Sabres Hold Off Golden Knights, Help Oust Gallant
Before I get started I’d like to thank both Eklund and Eric for giving me the opportunity to write about the Sabres here. I know Michael Pachla left big shoes to fill so I’m hoping sharing the same first name is at least a good start.
The Buffalo Sabres were able to fend off the Vegas Golden Knights last night and for the second time this year, managed to get an opposing teams coach fired after the game (more on that later).
The Golden Knights opened the scoring just under two minutes into the second period when Chandler Stephenson went inside out on Rasmus Dahlin to create a partial 2-on-1 chance. His pass would end up going off of Tomas Nosek’s skate and past Ullmark. It’s not the first time we’ve seen Dahlin get beat like this near the blue line but the 19 year old defenseman will learn.
The Sabres managed to tie things up roughly four and a half minutes later thanks to some hard work in the offensive zone. Conor Sheary went in strong against William Karlsson without taking a penalty, forcing the puck loose. Sam Reinhart would eventually recover the puck setting up Kyle Okposo for the power play goal, tying the game at 1.
The power play would pay off again for the Sabres in the dying seconds of the period as Jack Eichel would find Rasmus Ristolainen down low, who in turn found Sam Reinhart unmarked in the slot. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury had no chance on Reinhart’s top corner shot, and the Sabres would take a 2-1 lead into the third period.
The Golden Knights would equalize with a power play goal of their own as Reilly Smith found some space down the right-hand side and beat Ullmark blocker side.
Per moneypuck.com, this shot had an expected goals value of 44.2%, so it wasn’t a nothing shot but as the old saying goes, your goalie has to be your best penalty killer. Ullmark appears to be square to the shooter, and there’s nobody screening him. Credit to Smith, it was a good shot, but ideally, you’d like your goalie to make the save there.
With just under eight minutes to go, as we were all probably expecting the collapse to come, we were reminded of why we still watch.
This goal is absolutely wonderful on so many levels. Eichel walks Shea Theodore and then punishes Fleury for trying to play the pass by beating him with a quick wrist shot in tight. Fleury probably guessed a bit too early, but the hands in tight and reaction time from Eichel to make the adjustment make this a really nice goal, but it’s not even the best part.
The entire sequence starts back in the Sabres end of the ice. Eichel and Reinhart execute a perfect give and go zone exit, trapping three knights down low, which springs Eichel and Girgensons for the 2-on-1. This sort of exit isn’t without risk, but it’s the kind of risk the Sabres should be taking more often, especially with Eichel on the ice. We know they aren’t a strong offensive team, but they’ve got some great puck movers and if you get the out on the ice at the same time, why not take advantage of that?
Curtis Lazar would go on to add an empty netter in the final minute, giving the Sabres a 4-2 win and their second win in a row.
Notes from the game:
Penalty calling in the NHL continues to be rather perplexing and last night’s game was another example of it. Max Pacioretty levels Ristolainen (who had the puck) with a clean hit and is called for interference. If that wasn’t bad enough however, in the final minutes of third Jonathan Marchessault and Johan Larsson got into a bit of a battle in the Sabres end, which led to Marchessault decking Larsson without the puck.
This should’ve been an interference call but game management and all, the referee’s let this go and then continued to let a couple more penalties go on either side until play stopped. Fortunately, the Sabres weren’t scored on during that sequence because the play should’ve stopped after the original and hysterically obvious interference penalty. It might just be me, but I really feel as though this sort of play calling has gotten significantly worse this year.
The Sabres went with seven defensemen last night so you can imagine my surprise when Jake McCabe and Brandon Montour got the lion’s share of ice time in an attempt to hold the lead. I don’t have a problem with the pairing. In fact, McCabe and Montour have sported an impressively low 1.55 expected goals against per 60 minutes when paired together.
The core issue is that throughout the whole third period even while the game was tied, head coach Ralph Krueger insisted on shorting his bench on the defensive side. Dahlin had just three shifts in the third and a grand total of 1:47 of ice time at 5-on-5. As a result, that pairing, and in particular Montour (who had 8 shifts), were absolutely gassed by the end of the game. The Knights had the Sabres under siege in those final minutes and perhaps were a bit unlucky to not get a goal out of it.
Again, I have no issue with Krueger leaning on the McCabe-Montour pairing, but he leaned way too hard and in tie game scenario, it doesn’t seem like the optimal strategy to leave one of your best creators on the bench. Especially when he was creating plays like this:
Golden Knights fire Gerard Gallant:
The move to fire Gallant even after losing their fourth straight is a bit of a head scratcher. The Golden Knights are still well in the playoff race and Gallant has overall had them playing some pretty good hockey.
5v5 XGF: 106.93 (1st)
5v5 XGA: 88.05(21st)
5v5 CF%: 53.59% (3rd)
The Knights have been well above league average offensively in generating shot attempts and are tops in expected goals for at 5-on-5. As you’ve probably noticed they do give up quite a few high danger chances, but with an offense as good as theirs and Fleury in net they likely would have outpaced those chances against. At any rate, changing that would likely require a trade more than a coaching change.
It’s hard to make any educated guesses without knowing what may have happened off the ice (i.e have the players grown tired of him?). However, the NHL is very much a copycat league so it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Vegas is hoping for some kind of St Louis Blues like run to come from their mid-season coaching change. The numbers suggest that’s unlikely but it will be interesting to watch moving forward.
Thanks for Reading!
Ek's note: Michael comes to hockeybuzz with an in-depth knowledge of the Sabres. As a former hockey player and now avid proponent of analytics, Michael brings a good mix between the "eye test" and the numbers. Prior to joining Hockeybuzz, Michael covered the Sabres for the Buffalo Star.