The Morning Skate: Weekend series capped with visit from Bolts

The only thing the Buffalo Sabres need to be worried about at this moment is winning hockey games. They started too far out of the playoff hunt to discuss games in hand or how far behind they are from the team’s they’re chasing. Just winning games and getting points is all that should matter.

Tonight’s game against Tampa Bay presents the chance for a clean weekend sweep of four points and to continue the run of good hockey the team has played since the All-Star break.

The Lightning are a rested bunch. They played Thursday in New York, stayed in Buffalo all day yesterday and will have had plenty of time to rest as they prepare for this evening’s tilt. Tampa lost Thursday’s game in overtime 4-3.

While Buffalo did go a full 65 minutes last night, they didn’t do too much work in the opening 40 minutes of play. Hopefully there is some gas in the tank for tonight. Add in the fact that Luke Adam will be inserted in the place of Cody McCormick, which provides a fresh set of legs.

Buffalo has not played Tampa well this season. They were shutout in Florida before dropping a 4-3 loss on the return trip in Buffalo. Tonight’s game has a lot more weight behind it than the previous two meetings. Then the Sabres were still riding the cushion of their strong start. Now they are a desperate bunch in need of a long win streak.

Highlighted Matchup

Buffalo’s forwards vs. Tampa’s trap. The Sabres had trouble engaging offensively last night as Dallas choked out the neutral zone. Tampa will do that, and more tonight. The Sabres were able to dump and chase yesterday but will not have the same luxury tonight with more fatigue weighing them down. The Sabres still need to effectively break the trap to win tonight.

Projected Goaltenders

BUF: Jhonas Enroth

TBL: Mathieu Garon

Last Meeting

Sabres 3 – Lightning 4, First Niagara Center, 10/25/2011

 

Double Minors: Sabres 3 – Lightning 4

The Buffalo Sabres’ second-straight loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning consisted of numerous similarities to their first home loss of the season.

Buffalo jumped the Lightning early. Thomas Vanek continued to exert his will upon the goaltenders of the NHL with a beautiful takeaway and finish on a short breakaway. Brad Boyes followed up 35 seconds later with a neat finish that involved just about everything Lindy Ruff has been looking for out of the enigmatic winger; put the puck on net after driving the crease hard for a loose puck.

There was little to complain about after the first 10 minutes of the hockey game for the Sabres. Then the wheels fell off. In nearly identical fashion in which the Sabres allowed Carolina back in on the October 14, Buffalo allowed the Lightning back into this game. Short of gift wrapping countless shorthanded opportunities, the Sabres played sloppy hockey and failed to clamp down on the collective throats of a downtrodden Lightning team.

Rather, they watch as Tampa Bay’s two veteran superstars connected for a rebound goal to draw within one and then fell victim to a terrible bounce with under one minute to play on the tying goal. Buffalo was unable to regroup in the second period, allowing the go ahead tally on what appeared to be another unfortunate bounce.

Ryan Malone’s late breakaway goal may as well have been Jeff Skinner’s game-winner as it was not only a goal you wish Ryan Miller would have saved, but it was a goal that probably wouldn’t have transpired. After making a deft move in the offensive zone, Tyler Myers had his shot blocked and ricochet to Malone who went in and beat Miller. Miller didn’t play the breakaway particularly well and was beaten on a fairly simple move, one he typically turns away.

Having both home losses play out in such similar fashion is less than encouraging for a team that had to wait until November for their first home victory. Neither loss could fall under the “trying too hard to entertain the home fans” banner. These were two poorly played games that saw the effects trickle down from the forwards to the goaltender.

