For the first time this season, the Buffalo Sabres can accurately be described as “hot.” Heading into their NHL All-Star break, the Sabres are coming off a week where they swept a three-game Western Canada road trip.
This is the first time the Sabres have won three straight this season, and the first time they’ve achieved this feat since they did it almost exactly a year ago. Oddly enough, Buffalo got hot around the same time last season, with a three-game winning streak from January 20 – 24, 2017. That time, the wins came against Detroit, Montreal and Nashville.
Knock on wood, but following that three-game winning streak, the Sabres lost three straight.
The two-game shutout streak is also a solid accomplishment for the Sabres, and again, is something the team hasn’t managed in a while. Prior to this week, the last Sabres shutout came on October 24, 2017 against Detroit, a 1-0 win.
The last time the Sabres posted shutouts in back-to-back games was way back in the Ryan Miller era, when he did it on February 29 – March 1, 2012. Meanwhile, the team’s current shutout streak (173:30) is their longest in 15 years.
Chad Johnson had 32 saves in the win against Calgary; Robin Lehner put up a 33-save shutout against Edmonton the next night, then a 30-save shutout against Vancouver Thursday night. It’s the first time Lehner has recorded consecutive shutouts in his career, and it’s refreshing to see on a Buffalo team that’s struggled this season, including allowing 163 goals against.
So…. The question begs, what exactly happened over these last three games? Buffalo headed into this road trip coming off the miserable 7-1 loss to Dallas last Saturday, but instantly turned things around.
It certainly helps when your big-name players step up and produce. Over the three games, Jack Eichel registered a team-high five points, including a pair of goals. Sam Reinhart (2-2) and Rasmus Ristolainen (0-4) each registered four points. Ryan O’Reilly had two goals and an assist. Kyle Okposo had three points.
Those are the players you want to see stepping up, night in and night out, and they did that these last few games. Notably, Evander Kane was kept off the scoresheet the past three games, but with the other big names producing, it’s slightly less concerning at this point (albeit, still concerning.)
The Sabres also got secondary scoring from guys like newcomer Scott Wilson, who averaged a point per game, and Zemgus Girgensons, who had a goal. Nicholas Baptiste, Evan Rodrigues and Benoit Pouliot stepped up and produced, too.
Now the question is this: what happens going forward? Right when the Sabres are getting hot, they’re off for a few days, with their next game not until Tuesday. That also signals a return to KeyBank Center, so any road mojo they may have had will have to apply at home.
Of course these three wins don’t fix everything. The Sabres are still at the bottom of the NHL in terms of scoring, with just 114 goals in 49 games. Meanwhile, look at a team like the Lightning, who have 175 goals in 49 games.
Buffalo still has a dreadful minus-49 goal differential, second-worst in the league. They’re nowhere near .500 and have rough home and away records.
And the team’s chances at playoffs? Well, not zero, but not... good, either.
But the positives: Eichel is one point shy of 50 on the season; last year, he put up 57 points in 61 games, and should eclipse that mark this year. Kane and O’Reilly seem poised to hit the 40-point mark; it’s not out of reach for Okposo, either. Ristolainen could hit 30 points, which would still be solid despite being less than the 45 he had last season.
And while the Sabres have had their fair share of injury and sickness struggles, the team has seen, at least in part, a more consistent lineup than last season. In 2016-17, only captain Brian Gionta appeared in all 82 games.
Through 49 games this season, seven players haven’t missed a game: Eichel, Kane, Reinhart, Jason Pominville, Marco Scandella, Jake McCabe and Johan Larsson.
As the team gets its All-Star break, there’s no rest for Eichel, as he heads to Tampa for his first NHL All-Star Game. Before the Sabres get back to action Tuesday against the Devils, let’s enjoy the weekend and see what skills Eichel can showcase in front of the league-wide audience.