The Morning Skate: A chance to draw even in Montreal

Everyone has been all a-Twitter about the help the Sabres have been getting on the out-of-town scoreboard. Tonight offers the opportunity to finally recapture a playoff spot.

The Sabres have had a few separate chances to grab at least a share of a playoff position over the past month, they have yet to cash in one of those opportunities. If you practice the “what if they let Vanek go to Edmonton” train of reason, the Sabres could have crawled to eighth by beating Winnipeg and have two more points (four total) had they won their two recent shootouts.

To offer a more realistic picture, the Sabres haven’t been able to step to the plate when it has been most necessary. one way or the other they have faltered in a key area in their three losses this month. All will be forgotten if they come away from Montreal with a victory tonight. Their offense clicked into place on Monday, they will need to carry that into this evening’s game.

Expect to see Carey Price back in net, he always puts on a great performance against the Sabres. Buffalo peppered Peter Budaj last time the two teams met and you can bet Price will be tougher to beat than Budaj (33 saves) was.

The Sabres will welcome back Tyler Myers, who may need to answer for his hit on Scott Gomez, and may even witness the NHL debut of Travis Turnbull. I’d be surprised if a guy like Brad Staubitz challenges Myers, especially because everyone in Montreal was probably glad to see Gomez get plastered. I’ll also hold out on seeing Turnbull in the lineup. He was an emergency recall and will only play if the mystery injury is serious enough to keep a player out. Which player is injured? That is anyone’s guess.

Highlighted Matchup

Tyler Myers, Andrej Sekera, Mike Weber and Alexander Sulzer. One of these four will not be playing, that decision will come down between Sulzer and Weber. The other two (Myers and Sekera) are recent returnees to the lineup and will be counted on for big minutes. Sekera has been strong since returning from his illness and Myers has had three games to recuperate and watch from the press box. Hopefully he uses the time off similar to his healthy scratch earlier in the year.

Projected Goaltenders

BUF: Ryan Miller

MTL: Carey Price

Last Meeting

Sabres 3 – Canadiens 2 OT, First Niagara Center, 3/12/2012

Double Minors: Sabres keep pace with blowout against Tampa Bay

Sabres writer Bill Hoppe has taken to Twitter over the past few weeks to identify a specific player who was regulating each particular night. My fandom of just about all Emilio Estevez flicks and the general awesomeness of Young Guns makes this particular Twitter meme that much more interesting to me.

Last night’s offensive explosion led Hockey Heaven Buffalo to seek nicknames for the Tyler Ennis, Drew Stafford, Marcus Foligno line. Given their relative age and consistent regulation, why not the Young Guns or Regulators line? There will be a photoshop to follow.

All kidding aside, Buffalo’s blowout of Tampa was important for their place in the standings and their confidence to produce offensively.

The Regulators combined for seven points (3+4,) including a pair of goals in the first period. Jason Pominville also had a pair goals that went top cheese, Thomas Vanek had two apples and Cody Hodgson finally recorded his first two points (assists) as a Sabre. Ryan Miller made some timely saves while the game was still in question and finished with 24 saves on 27 shots.

The hot story surrounding the Sabres has been the play of Foligno. He has five goals in his brief time with the big club, has shown a physical side and has vastly improved his skating since his debut in Ottawa earlier in the year. Foligno looks massive on the ice and is the type of space creating winger the Sabres have long been searching for. While Ennis has been a revelation at center, I think Foligno’s style is the reason that Stafford has flourished lately. Foligno can play the banging style that Stafford seems to refuse to play, this leaves the North Dakota product to create with Ennis in open ice. The makeup of the line is as prototypical as you get, but it has been working wonders.

While the Sabres didn’t gain ground in the standings, they kept pace with two points. They certainly need the Caps to cool off for this stretch run. I still think that winning games will get the job done for the Sabres. There isn’t too much need for scoreboard watching at this point. If the Caps were to hit the skids prior to their meeting with the Sabres, it would be quite helpful for the big picture.

