The Buffalo Sabres are limping into Edmonton at the end of their three-game Western Canadian road trip for a match with the Oilers. Here are your game day notes.
1. With the Carolina Hurricanes having a breakout season last year that resulted in them reaching the Eastern Conference Finals, the Buffalo Sabres now own the NHL’s longest playoff drought. Fans in Buffalo haven’t seen playoff hockey since the beginning of the decade as the Sabres’ drought has lasted for eight seasons. Their last playoff appearance came in 2011 when a team led by Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller lost in the first round to the Philadelphia Flyers. It’s been a long, painful decade in Buffalo.
2. It feels like ages ago since the Sabres were a contending team. Buffalo made back-to-back trips to the Eastern Conference Final in 2006 and 2007 but lost to Carolina and Ottawa respectively. After those runs, Chris Drury and Daniel Briere left in free agency and the Sabres haven’t been the same since. The team also nearly lost Vanek that same off-season, as Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe fielded him an offer sheet that would have resulted in Edmonton sending four first-round picks to Buffalo, but the Sabres opted to match it.
3. Since then, Buffalo made the playoffs twice, but got bounced in the first round both times. After narrowly missing out in 2012 and 2013, the Sabres dove head-first into a rebuild. They tanked in 2014, ending up with Sam Reinhart at the draft with the second-overall pick. The Sabres tanked hard during the 2014-15 season in order to give themselves the best chance at winning the Connor McDavid Sweepstakes. They finished with a 23-51-8 record, good for dead last in the league, but, as we know, the 28th placed Oilers ended up having their ticket drawn. While the Sabres didn’t get the top prize, they got themselves a pretty great consolation prize in Jack Eichel, who would have been the first-overall pick in pretty much any other year.
4. While Eichel is excellent and 2018 first-overall pick Rasmus Dahlin is already looking like a top-pairing defenceman, the Sabres weren’t able to convert on many other picks during their tanking years. Sam Reinhart is a solid player, but I would say they messed up pretty badly in 2014, leaving a certain German forward on the table. 2016 eighth-overall pick Alex Nylander was dealt away this summer, 2017 eighth-overall pick Casey Mittelstadt has struggled mightily, and virtually none of their later picks have developed into NHL contributors. A few later picks who did pan out into solid players, Nikita Zadorov and J.T. Compher, were traded to Colorado for Ryan O’Reilly, who the Sabres later flipped for virtually nothing. O’Reilly went on to win the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy in his first season in St. Louis.
5. I’ve always kind of thought of the Sabres as Oilers East because of the way these two teams are connected. Heartbreaking playoff losses right after the lockout, exodus of key players shortly after, the Vanek offer sheet, an attempt to rise from middling mediocrity through tanking, two different Decades of Darkness, the McDavid lottery, and a struggle to rise back into relevance. Fans of the Sabres and Oilers have had a strangely similar experience since the 2004-05 lockout.
6. So far this year, the Sabres have proved to be a middle-of-the-pack team that could possibly squeeze into the playoffs. They own a 13-11-6 record, putting them in a tie for third in the Atlantic Division with Toronto and Montreal. While the Bruins are running away with the division and the Red Wings look like they might struggle to win 10 games this season, the other six teams in the middle are separated by just eight points.
7. The biggest reason the Sabres are battling for a playoff spot right now has been Jack Eichel. Through 30 games, Eichel has 18 goals and 41 points, putting him on pace to shatter his career-high in both categories. The team’s top line, which consists of Eichel, Reinhart, and Victor Olofsson, has scored 41 of the team’s 92 goals so far. Jeff Skinner has 11 goals, but, otherwise, the Sabres don’t have much of a punch offensively after their top line.
8. Buffalo’s defence and goaltending remain the team’s biggest weakness. The Sabres rank 22nd in the league in goals against and their goalies, Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark, have a combined .906 save percentage so far. Hutton allowed six goals on 30 shots yesterday in Vancouver, so the Oilers will face Ullmark tonight.
9. Tonight’s game will mark the return of Ralph Kreuger to Edmonton. The story with Kreuger and the Oilers was an ugly one. He coached the team for the lockout-shortened 2013 season, seemed to have the team slowly turning a corner, and then got fired over Skype in order to open up room for Dallas Eakins. We’ll also see Eakins make his return to Edmonton in March.
10. It looks like both Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Zack Kassian are ready to return to the lineup tonight, which is a huge boost for the Oilers. Nugent-Hopkins injured his hand in the team’s win against Vegas a couple of weeks ago. The Oilers managed to grind out a 3-3 record while he was on the shelf, but clearly missed his presence in the lineup. Without him, the Oilers are forced to split McDavid and Draisaitl, which is never ideal.
11. The Sabres are on the tail end of their Western Canadian road trip. They lost in Calgary on Thursday and Vancouver on Saturday, so this is an important game for the Oilers to win. After this, the schedule will get tougher in the next few weeks, as the Oilers will face Carolina, Minnesota, Toronto, Dallas, and St. Louis. You have to capitalize in games like this.
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