  • The record should show that Ryan Miller probably needs to stop one of the four goals. Whether it is playing Nate Thompson conservatively and staying on his post, or staying aggressive on a shoot-first player like Malone; Miller needs to keep one out of the net. Otherwise the loss shouldn’t be saddled on his shoulders, by any means. He didn’t face a lot of shots and didn’t keep the score to one goal, so the Miller Bashers will be out in full force, but this was not a game in which you can look to the goaltender as a reason for losing.
  • To slightly contradict the above statement, this was a game ideal for Jhonas Enroth. He has been shelved up since his outing in Pittsburgh on October 15 waiting to get back in net. Miller has been far too good to remove, but the loss on Saturday pretty much wiped the slate in terms of Miller’s hot streak. Enroth should have gotten the nod with Miller returning for Thursday and beyond. Hopefully Lindy isn’t already fumbling the goaltenders, it is far too early for that.
  • Thomas Vanek is seriously good. He is on a hot streak like no other and is fully embracing the Atlas moniker so gracefully bestowed by The Goose’s Roost gang. As of now, the Vanek-Adam-Pominville line is keeping the Sabres’ head above water.
  • Brad Boyes is indeed capable of scoring goals. He made a great play to get his first of the season. He stuck his nose in the play and the puck ended up in the net. He had a sound game and should parlay his first tally into a few more in the next few contests.
  • Something needs to be done about the power play. This isn’t a drunken 300-level “SHOOOOT” proclamation. The man-advantage unit could barely set up and establish zone time, let alone find the proper rotation to establish a scoring chance. The Lightning were good enough to clog the center of the ice. But the Sabres have plenty of players with cannons for shots. Get pucks to the net front and let Vanek, Gaustad and Stafford poke away until the puck is behind the goaltender. Leave the fancy passing plays on the whiteboard until the penalty kill units are stretched thin.
  • Tyler Myers had a rough night, not much more can be said than that. He was victimized by some bad bounces and made a few poor choices. This is back-to-back seasons where he has had a slow start. Perhaps there is something missing in his off-season regiment.  His partner, Robyn Regehr continues to play like his hair is on fire. So keep that end of it up.

Three Stars

1. Mathieu Garon

2. Thomas Vanek

3. Steven Stamkos

NHL Links

Game Summary

Event Summary

The Morning Skate: Sabres vs. Lightning

It is round two of the Sabres home-and-home set with the Lightning. Tampa Bay stifled the Buffalo attack on Saturday on their way to a 3-0 victory.

Ryan Miller had a strong game in net, turning aside 23 of 25 shots on goal. However, he was bested by Mathieu Garon who stopped all 21 shots he faced on the evening.

The game may have been best illustrated by Tampa Bay’s first goal and a goal that wasn’t meant to be for Buffalo. Pavel Kubina’s seeing-eye slapshot found its way through a forest of legs for Tampa’s first goal in the second period. Just a few minutes later Drew Stafford let a wrist shot go that found the shaft of Garon’s stick. An inch or two in either direction for either shot and the score is drastically different.

Of course, whining about bounces solves little in hockey. The fact of the matter is that the Lightning lulled the Sabres to sleep with a steady diet of the trap. Buffalo had found waves of dominance in nearly every game prior to this one. On only rare occasions did the Sabres mange time in the offensive zone.

The key to a Buffalo victory will be to establish a transition game early and break Tampa Bay’s trap. Secondly, they need to get to Garon and make him uncomfortable. There is a reason he had one career victory against Buffalo entering Saturday, the Sabres need to exploit that again.

Highlighted Matchup

Vanek-Adam-Pominville vs. Guy Boucher and the trap. Buffalo’s top offensive line has manged to create multiple points in each Buffalo victory. In both losses they have accounted for only one goal. Boucher was successful in shutting down all four Buffalo lines on Saturday. While this trio had moments of brilliance, they weren’t the dominant force they have been in previous games. A strong effort from these three should result in Buffalo’s first home win.

