets worked down to the far corner before it’s centered to Bryaden Point who has acres of space in the slot.
It goes off the rails at this point as Ilya Lyubushkin comes sliding out at Point who coolly toe drags around the defenseman. It was an excessively odd choice given the help he would’ve had from Okposo had he simply stayed on his feet and forced Point into a different decision. You’ll also see that Luukkonen is on his knees after Point has received the puck. It’s likely that he dropped in anticipation of a one timer or quick shot from Point, but in the still it’s a little odd to see as the play develops.
With Lyubushkin out of the play, Point has a clean look at Luukkonen with Okposo trailing and Mattias Samuelsson on the back post.
Point is working in confined space against a very large goaltender. He also has a defender bearing down on him from behind. Luukkonen is in good enough position here as he’s taken some depth toward Point and he’s recovered back to his feet ahead of his next save.
Luukkonen has set a wide base here, so his ability to effectively move side-to-side will be somewhat hindered due to how wide he’s set his edges. Okposo is applying more pressure to Point here, so this should have ended in a fairly innocuous save for the Sabres netminder.
Instead, Point manages to out reach Luukkonen and tuck the puck in the far post. Okposo never managed to get on the right side of Point and Samuelsson winds up with a pretty good seat for the finish. I’m not sure how it is that Luukkonen managed to get beat here as his length should have been more than enough to shut Point down. Setting himself too wide likely was the damning decision here and when he hits the ice, he eliminates any further ability for lateral movement.
But it’s a system-wide breakdown here as the massive gulf in the penalty kill gave Point far too much room to operate and Lyubushkin’s decision to leave his skates opened the lane to get Point to the net. From there Luukkonen somehow sees Point reach around his pads for the finish.
Goal 2 – Corey Perry
Perry’s goal starts off a cycle where Perry wins a puck race and works it down behind the net to Steven Stamkos. Stamkos has space to work off to the side of the net as Perry comes back off the boards and works himself open for a back door pass.
With all of the Sabres puck watching, Stamkos makes an easy dish to Perry for a tap in on the back post. Victor Olofsson is too late to react to the pass and Perry’s presence while Owen Power and Casey Mittelstadt are covering the same guy on the crease as the puck comes across.
There’s not much the goaltender can do about this goal as Perry cruises in untouched and dumps a perfect pass in an open net. Maybe if Luukkonen is playing on his feet as Stamkos comes out above the goal line his movement across the crease is different. But a benefit of RVH is to offer protection if a pass comes to the back side. Perhaps he’s a little late with his move but it’s a play that unfolded poorly for the goaltender.
Goal 3 – Brayden Point
Point’s second goal (also on the power play) comes off some clever puck movement by the Bolts. Some quick movement pulls the Buffalo penalty kill out of shape as Zemgus Girgensons winds up standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Point, leaving a massive passing lane between Mikhail Sergachev and Nikita Kucherov. Kucherov is one of the last players you’d like to see wide open in a one timer position.
Somehow Girgensons and Tyson Jost wind up guarding each other while Kucherov makes a phenomenal play, hitting Point with a perfect one-touch pass off Sergachev’s feed. Point makes no mistake and takes advantage of Luukkonen being forced to react first to a potential one timer from Kucherov and the subsequent feed into the slot for the finish.
Goal 4 – Steven Stamkos
Although the first goal wasn’t one that I felt Luukkonen played as well as he probably could have, this was the first goal of the game where you’re really scratching your head over the play of the goalie. The sequence kicks off with a somewhat odd play for Owen Power along the side boards where he’s unable to cut off the puck as Stamkos chips in down to the corner where Alex Killorn retrieves it.
This play devolves quickly for the Sabres. Stamkos already knows where he wants to be while Power is still stuck on the boards after Stamkos’ pass got by him. Nick Paul also gets decent body position on Casey Mittlestadt (though Mittelstadt regains postition) and the chaos created by the loss in coverage leaves Henri Jokiharju as the only one capable of pressuring Killorn. I would be curious to know the result of this play had Mittelstadt pursued Killorn and passed Paul off to Jokiharju as opposed to the way in unfolded for the group of five on the ice.
Killorn carrying to the net for a jam play puts Luukkonen down in RVH. It’s a fine choice for a potential jam play as he should easily shut down any stuff attempt by Killorn and should otherwise have decent support on either a rebound or pass attempt. You’ll see below that Mittelstadt has gotten back into a position to cancel out Paul but Olofsson’s nudge has sent Stamkos right to the crease with not additional coverage. Power is still working to recover and Jokiharju steps to challenge Killorn.
