By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
We’ve just passed the midpoint of the National Hockey League schedule, and it’s been quite a ride for the Buffalo Sabres . They have had long winning streaks and severe slumps already in 2019-20. This has led to “Jekyll and Hyde” reactions from the fans, depending on whether the team is going good or bad.
Maybe we need to look at the bigger picture. Where are the Sabres just past the midpoint of the season’s schedule? The answer is – more or less about where we expected them to be this season.
Here’s one way of looking at the results so far (through Saturday morning, since I wanted to see some football later). Since 16 of the 31 teams qualify for the playoffs, it’s logical to assume that a team needs to have a winning record to have a good shot at the postseason. I consider overtime losses as losses in this part of the argument, since there is so much luck involved in such results and they tend to even out over time.
Entering Saturday’s games, there were nine teams that had more wins than losses (counting all types of defeats in the Eastern Conference: Washington, Boston, the Islanders, Pittsburgh, Toronto, Carolina, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, and Florida. The Sabres checked in at 18-17-7, behind the nine teams with “winning” records as well as Columbus. That translates to 18 wins and 24 losses by Buffalo. Isn’t that percentage about where most of us thought back in October where the Sabres would be at the end of the season?
More importantly, what teams of the top nine do you think the Sabres could catch and reach a playoff spot in the second half? They need to pass two. Carolina, Philadelphia and Florida probably are the weakest teams. Remember that the Sabres entered Saturday’s game at six games under.500, so it’s going to take a good-sized winning streak to get to the breakeven point. And that’s not going to be easy, especially with Jeff Skinner and Victor Olofsson gone for good-sized stretches of the second half.
We’ve seen Jack Eichel take a nice step forward so far this season, and others such as Olofsson and Linus Ullmark make an impact. There have been some disappointments of course, and a little more consistency would be nice. I know it’s hard to be patient after the past decade. But overall, the Sabres are on schedule to be somewhat better this season.
By the way, seven teams in the West had winning records as of Saturday: St. Louis, Colorado, Dallas, Vegas, Arizona, Vancouver and Winnipeg. Calgary is eighth, but only a game under the .500 mark.
If you are curious, only two teams that did not have a winning record on the morning of January 4, 2019, went on to make the playoffs: Carolina and St. Louis. So the Sabres’ task looks to be difficult from this vantage point, but not impossible.
As for the game …
Then again, they moved closer to the .500 mark on Saturday afternoon with a 3-2 win over the Florida Panthers – one of those winning teams above them.
Buffalo did a few things right in this one in earning its second straight win. The Sabres built up a 3-0 less than 26 minutes into the game, and from there it was a matter of holding on for the victory. It was one of those games when the Sabres capitalized on their scoring opportunities, while the Panthers didn’t.
Conor Sheary continued his run of good play with a goal. He and Marcus Johansson have been creating some chances together – a vital piece of the puzzle as the team tries to cope with long-term injuries to Jeff Skinner and Victor Olofsson.
“There are lots of guys getting a little extra role with all of the unfortunate injuries,” Sheary said. “When we can step up and provide some offensive, it’s important. We’re getting scoring from the whole lineup.”
“I feel good,” Johansson said. “I think we played a good game, and I’m starting to feel like myself again. It’s fun to be out there.”
The story of special teams tilted in the Sabres’ way this time too. Buffalo was 1 for 3 with the extra man (Sam Reinhart with the goal), while Florida went 0 for 4.
“The penalty-killing did a good job tonight,” coach Ralph Krueger said. “Linus is of course your most important penalty-killer. The group in front of him worked hard. You can see some confidence growing, and we’ll try to continue to develop that. Power plays, we were getting that hunger to shoot tonight. There was Sam’s goal, and then in the ensuing power play there was a hunger to shoot that we haven’t seen for a while. We need to build on that. Our specialty teams were the catalyst for what happened tonight.”
The Sabres couldn’t complain about much until the final 10 minutes of the game. That’s when the Panthers got their two goals, and almost tied it on a shot from the left side by Jonathan Huberdeau that went just wide.
“Sometimes it’s hard to play with a lead like that,” Sheary said. “We did a good job of limiting their chances. They got a lift off the bounce that led to the first goal. Overall, it was a good game.”
After the game, the Sabres were all in a hurry to get somewhere and watch another part of One Buffalo, the Bills, take part in a playoff game. The hockey guys probably have noticed that they can relax because they don’t have to play a game until Thursday (in St. Louis). The Sabres have been going full tilt since November and the overseas trip.
“I’m already worried about that (the break),” Krueger said. “We can feel the pace since Sweden. To have a break will be nice. It’s well deserved and necessary.’
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)