Projected Goaltenders

BUF: Jhonas Enroth 1GP, 1-0-0, 2.00 GAA, .935 SV%

TB: Mathieu Garon 5GP, 2-1-1, 1.51 GAA, .948 SV%

Last Game (Tampa leads season series 1-0-0)

10/22/2011, St. Pete Times Forum, Sabres 0 – Lightning 3

Double Minors: Sabres 0 – Lightning 3

Being at the other end of a shutout is never something you want to endure. Neither is posting a game recap a full day late – but this is the best I can do.

Lesson 1: Leaving Marty St. Louis alone in front is a bad idea.

Mathieu Garon has never been a great goalie. In fact, he could barely be considered a good goalie most of the time. Of course, he has had a strong start to the season for the Tampa Bay Lightning and managed to blank the Sabres yesterday, turning aside 21 Sabres shots.

Buffalo put forth a disappointing effort in front of yet another sparkling performance from Ryan Miller. An early injury to Tyler Ennis didn’t help matters as Lindy Ruff was forced to shuffle his lines for practically the entire game. However, that didn’t seem to matter as neither 11 or 12 forwards would have helped the effort Buffalo put forth.

The Sabres power play continues to falter, going 0-for-3 on the evening and accumulating one goal in eight attempts on the road trip. A 12.5% success rate is not where the Buffalo power play was expected to operate, particularly with the additions made to each unit.

Perhaps the silver lining is that the Sabres penalty kill has been stellar. Aside from denying quality chances, the man-down unit is operating at full efficiency. While the power play isn’t producing, the opponents aren’t finding the net on Buffalo’s penalties which makes all special teams a wash.

  • The Tyler Ennis injury made some difficult combinations for the coaching staff. However, Ville Leino found his way to the left wing with Derek Roy and Drew Stafford. This could certainly turn into a permanent role for the new acquisition as he seems to be far comfortable on the wing. Regardless of the length of Ennis’ injury, Leino should probably find his way to the wing. He had the most success playing from the wing, why not put him back in his comfort zone.
  • Robyn Regehr continues to be a mean SOB. The Myers/Regehr pairing is clearly going to turn into the shutdown pairing the Sabres have been searching for since the beginning of last season.
  • Marc-Andre Gragnani is not only struggling in the defensive zone, he isn’t even offering much to the man advantage. Of course, the entire power play has been bad, but Gragnani is not in a position where he can struggle. The door for Mike Weber continues to open as Gragnani’s struggles mount. My personal opinion is to reward Andrej Sekera with some power play time (he has been one of Buffalo’s best defensemen) while putting Weber back into the lineup.
  • Ryan Miller was outstanding for the entire road trip. After his performance against Montreal and his shutout in Florida there was no reason to take him out against Tampa. Jhonas Enroth deserves another look and should get it against Tampa on Tuesday. Plus, throwing a wrinkle at the Bolts could prove to be very beneficial.
  • I’ll continue to pump the tires of the Vanek-Adam-Pominville line until they give me a reason not to. Their offensive zone possession has been dominant game-in and game-out. While I wouldn’t hate to see Leino center these two wingers, there is no reason to take Adam away from the Sabres’ most productive line.
  • Aside from a major defensive gaffe and a well-placed point shot, the Sabres were still in Saturday’s game thanks to Ryan Miller. Not getting consistent scoring from anyone other than the Vanek-Adam-Pominville trio will hurt the Sabres if it continues.

Three Stars

1. Mathieu Garon

2. Victor Hedman

3. Brett Connolly

NHL Links

Game Summary

Event Summary

The Morning Skate: Sabres vs. Lightning

The road has been kind to the Sabres this season. Buffalo enters the final game of their four-game swing with a 3-0 record. The Sabres are 5-1 on the season.

Buffalo has only played once at home this season, a 4-3 loss to Carolina last Friday. Buffalo’s five other games have been played in other buildings – three on the road, two at neutral sites in Europe. While one of the European games counted as a home contest, it was anything but that. The NHL should adjust their statistics accordingly.

