By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The calendar flips to 2019 at midnight, and it will be time for Jason Botterill to start to earn this year’s salary.
He’s done an admirable job with the Buffalo Sabres roster so far. This was a team that finished last overall in 2017-18, and turned it into a playoff contender – quite an achievement. But all of that is so 2018. He has a bunch of decisions to make in the coming weeks, and perhaps the biggest centers around one question.
How much does it mean to the Buffalo Sabres to make the playoffs?
Let’s take a look at the standings going into New Year’s Eve. There were nine teams with at least 44 points entering Monday’s games in the East – Tampa Bay, Toronto, Washington, Buffalo, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Montreal, and the New York Islanders. Not so coincidentally, those are the nine teams that are above .500. The others would need to get hot to join them – possible, but difficult. History tells us that it’s tough to move into a playoff spot when you more than a few points out of a spot this far into the season.
If I had to pick teams that might be likely candidates to drop off in the second half of the season, mostly based on preseason perceptions, I would pick the Sabres, Islanders and Canadiens. Which of those teams are likely to make some moves in order to improve the present roster?
The Islanders have a new management team in place, and they are playing most of the games in the Nassau Coliseum again. You’d think that a playoff spot would make the franchise more relevant on Long Island, especially after the team lost star player John Tavares to Toronto last summer. The Canadiens are the Canadiens, and there’s always pressure to win in Montreal. Both of them, then, are liable to make some phone calls before the deadline.
The Sabres could do something in the weeks to come, and they could justify it. Buffalo hasn’t been in the postseason since 2011, and it would be nice to see the building used in April for a change. Money always matters. They also have future assets that could be moved for player rentals, such as extra draft choices, and their current roster is a little thin on NHL talent – particularly when it comes to scoring (more on that in a moment).
Even so, the Sabres’ fan base probably is quite satisfied by the progress the team has made. There might not be too much pressure to sacrifice more of the future just for the chance to lose in the first round. In other words, why mess up the long-term plan after substantial progress has been made already? Yet expectations around town turned high after the 10-game winning streak, and it might be deflating not to try to take that optimism to a postseason conclusion.
That’s the situation as we enter 2019, a new phase in Sabre history. It’s been a fun first half of the season because we never saw it coming. Chances are we won’t be able to predict the exact chain of events in the second half either, but Botterill will be asked to try if the team doesn’t recover its November magic soon and react in some manner. We’ll see how much fun that turns out to be.
The Sabres’ story on Monday night at the KeyBank Center was a familiar one by recent standards, even if it featured a twist. Buffalo played rather well, especially in the third period, but couldn’t score enough goals. It led to a 3-1 loss to the New York Islanders before a sellout crowd.
That’s five losses in six games, one of the worst stretches of the almost-half-completed season. (Buffalo had a five-game losing streak in late November/early December.)
The twist centers on the status of Jack Eichel, who only played two minutes and 42 seconds of the first period before leaving for the night because of what was described as an upper-body injury.
“I don’t think it will keep him out very long,” said coach Phil Housley, who added that he had not received a medical update after the game.
That’s obviously a big loss to the lineup, and caused all sorts of juggling on the lines. Since Buffalo still had 40 shots in the game, you’d have to say the team worked hard to make up for the loss.
“Obviously losing him hurts,” Tage Thompson said. “He’s our captain and arguably our best player. It put a hole in our lineup for sure. But we played solid defense and played hard even when he went down. We gave it our best effort.”
Still, the team couldn’t put the puck in the net enough. Kyle Okposo was the exception, ending a drought with a power-play goal in the third period that got the crowd involved. But there was no sequel despite a 13-3 edge in shots. An empty-netter that crawled over the goal line wrapped up the win for the Islanders and their goalie, ex-Sabre Robin Lehner.
The Sabres have scored a total of 10 goals in those last six games. Yes, it’s hard to win that way.
“It happens – sometimes the bounces don’t go your way, and pucks don’t go in,” Thompson said. “You have to stay positive and keep playing hard.”
The Sabres thus finished 2018 with a 21-13-6 record. The 2019 portion of the schedule begins on Thursday against visiting Florida.
In the meantime, Happy New Year.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)