Boring hockey may be the Sabres temporary path to success
It won’t be fun, but the Sabres can survive the injuries at forward with some defensive hockey
The Buffalo Sabres are going to have to battle through some big injuries over the next month of the season. They’ll be without two of their best scoring wingers in Jeff Skinner and Victor Olofsson. Skinner will still be out at least another three weeks with the shoulder injury and Olofsson will be out five to six weeks with the ankle injury.
For a team that already has a hard time scoring goals, these injuries are only going to make it more difficult. The good news is that the All-Star break is coming up two weeks from yesterday. They’ll get a break of having a week without any games and could have Skinner back shortly after that time off.
Over the next two weeks, the Sabres can stay afloat and in the playoff race in the Eastern Conference. The catch to that is they will need likely need to play the type of hockey that isn’t the best to watch from an entertainment perspective. The game against the Florida Panthers over the weekend was the blueprint to how they’re going to have to win games.
They’re going to need their special teams to step up. Both the power play and penalty kill have had their struggles this season, which is one reason why the club has had their inconsistencies.
The power play will miss Olofsson, but they have enough talent to still be a strong unit. In fact, it may actually help them find more success with the man advantage. The unit was prone to attempting to force passes to Olofsson to unload his shot. At times, it resulted in turnovers or a slow-moving system that passed the puck around the outside. Now, the Sabres can still run the power play though Jack Eichel, but also a player like Sam Reinhart can become more of an impact.
On the penalty kill, they have help coming in the form of Michael Frolik. He’s been a strong penalty killer in the past and will be looking to prove he still can be an impact player at this point in his career.
They’ll also need to rely on their goaltending and in particular Linus Ullmark to play well over the next few weeks. Not only to help a struggling penalty kill but at 5 on 5 as well. He appears to have control of the crease as he’s started 13 of the last 14 games for the Sabres.
One thing that has got lost in this season is how the Sabres have improved their defensive game under Ralph Krueger. It has allowed them to win games in spite of their struggling offense. According to Evolving Hockey, the Sabres rank in the top 10 in the league in goals against, shot attempts against, and shot quality against at 5 on 5.
- Goals against per 60 - 2.32 (9th)
- Shot attempts against per 60 (CA) - 52.52 (7th)
- Shot quality against per 60 (xGA) - 2.24 (8th)/
They’ve actually improved their defensive game as the season has gone on. The chart below from Micah McCurdy shows how the team has got better defensively over the last 25 games in shot quality against.
Location-weighted shot rates; names show most recent 25 games; tails show first 25 games.— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) January 6, 2020
Tampa ascending; Vancouver plunging. pic.twitter.com/tqe0Fv8A5T
The Sabres are going to need to lean on their improved defense to continue to put together wins over the next few weeks. As I mentioned earlier, their performance against the Panthers on Saturday afternoon was the blueprint. They got up early on them and locked it down defensively. In the first two periods, the Sabres held the Panthers to 5 on 5 score and venue adjusted expected goals rating of 0.27 and 0.19 respectively, according to Natural Stat Trick. Some score effects helped the Panthers have a higher shot quality rating in the third period, but overall holding them to a 1.06 xGF in the game at 5 on 5 is a strong defensive performance.
Playing this style of hockey won’t be the most exciting thing to watch, but it may be the path to success until they get their scorers back. They’ll need to rely on their defensive system to stay in the games and score some timely goals.
Offensively they’ll lean heavily on Eichel and Reinhart to carry the load. However, they’ll also need secondary scoring from players like Marcus Johansson, Conor Sheary, Jimmy Vesey, and Frolik when he arrives.
The schedule ahead isn’t easy as they’ll play every other night over the next week and a half starting on Thursday in St. Louis. Four of those six games will be on the road as well. We’ll see if the Sabres can take a page out of the New York Islanders playbook and drag these next few games down into the mud.