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Sabres approaching peak performance?

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Despite holding a record of 4-4-2 5-4-1 in their last 10 games, the numbers indicate that the Sabres are actually performing better than they did during their 10-game winning-streak

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Buffalo Sabres Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Standing two points out of a playoff birth with 26 games remaining, the Buffalo Sabres’ 10-game winning-streak that took place in November seems like a lifetime ago. For a brief moment, fans rejoiced as the team found itself with the top record in the NHL. Amid the success, some of the more data-savvy fans were quick to point out that, according to the underlying numbers, the team’s victorious run wasn’t sustainable.

As it turns out, the numbers didn’t lie (they rarely do), and Buffalo has since taken a nose-dive of sorts in the standings. The good news is that the same data references that some used to forecast their downfall, indicate that the boys in blue-and-gold are actually playing their best hockey of the season right now.

How can a team with a 4-4-2 5-4-1 in their last 10 games be hitting their peak, you ask? Let’s take a look.

If we turn the clocks back to November, you’ll see a team that posted a simultaneously high team shooting-percentage, and save-percentage. That, combined with some late-game heroics from the top line of Jeff Skinner, Jack Eichel, and Sam Reinhart, helped the Sabres win a lot of close games where in reality, they were out-performed by their opponents. We can see just how much they benefited from these two factors by the chart below. Notice how these metrics peaked during the 10-game run and have remained below-average since.

Most of you are probably thinking, “we already knew this, what’s your point?” Well, now we must compare the past and present PDO data with what we’re seeing from an expected-goals standpoint both then and now.

If you look back during the month of November, you’ll see a steady decline in the Sabres’ expected goal-differential. That coincides pretty directly with the PDO leap we saw above during the same stretch of time (probably not a coincidence that the Sabres won nine of their consecutive victories by just one goal).

Now compare that to what we’re seeing over the last 10 games. From a PDO standpoint, not much has changed since the streak ended. The team is still shooting (in terms of sheer conversion percentage) and stopping shots at a rate that is below the league average. The main difference is the peak that the team has hit in expected goals over the past ten games.

This trend may seem odd when you consider the fact that the team has scored 32 goals over their last 10 versus the 36 goals that they scored during the win streak. As outlined in our shot metric analysis article from last week, while the Sabres aren’t experiencing the same “puck luck” that resulted in the gaudy shooting-percentage spike from three months ago, they are actually getting themselves into more optimal shooting lanes while creating high-danger opportunities at a higher rate.

Now that we understand what the analytics tell us, two key questions come into play. The first thing we must assess is if what we’ve seen over the last 10 games or so is an aberration, or a sign of things to come.

This one is a little tricky. As evidenced in the aforementioned shot-metric article from earlier in the month, the individual improvement shown by developing (albeit in different contexts) players like Casey Mittelstadt and Evan Rodrigues is encouraging in and of itself. Phil Housley’s realization that Sam Reinhart is capable of catalyzing his own line (something a lot of fans suggested months ago, but we’ll spare you from your regularly scheduled coach-bashing), is also a step in the right direction.

What’s less encouraging is the continued inconsistent play of the Sabres’ defense. Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark’s respective strong performances early in the year helped create the illusion that the defense had vastly improved from last season. Once that duo came back down to earth, the flaws on the blue line were exposed (or perhaps realized) to a greater extent. Unfortunately, the defensive corps haven’t displayed the same growth and improvement trends that the forwards have, which leads us to the second big question mark moving forward - the goalies.

During the 10-game streak, Hutton and Ullmark combined to save 320 of the 344 shots they faced for an overall save-percentage of .930. To put that number in context, Robin Lehner, who leads the NHL in overall save-percentage holds a mark of .929.

Like it or not, the Sabres have essentially gone as far as their goaltenders have taken them this year. The good news is, since apparently taking possession of the primary starter role in Buffalo, Ullmark has been fantastic, posting a save-percentage of .960 or better in three of his last six starts. In his lone start last week against the Winnipeg Jets, Hutton did his part by stopping 26 of 28 shots-faced. Should this trend continue, it bodes well for the Sabres’ expected win ratio down the stretch. The defense is what it is at this point, and unless Housley magically finds the most optimal pairings sometime in the next eight weeks, the pressure will be on the netminders to help bail them out.

At the end of the day, the data shows us a tale of two teams. In November we saw a squad that was winning as a result of elite goaltending with limited offensive depth. Now that the offense appears to have hit its stride, the roles have been reversed to an extent. From a wins and losses perspective, the only difference we’re seeing is the absence of the “puck luck” that helped them emerge victorious in close games. It’s why some may not realize that their recent play is metrically better than it has been all season. In a strange way, the fact that five of their last six losses have only been by one goal (empty-net tallies excluded), is really encouraging.

It almost makes you wonder if fans would be happier right now had the team had finished November with a record of 5-5 instead of 10-0. Instead of the perhaps inaccurate notion that the team is regressing, fans might be more receptive to the reality that the Sabres are actually hitting their performance peak right now.

In terms of the team’s playoff hopes, supporters should feel encouraged, but maybe not optimistic (yet). The Eastern Conference is a little more crowded in the middle than it appeared to be early on, and teams like the Carolina Hurricanes and Montreal Canadiens seem to have hit their stride.

Hopefully a team like the Washington Capitals will begin to fall-off in the not-so-distant future, if their record starts matching their shoddy metrics. All year long, they’ve benefited from obscenely high PDO marks while their expected goals have been less-than great. The fact that they currently hold a record of 31-19-7 is pretty incredible, given what the data tells us.

Speculation is fun, but nothing anyone else does really matters if the Sabres regress back into the team that posted a record of 8-12-3 in the months of December and January. The key to everything from here on out is consistency. Either way, sit back, relax and enjoy the fact that it’s the middle of February and Sabres fans have rooting interests that don’t involve the draft lottery.