As the final two sets of back-to-back games loom in the coming weeks, the Sabres’ offense will take center stage. I’d expect to see Jhonas Enroth one last time for one of these back-to-back sets, but the need to score goals remains paramount in my opinion. The Sabres showed another flash last night, they need to maintain this run for the final nine games.

  • Cody Hodgson probably won’t be left alone until he scores a goal, but his assist on Jason Pominville’s power play goal was a beauty. He did a great job drawing the forward and defenseman before dishing outside the box for Pominville’s one timer. That is the type of play he has been making since his arrival, he finally had someone finish for him.
  • Andrej Sekera has a fairly manageable contract for a player making the impact he has this year. He has been terrific since the New Year and has been above 21 minutes in the two games since returning from his illness. I still wish they would give him a bigger role on the power play.
  • Getting Tyler Myers back will put Lindy Ruff in quite a predicament. Brayden McNabb will need to go back to Rochester but there isn’t a clear-cut player to scratch in order to insert Myers back into the lineup. Mike Weber has had a few gaffes, but is still a serviceable number six defenseman who can kill penalties. Alexander Sulzer has been strong in his few games and possesses better puck skills than Weber. He is physical, just not as bruising as Weber is on a nightly basis. It will be a tough call either way.
  • I laughed out loud at the first caller to the postgame. I’m also concerned that Ryan Miller’s GAA is going back up, especially when the third goal he allows is in garbage time on a tipped point shot. I’m very concerned about his play too. Especially because he has continued to make timely saves in these recent victories. Just because he isn’t playing at a Hasekian level (like in February) doesn’t mean he isn’t playing good hockey.
  • Where does Nathan Gerbe fit in this lineup? You can’t remove Foligno or Tropp from their respective spots. The easy answer is to drop Cody McCormick from the fourth line. I’m interested to see the decision Lindy Ruff makes once Gerbe is healthy.
  • For those staring at the standings, the Sabres need 12 points to hit 90 and 13 to hit 91 for the year. Anything between 90 and 93 should be the magic number for the playoffs.

Game Summary/Event Summary

The Morning Skate: Sabres in must-win mode with 10 remaining

Just about every game from here on out can be qualified as the biggest game of the year for the Sabres. Buffalo remains two points back entering tonight’s game against Tampa, but will give both Winnipeg and Washington a game in hand over Buffalo.

The Sabres continued to get help on the scoreboard as the hard-charging Hurricanes took down Winnipeg and the Blackhawks rolled the Capitals. Buffalo will need to finally take ownership of a game and get the job done against the Lightning. This will be Buffalo’s third opportunity to gain at least a share of eighth place, they cannot waste another opportunity.

I’m guessing that old friend, Dwayne Roloson will be in goal this evening. The Bolts signed Sebastian Caron (seriously) from overseas and I’m guessing he won’t be ready to go this soon. Roloson hasn’t had a great year, nor is his history against the Sabres very good, but this game stinks of a big effort from the Simcoe native.

The bottom line for tonight will be how the Sabres do offensively. They have controlled play lately but continue to be stymied on the scoreboard. There is plenty of offensive talent on this roster, the top scorers are long overdue to mesh and start producing.

Highlighted Matchup

Sabres vs. the 1-3-1. Tampa’s forecheck has gotten plenty of fanfare this year. The Sabres haven’t fared well against Tampa this season and they need a serious turnaround tonight. If the Sabres can get the first goal and break the forecheck, they will be in a great situation. If they play a passive style, they will almost certainly lose.

Projected Goaltenders

BUF: Ryan Miller

TB: Dwayne Roloson

Last Meeting

Sabres 1 – Lightning 2, First Niagara Center, 2/11/2012

 

Double Minors: Another point escapes against Panthers

Regardless of how this season ends for the Sabres, the inability to score goals will be the keystone of this season’s issues.

Say what you will about the goaltending – yesterday’s wasn’t phenomenal – but continuing to miss on chances has been the biggest issue for the Sabres all season. Yesterday’s 3-2 shootout loss to Florida was just another perfect example.

