For a Buffalo Sabres team that is currently clinging to a three-point lead for the third slot in the Atlantic Division, the holiday break couldn’t have come at a better time. After playing six games in the past nine days prior to December 23, they’ll look to re-energize and regroup ahead of a critical stretch of games to close out December and welcome the new year.
In terms of overall Wild Card standing, the Sabres have a seven-point cushion over the first team on the outside looking in, the New York Islanders, who do have two games in hand. At the beginning of the year, most if not all fans of the blue-and-gold would have been thrilled if you told them that the team would hold a record of 21-11-5 at this point in the 2018-19 campaign. They’re in a good spot for now, but there is an awful lot of work to be done as they vie for their first playoff birth since 2010-11.
First, let’s examine the strength of their opponents to close out the calendar year. Two days after Christmas, the Sabres will travel to St. Louis to square-off with a team that has a few familiar faces. Former Sabres Ryan O’Reilly, Jordan Nolan, and blast from the past, defenseman Chris Butler are all members of a starting lineup that has only shown marginal improvement since the organization relieved Mike Yeo of his duties behind the bench. Since Yeo’s ousting, the Blues have gone 7-7-1 and remain seven points out of a playoff spot in the West.
Buffalo will need to secure two points in St. Louis, as things only get more difficult from there. In the four games that follow their tilt with the Blues, Buffalo will play the Islanders, Florida Panthers, and Boston Bruins twice.
With Boston nipping at their heels in the standings, two games that represent a four-point swing will be critical. In their last meeting, the Sabres avenged a 4-0 loss on home ice to open the season by beating the Bruins on the road by a score of 4-2 in a matchup that had a playoff type of feeling to it. After recently regaining a handful of key players who had previously been sidelined with injuries (the most notable of which is franchise center, Patrice Bergeron), the Bruins have won three of their last four contests.
The game against the Islanders is also significant since, as previously mentioned, they are still very much a contender in the Eastern Conference Wild Card race, and currently represent the most significant threat to the Sabres’ playoff aspirations this season.
Florida, a team who has bested Buffalo seven-consecutive times won’t be an easy win either. Last season, the Panthers won 18 of their last 25 games to get themselves within one point of a playoff spot after holding a record of 15-16-5 at the holiday break. At 15-14-6, their record is nearly identical and a late-season push could once again put them in the playoff picture.
Long story short, the Sabres are far from out of the woods at this point and what they do over the next five games could set the tone for the remainder of the season. So, what needs to happen in order for them to be successful moving forward?
At the risk of beating this dead horse any further, depth scoring remains a glaring issue. Aside from Conor Sheary’s empty-net goal against the Ducks on Saturday evening, the Sabres haven’t had a goal come from one of their middle-six forwards since Casey Mittelstadt and Evan Rodrigues both converted against the Arizona Coyotes on 12/13. In the five games that they’ve played since, a vast majority of the offense has come courtesy of Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Jeff Skinner, with some help from the fourth line sprinkled in. Kyle Okposo hasn’t scored a goal in 19 games, and before his aforementioned empty-net goal this past weekend, Sheary was in the midst of a 16-game scoring drought himself.
That’s just not going to cut it, but what’s the solution? Jason Botterill could elect to try and shake things up by infusing a Rochester Amerk (or two) into his lineup. Players like Alex Nylander, Victor Olofsson, C.J. Smith and Danny O’Regan have all made cases for a look with the big club, but let’s be honest, none of them are going to magically fix the team’s depth-scoring woes.
With Patrik Berglund’s cap hit coming off the books, the organization’s trade possibilities have expanded a bit with a little extra cap room. Perhaps there is a deal to be made for a scoring presence that wouldn’t cost Botterill one of his four first round picks over the next two years. In what was always going to be a development year, it would be unwise to start selling significant futures in pursuit of a deep playoff push this season, unless of course he could find a way to pry a player like Vladimir Tarasenko, Kevin Hayes or even Charlie Coyle away from their current squads.
One way or another, inaction is the least desirable outcome. It’s been established that the current combination of forwards on the second and third line simply aren’t putting things together.
On a brighter note, the Sabres certainly look like an improved group on the back-end in the two games since regaining several key players on the blue line. Since Jake McCabe (a player who was probably the biggest loss on defense amid a myriad of injuries) returned to action, the regained cohesion on the back-end has been noticeable. The defense did an excellent job of limiting the Washington Capitals high-octane attack despite a 2-1 loss on Friday, a game where they allowed very few high-danger chances (five to be exact).
They had similar success against the Ducks the following night, where Anaheim was held scoreless despite registering 40 shots on goal. That trend will need to continue, especially if the depth scoring issues remain unresolved prior to the trade deadline.
Buckle up, Sabres fans. How the team performs in this next stretch of games could very well hold massive implications at the end of the season. So, enjoy the holidays, and get ready for some very exciting hockey as we enter the new year.
Shot Heat Map Courtesy of Natural Stat Trick