The Buffalo Sabres have reached their bye week and All-Star break portion of the schedule. They sit four points out of a playoff spot entering play tonight. Only 55 days ago they were atop the NHL standings and nine points clear of a playoff position.
It’s time for the club and fans to reset over what will end up being an 11 day stretch with no games. They have an important stretch of games coming up that Anthony Sciandra laid out the importance of yesterday on this site.
The way this season has evolved over the last month and a half is wild. They’ve gone from the top of the mountain to out of the postseason picture in such a short period of time.
We’ve discussed how this has could have happened with the coaching decisions, secondary scoring, and a roster playing at their realistic level. While those topics are all relevant as part of the story of this collapse in the last 23 games; there are two things that stand out to me.
The goaltending regressing back to average may be at the top of the list of the reasons why the Sabres have tumbled down the standings.
Over the first 25 games of the season, Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton combined for a .928 save percentage. Over the last 23 games of the season, they’ve combined for .900 save percentage.
Hutton, in particular, has dropped off significantly. He produced a .929 save percentage over the first 25 games of the season and a .893 save percentage over the last 23.
Early in the season, Hutton was a big part in winning games for the Sabres or at the very least getting them to overtime with an opportunity to win. From December on he’s struggled with some soft goals and a bad case of luck more recently.
The Sabres have done better reducing their shots against at 5 on 5 over the last few weeks, but not getting that key save from their goaltender in timely situations (combined with bad turnovers) has continued to allow the losses to pile up.
Throughout an 82-game season, you’re going to see ups and downs in certain areas of the game and goaltending falls into that category. Good teams are able to stay afloat and continue to win games with other areas of their team stepping up.
One such area would be special teams. Unfortunately for the Sabres, the power play struggles have gone hand in hand with the goaltending issues. They have 25 goals with the man advantage this season and 16 of those goals came over the first 25 games of the season. Meaning they’ve scored nine power play goals over the last 23.
While they continue to get opportunities on the power play according to various analytical metrics (you can read about that here from Ryan Stimson of The Athletic) they haven’t been able to put the puck in the net consistently.
They’re the type of team that doesn’t have enough talent to overcome the small errors within a game. The Sabres play a lot of close games and one play can be the margin in victory or defeat.
So far this season, 25 of their games (52 percent) have been decided by one goal. In the first 25 games of the season they were 10-0-2 in games decided by a goal. With the power play and goaltending falling off in the last 23 games they’re 3-6-4 in one goal games.
The 5 on 5 numbers show an uptick in their shooting rate and expected goals rolling average over the last few weeks. Those numbers forecast a positive outlook of more wins on the horizon and a reason for optimism.
However, if they can’t get an improvement in the aforementioned areas we’ll continue to see the losses in close games pile up. It’s hard to find a way for the Sabres to get themselves back in the playoffs discussion without a rebound in at least their goaltending or power play efficiency.
Source: Charts via Sean Tierney