The frame above shows the moment after Killorn tries his stuff attempt. The puck is squirting out to the top of the crease where Stamkos will soon arrive to deposit the rebound. It’s not a strong sequence for Luukkonen as the puck winds up in a danger area after a harmless play at the post. Stamkos is Johnny on the spot and the lone uncovered Tampa forward and slips the puck under Luukkonen’s right arm. That’s a bit of salt in the wound for the goaltender, because not only does he leave a tough rebound but Stamkos’ chipped rebound attempt results in a leaky goal that should’ve been a fairly routine save even given the shooter. Combine the leaky goal with the questionable post play – something that’s come up a few times with Luukkonen – and it’s a goal that you can’t have go in. Especially at that point in the game.
Goal 5 – Brandon Hagel
Stamkos’ goal wound up being a foreboding tally where you need a bit more from your goaltender. But Hagel’s tying goal shouldn’t rest on Lukkonen’s shoulders. Buffalo is playing two men short with Tampa’s net empty on the power play, making a bad situation worse for Buffalo’s kill.
There isn’t much to say about the goal itself. It’s a deflection off a big one timer. Not much to say, especially with the extra attacker sitting on the crease in a 6-on-4 situation. What I did want to point out was the structure the Sabres are in. Their kill has been a problem all season and after getting badly victimized on two goal where the bumper was given acres of space to accept a pass, the unit appears to over correct in this scenario. The two images below are the sequence before Kucherov’s shot deflects off Hagel and in. Dylan Cozens and Kyle Okposo are oddly close to each other as the puck comes up to Sergachev at the top of the power play. neither Buffalo forward is in a position to deny a pass to either Stamkos or Kucherov, a curious choice given their inherent skill set.
With the full understanding that the Sabres are two men short, it’s a perplexing approach to try and eliminate any sort of scoring threat.
Kucherov misses the net but Stamkos easily flags down the puck along the boards and resets the play. At this point Cozens pursues out after the loose puck and applies pressure to Stamkos. That leaves Okposo on an island and a massive passing lane to Kucherov for a second try. From here, Kucherov doesn’t miss the net and catches Hagel’s shin on the way through to tie the game. Maybe I’m being overly critical to a poor special teams unit since Tampa did have an extra body on the ice. But as this play developed, the extra attacker wasn’t the threat. The inability to effectively eliminate any passing lanes throughout this game – cross-box and bumper in the first two periods, on the flanks here – was maddening to watch and something that’s been at the root of their PK issues this season.
Goal 6 – Steven Stamkos
There was some questionable defending from Rasmus Dahlin and Alex Tuch on this sequence. Neither switch off Paul and leave one of the league’s best shooters plenty of time and space to pick his spot on Luukkonen. But the goaltender is worth looking at closer here. My general opinion here would not blame anyone for getting beat by a shooter of Stamkos’ quality and I think the placement here deserves to be credited. What does interest me is the way he plays the shot. As a 6’5″ goaltender, you’d think he would take up more of the next, especially given the depth he takes ahead of this shot. But even on top of the crease, Luukkonen looks small here. His blocker and glove are overlapping his pads and his crouch robs him of some of that impressive length.
By playing small here, Luukkonen does himself no favors as Stamkos subtlety changes his shooting angle prior to release. The shot barely misses Luukkonen’s shoulder on the way through. I can’t help but wonder if an ever so slightly taller or wider stance from Luukkonen gets him a save here. Forgive the blurry image but you can see just how tight the margin was on this play.
Without getting too deep in the weeds on some of the geometry of goaltending, a puck needs to be about 2 1/2 feet off the ice in order to hit the crossbar from a shot taken from about 20 feet away from the net. So the theory of what the puck “sees” really comes into effect here. Luukkonen’s narrow stance, where his hands are probably a touch too far inside, allows the puck to “see” more net. It also forces him to cover more space when reacting to shots. To exaggerate the example, think of how long it would take to raise your hand over your head from your foot as opposed to starting from your hip. Playing with his hands wider probably gives him a save here. It’s almost quite literally splitting hairs given the margin of this goal, but it’s something I’ve noticed with his game throughout this recall. He has such a tight stance that he loses one of the natural advantages to being so tall.
It should be noted that simply asking Luukkonen to adjust to a taller or wider stance is easier said than done. That’s a fundamental change to how he plays the game and not something that’s overly common to see. That being said, adjusting some of those fundamentals could be the key in unlocking his potential. Finding answers to their issues on the penalty kill would be another big step toward reducing the goals against numbers plaguing the Sabres.