Ryan Miller didn’t have a first period to remember, allowing goals on the first two shots of the game, but he locked things down from there. In fact, he was very strong in the shootout, despite getting the loss. Miller stole a whole bunch of games in February, it is time his steam responds in kind. He yielded two goals against Florida, that should still be enough to win.

Place the blame for this wasted point on the forwards. Seven shooters and only two dekes. Brad Boyes did beat Theodore on his attempt, but hit the post. The rest had very average attempts against a small goalie who would struggle with nearly any deke attempt.

It would appear that closing games out has suddenly become an issue for a team who desperately needs regulation or overtime wins over their last ten games. Add in the questionable mental toughness of the roster and the home stretch could end up being a long journey. Continue reading

The Morning Skate: Points at a preimum in East race

The Sabres last second screw up on Wednesday could end up being the game the team points to if they miss the playoffs by a point or two. Of course, the same was said about their third period meltdown against Nashville last season and the team managed to battle back from that massive letdown.

The fact is, Buffalo is in a tight predicament as the Washington Capitals continue to win games. Last night was an exception, as Winnipeg managed to pull out a 3-2 regulation victory. The win thrust the Jets a point ahead of Buffalo for the time being, but the sole focus of the season is now on the team occupying eighth.

As of now the Sabres need a win this evening in Florida. It would give them 77 points and temporarily place them one point out of eighth. Buffalo will be playing game number two without Tyler Myers and Nathan Gerbe. Missing their defensive skill was tough on the team against Colorado. On the bright side, The Buffalo News reports that Andrej Sekera will return this evening. Hopefully he can play effective minutes as the defensive corps looked thin without him in the lineup.

Highlighted Matchup

Vanek/Hodgson/Leino. Three players in the spotlight for similar but different reasons. Ville Leino has been roasted for not putting up major numbers this season, although he has been playing very good hockey lately. It is rumored that Thomas Vanek has been battling a shoulder injury and his offense has suffered because of it. Cody Hodgson showed some great offensive skills in his first few games, but no goals or assists has moved him from savior to bust with some of the more rational fans in Buffalo. I like the idea of this line, hopefully they instantly click.

Projected Goaltenders

BUF: Ryan Miller

FLA: Jose Theodore

Last Meeting

Sabres 2 – Panthers 1 OT, First Niagara Center, 12/9/2011

Double Minors: Sabres play with fire one too many times

After conceding a head scratching tying goal in the dying moments on Monday, there was no way the Sabres would allow the same thing to happen again.

Of course, we’re talking about the Sabres. Yielding leads throughout games all season, Buffalo’s killer instinct has been something that has come and gone on numerous occasions. A defensive breakdown on Monday led to the tying goal, virtually the same play cost the Sabres last night.

Jamie McGinn’s second goal of the night tied the game at four, sending the game to OT. The Avalanche went on to win the game 5-4 in a shootout as shootout extraordinaire Peter Mueller picked up the deciding goal. Of course, McGinn’s goal should have never happened.

While being stuck with the same personnel due to an icing, Lindy Ruff had Cody Hodgson, Jason Pominville, Ville Leino, Christian Ehrhoff and Mike Weber on the ice. Not exactly the best defensive set Buffalo could roll out. However, they are a little short on lock down forwards without Jochen Hecht, Paul Gaustad and Nathan Gerbe for various reasons.

My real beef was the defensive pair that Ruff chose. Mike Weber has been thrust from the sixth defensive spot to the fourth due to Tyler Myers’ suspension and Andrej Sekera’s illness. Weber played Gabriel Landeskog soft on his entry, his shot, the rebound and the following play behind the net. Weber is serviceable in a limited role, but not as a shutdown defenseman in the final moments of a close game. I have to question the thought process that Ruff had regarding who he was putting on the ice.

The unfortunate finish tarnished a great game by Marcus Foligno, who had a pair of goals and three hits. Foligno has meshed well, just like Corey Tropp, and is making a serious case to stick around beyond the re-call. Tropp has all but cemented his spot.

