This 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres season has been many things, but frustrating is one word that comes immediately to mind. Between injuries, blown leads, injuries, coaching questions, injuries, and another season that will end without reaching the playoffs, some fans might be thinking about tuning out these final seven games.
But fear not, intrepid Sabres supporters, for we have gathered together seven things to watch for during the final Sabres game of the year. And in no particular order, they are...
1. Can Jack Eichel can keep up his torrid scoring pace?
Since Feb. 4, Eichel has 32 points in 25 games, which is as good as anybody in the league, and we mean anybody. If he can keep this pace up until the season finale, that would give him about 40% of a full season as one of the league's top scoring players. And that's coming off of an ankle injury that left the 20-year old Eichel less than 100% upon his return. If Jack did all that this year, what could he do next year if he plays 82 games fully healthy?
2. How will the defense respond without having Rasmus Ristolainen to lean on for two more games?
Rasmus Ristolainen has been the crutch holding up the broken body that has been the Sabres defense this season, and the team will be without him for three games thanks to his recent suspension. The Sabres #1 defenseman was averaging almost 27 minutes a night, and was a key player on special teams as well. With his absence, players like Jake McCabe, Zach Bogosian, and Justin Falk will get a chance to step up and show they can handle the added responsibility. It could also be Brady Austin's audition for a role on the team next year. Whether they sink or swim, it'll certainly give us something to chew on this offseason.
3. Can the Sabres can finish the season with the league's #1 power play?
There hasn't been too much to be proud of this season if you're a Sabres fan, but having the league's #1 power play would give this disappointing meal a slightly better taste when it's all said and done. As of right now, Buffalo is leading the league at 24.5%, with Toronto on their heels at 23.7%. These two teams are a full percentage point ahead of third place Edmonton, so it's likely a two-horse race to the finish.
4. Will we see more of O'Reilly playing on Eichel's wing, or Sam Reinhart at center?
After a few games that featured a drastically different lineup consisting of O'Reilly playing wing for Eichel while Sam Reinhart took his spot at center, Sabres coach Dan Bylsma went back to more familiar combinations when Kyle Okposo returned to the lineup. Figuring out how to get the most out of his best players during this final stretch, even if it means unconventional pairings, will be big for Bylsma heading in to the offseason
5. Will anything happen that could impact Bylsma's future in Buffalo?
Speaking of the Sabres head coach, will we see anything that will immediately impact his future with the organization, either positive or negative, during this final stretch? A complete collapse like the one we saw earlier in the month or an impressive winning streak might influence the GM, or owners, opinions on what will be a very important decision before the start of next season - does Bylsma deserve another year with a (hopefully) healthier, better team, or do they need to move in a different direction?
6. Which young player will make his case that he deserves a bigger role next year?
The Sabres have seen a number of call-ups and fill-ins contribute this season, from Justin Bailey to Brendan Guhle, to Hudson Fasching, among others. Currently the team has William Carrier, Evan Rodrigues, and Brady Austin in the lineup, but they may give a few more "show-me" games to younger players with the season all but over. Who will stand out and show that they can not only play at the next level, but contribute?
7. How will we remember this season?
When we look back on the 2016-17 Sabres season a few months, or years, from now, how will we remember it? Will it be the season derailed by injuries? Jack Eichel's coming out party as a superstar in the league? The season that showed Tim Murray or the Pegulas that major changes (like new management) were needed? Or simply a sometimes fun, often frustrating season that ultimate was another failure in a long string of Buffalo sports failures?
Let us know what you'll be watching for, or what you think about these questions in the comments below.