It has been an interesting week for the Sabres considering they have come away with all four points despite playing a sub-par game on Tuesday evening. For as bad as the Sabres were on Tuesday, they were that good on Thursday against the Panthers. Buffalo’s road trip has been buoyed by the play of their stars; Ryan Miller, Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek have been pivotal in Buffalo’s early success.

The Sabres will be facing a dangerous team that has stumbled out of the gates. Tampa Bay was projected to be among the top teams in the Eastern Conference. The Lightning’s struggled to find the net have been further augmented by Dwayne Roloson’s early. After rolling Carolina 5-1 to open the season, Tampa Bay has been held under three goals in three separate games. However, they have allowed over four, or more, goals in four of their seven games.

Despite their defensive shortcomings, Tampa Bay remains a dangerous opponent. Outside of the usual suspects (Lecavalier, St. Louis, Stamkos), the Lightning boast a number of offensive threats such as Ryan Malone, Teddy Purcell and Steve Downie (if he isn’t in the box). In fact, the make-up of the Tampa Bay roster is very similar to that of the Sabres. Tampa Bay is a deep team, capable of putting out multiple lines that can generate offense. They are equally lethal from the blue line.

What will ultimately tip the scales in either direction will be the play of the Tampa Bay goaltenders. Roloson, just months removed from a fantastic playoff run, is suddenly showing his age. Backup Mathieu Garon has always been a steady backup, but is typically inconsistent. Garon’s 1.93 GAA and .938 SV% far exceed Roloson’s bloated 5.09 GAA and .858 SV%.

Garon got his first win of the year on Thursday against the Islanders. I would expect Guy Boucher to go back to Garon as he has been the better goaltender early in the year. There is no reason to think Ryan Miller hasn’t warranted another start based on his past two performances. It seems fitting to hold onto Jhonas Enroth until Tuesday night at home.

Highlighted Matchup

Tyler Myers and Robyn Regehr vs. Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. The Sabres have created a formidable shut down pairing with Myers and Regehr. Even while his offensive game hasn’t been at all-star status, Myers has continued to cultivate the mean streak he found in the playoffs. The pairing will likely be tasked with keeping an eye on Tampa’s top two weapons who have combined for five goals and ten points on the year.

Projected Goaltenders

BUF: Ryan Miller 5 GP, 4-1-0, 1.61 GAA, .950 SV%

TB: Mathieu Garon 4GP, 1-1-1, 1.93 GAA, .938 SV%

2010-11 Season Series

11/20/2010, HSBC Arena, Sabres 1 – Lightning 2

12/18/2010, St. Pete Times Forum, Sabres 1 – Lightning 3

2/8/2011, St. Pete Times Forum, Sabres 7 – Lightning 4

4/5/2011, HSBC Arena, Sabres 4 – Lightning 2

2ITB NHL preview: The East

Another NHL season is upon us after a summer that was filled with more Buffalo hockey news than you could shake a stick at. The entire Eastern Conference saw a shake up over the summer and the conference could see a similar playoff race, with seeds 7-12 all within shouting distance of each other. I think the same playoff cast will return this season, but with a few minor changes: Continue reading

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Conference Finals recap

Better late than never. My stats got a major boost as I went two for two on my Conference Finals predictions. I really enjoyed the two series. I thought San Jose could give the Canucks more of a test, but Vancouver’s talent really came to play in the WCF. There was a long period of time when I thought the Lightning were going to steal that ECF from Boston. The Bruins managed to grind out the series victory, but it certainly wasn’t as easy as many expected.

#3 Boston Bruins defeat #5 Tampa Bay Lightning 4-3

This was quite the back and forth series as both teams received stellar and porous goaltending, from the same guys. Dwayne Roloson showed some serious signs of fatigue as he had carried Tampa through the first two rounds. He was pulled and replaced by Mike Smith. Smith kept the Bolts alive and ultimately it was the inability to score that killed Tampa, not goaltending. However, a few key saves would have closed the series in six, maybe even five games for Tampa. Continue reading