Foligno’s pair were part of a +3 evening that saw the rookie lay three body checks. Of course, Landeskog stole the show. He had a goal and an assist, five shots and eight hits (really?). His game was solid and he keyed the rush to tie the game. Regardless, Buffalo’s neutral zone forecheck was close to nonexistent and Weber’s soft play gave Landeskog and easy lane to shoot and pursue the rebound. Passive net-side play allowed Ryan O’Rielly to get the puck through and in front to McGinn.

  • Ryan Miller actually played a pretty strong game. He made 38 saves and was able to keep his team alive for a good part of the game. At some point, you need him to make a save on one of the goals, especially if you give him four to work with. But I honestly had little issue with his contributions this evening. Two wide-open tap-in goals are really to blame here.
  • Funny to see Miller’s adjustment to O’Rielly’s chance last night and the read he made on Monday against Montreal. Expecting a stuff attempt by Erik Cole, Miller held his post and was beaten on the cross-crease one timer. It seemed as if he had a better grasp of the time on the clock yesterday, making himself big and hoping to block as much net. For those just blaming Miller, the chance hit the side of the net, Mike Weber’s shin pad, the post and then rolled across the goal line. Had Weber stayed on his side of the ice, the puck stays below the goal line and there is someone available to tie up Jamie McGinn. Miller made the right read, he was done in by a bad bounce.
  • I have liked Alex Sulzer. He even beat Cody Hodgson to his first goal as a Sabre. I wonder if his play will be a factor when the Sabres evaluate their defensive depth this summer.
  • Brayden McNabb is a fine defensive prospect, he is even a solid guy to insert permanently. However, when you have to bump Sulzer and Weber to increased roles to fill in for regulars like Sekera and Myers, there is a serious problem.
  • Between the defensive depth issues and the lapses in-zone, trading Paul Gaustad is finally biting the Sabres. His absence has not been a major issue, you can just see certain areas weakening due to his trade. Considering the give and take, I’d still make the trade.
  • I’ve long questioned Buffalo’s attitude when holding a lead. I truthfully cannot say whether it is a personnel or coaching issue. But to see the Sabres sag back and attempt to shell-up for the umpteenth time, makes me question “the system”. To give up 16 third period shots in the middle of a playoff race with just a one-goal lead is criminal. Lacking that killer instinct is something that needs to be addressed. Whether that is accomplished with a new coach or players with certain intangibles, the change needs to be made.

Game Summary/Event Summary

The Morning Skate: Sabres host Avs, minus Myers

Tyler Myers was hit with a three-game Shanaban after giving Scott Gomez a face full of glass on Monday night. Tonight’s visit from the Avalanche will be the first game Myers misses.

The suspension to Myers was warranted and is the appropriate length. What is completely asinine is the fact that the NHL continues their completely inconsistent manner of evaluating supplemental discipline. Evgeni Malkin lowered virtually the same hit on Johnny Boychuk over the weekend and escaped with a minor. Maybe if Tyler Myers was one of the league’s most electrifying players in the middle of the Hart Trophy race he wouldn’t have been suspended either. Is that really a difficult conclusion to come to?

Buffalo will play their first without Myers – 11 points (4+7), +9 since the All-Star break – against a Western Conference foe pushing for a playoff spot of their own. I’d expect to see Brayden McNabb in the lineup for the next three games. He has been playing solid hockey for the Amerks and has the physical edge the Sabres will need for the remaining games this season. Andrej Sekera could be in the lineup, although it seems like a serious longshot. I would count on McNabb stepping in for at least the next three nights.

The Sabres offense has still been struggling to find the back of the net, but they are creating chances. Peter Budaj made 33 saves on Monday and Buffalo has put at least 30 shots on goal in three of their last four. It is time for the Sabres to start capitalizing on their chances, scoring three or four a night will give this team a very real shot at achieving the impossible.

Highlighted Matchup

Cody Hodgson. The newest forward on the team is still finding his way. I’m not sure if it is a conditioning issue, fatigue from playing on a nightly basis, his arrival and subsequent puddle jump across the country and further participation on Buffalo’s west coast trip or just a systematic problem. What I do know is that a number of fans are getting anxious about his potential. It would be nice if he got a few points over the next few games. Despite what the box score says, he hasn’t been all bad.

Projected Goaltenders

BUF: Ryan Miller

COL: Semyon Varlamov

Last Meeting

Sabres 3 – Avalanche 4 OT, Pepsi Center, 1/4/2011

Double Minors: Sabres take two after OT gut check

Just 3.5 seconds away from winning a 2-1 game against the Canadiens, the Sabres couldn’t buckle down and David Desharnais scored to tie the game.

It mattered not as Tyler Myers made a great read in overtime to join the rush and pick up the winning goal. Myers would state in his postgame interview that the tying goal may have condemned the Sabres a month or two ago. He followed that by saying the team has come together with more confidence as of late.

Ryan Miller had 26 saves, a number of them key stops (11 in the 3rd) and had some choice words for his teammates as overtime began. Miller toned it down during postgame, but he said the message was to ignore the late goal and get the job done. Miller has often displayed captain tendencies throughout his career and those are the type on intangibles he brings, especially when he is on his game like he has been since January 1.

Myers has been playing good hockey for a while now. His defensive game is still rounding out and he makes some odd decisions, but he is turning into a dominant force as each game goes by. I still think there needs to be a serious guiding force (whether a coach or partner) for him to grow with. Two hits, three shots, a goal and +1 isn’t a terrible stat line, I liked him tonight.

The other Tyler, the smaller one, was once again dazzling. For those who clamored that he was being wasted and could possibly be a bust, I give you Healthy Tyler Ennis vs. Injured Tyler Ennis. He had a few struggles early on and then suffered that ankle injury. It would appear that he wasn’t right until late January. Now Ennis is playing his natural position and is dazzling with his puck skills. Good on Lindy Ruff for getting him back to that position and allowing him to create.

Ennis’ strong play has coupled with Miller’s run and a few other brief renaissances on the roster, has been the catalyst for this unlikely playoff run. Getting continued scoring is the only way this team will make the playoffs, would appear they’re starting to create the necessary chances, now they need to finish.

  • Everyone off the “Cody Hodgson is Awesome” train and jump aboard the “Cody Hodgson is a Bust” bandwagon. But seriously, Hodgson has been struggling a bit and has gotten his Raffi Torres treatment in shipping down to the fourth line. I would say his travel from Vancouver and to arrive with the Sabres probably wore on him. Add the west coast trip to that. Hopefully he can shake the fatigue, get some practice time and work his way back into more ice time.
  • Staying with the deadline acquisitions, Alex Sulzer has been strong filling in for various injured Sabres. However, Sulzer has not been 23:59 (!) good. He has never been that type of player and never will be. He was on for the tying goal, not that it was his fault alone, but that just shouldn’t happen. The final minutes are for your shutdown players.
  • Tyler Ennis has two goal-of-the-year candidates for the Sabres. His stick flip goal against Pittsburgh and his dangle tonight were both terrific. He has great hands and is going to deserve a great payday pretty soon.
  • Ryan Miller was strong again. Not sure he had a look at Erik Cole’s goal nor did he have much of a chance on the tying tally. He made a few strong saves, particularly in the third, and got the Sabres yet another win.
  • I really liked the lines in which Hodgson and Ennis filled as centers for the top six and Derek Roy was playing as the checking center. Of course, Hodgson wasn’t getting the job done and Ruff was forced to shuffle. I still think there is a line combination that can keep Buffalo’s best offensive weapons among the top six.
  • Allow me to play hypocrite for a moment. Ville Leino has proven to be a pretty solid checking center. I still think he will make his money best playing a top-six role, but he is filling in nicely for Paul Gaustad for the time being.
  • Every game is huge for the Sabres, that pretty much goes without saying. This weekend’s games are going to be pivotal. Well, Saturday (Florida) and next Monday (Tampa Bay). Still, both are against playoff competitors and those head-to-head wins are absolutely necessary.

Game Summary/Event Summary

The Morning Skate: Injury bug returns for the Sabres

Make no mistake, this is a banged up group of hockey players. The Sabres, already without Thomas Vanek, lost Matt Ellis and Pat Kaleta during the 4-3 shootout win over the Senators.

Today’s game will likely feature one or two fresh faces from the farm. I would assume that Colin Stuart, Derek Whitmore and Paul Szezchura are on the shortlist for a recall. If Cody McCormick and Vanek are able to go, that will obviously change the dynamic a bit.

The Sabres are still in the hunt for the final spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race. However, the Washington Capitals sudden surge is making things far more difficult for Buffalo. The Sabres are four points out of eighth place before tonight’s game. That makes every game that much more interesting for tonight.

With or without players like Vanek, Kaleta and Ellis, the task is daunting. The Sabres need to continue winning games, regardless of what their opponents are doing. Since teams like Florida and Washington continue to win, there is even less room for error.

Expect to see one of my favorite goaltending matchups. Carey Price and Ryan Miller always play well against each other and Miller will need to have another dazzling outing if the Sabres hope to stay alive.

Highlighted Matchup

The farmhands. Even if Marcus Foligno is the only call-up playing, I want to watch him closely. The Sabres have some interesting players down on the farm, but no superstars. Foligno has just about every trait that Zack Kassian possessed, aside from excellent offensive skills. There are no top-end prospects on the farm as of today, but that will change in the coming years. Let’s see who will be sticking around next year and beyond.

Projected Goaltenders

BUF: Ryan Miller

MTL: Carey Price

Last Meeting

Sabres 3 – Canadiens 4 SO, First Niagara Center, 2/17/2012

Double Minors: Offense sputters in loss to Bruins

Once again the Buffalo Sabres couldn’t muster the offense to maintain the early lead they built in Boston. Once again a one-goal lead was established and sat on. Once again the Sabres will wait to climb the final rungs of the playoff ladder.

For what it’s worth, Sami Pahlsson scored a late goal to put Vancouver over Winnipeg late last night. Of all the teams Sabres fans are keeping their eyes on, Winnipeg is the one that matters most.

Last night’s loss was another in which the Sabres scored only one goal. It was also a game in which they held a lead but failed to build upon it. The past 14 days have been grueling for the Sabres. They have gone from Anaheim, up the coast to Vancouver (via San Jose), to Winnipeg and now to Boston. They will stop off in Ottawa tomorrow night. In that whole span the Sabres returned home for Wednesday’s overtime win against Carolina.

This rough road schedule is a likely culprit for additional fatigue and bumps and bruises. But the Sabres have failed to adapt to many of their shortcomings this year, particularly in the scoring department. Whether this is a coaching issue or player issue is unknown. All I know is that any hope of actually catching eighth place will come on the coattails of more than just one or two goals per game.

Jhonas Enroth’s unfortunate losing streak continued despite a fine showing. He turned away 13 shots in the first period alone, finishing with 25 saves on the night. Enroth’s losing streak has been subject to a number of game in which the Sabres failed to provide proper goal support. Last night was another good example. Enroth did prove that he’s capable of earning another start before the end of the season.

  • Funny how Cody Hodgson went from being the toast of the town to an alleged bust in just a week and a half. Apparently the Sabres acquired Wayne Gretzky and no one told me. Give him time to settle into the system, offensive players often take a little longer to acclimate to a new system. Especially a system that runs on only one goal per game.
  • Alexander Sulzer continues to acquit himself nicely. Three games in, he is a major improvement over Marc-Andre Gragnani.
  • I still wonder about the mental toughness of the Sabres at times. Surrendering a one goal lead isn’t a rare occurrence. However, both losses this week came after being tied entering the third period. Again, both games came after rough travel days, but that type of game is what the Sabres will see in the playoffs.
  • There is no reason to start scoreboard watching just yet. The Sabres still control their own destiny and simply need to win their games. They have been getting some help lately, but there is no reason to fret over every other team’s win or losses when the standings will change in 24 or 48 hours.
  • Buffalo’s physical game hasn’t seemed to suffer much since losing Paul Gaustad. However, their faceoff numbers are down significantly and I wonder if it is something that will really start to prove to be a factor. Even on Wednesday, Ville Leino’s faceoff loss led to Carolina’s first goal. Just something to keep an eye on.

Game Summary/Event Summary