Last night's 2-1 loss in Boston was much uglier than the final score would indicate and there's just no way of getting around it. The Bruins came out hard and determined on the puck and the deer-in-headlights Sabres had no answer. When they wanted to play, Boston controlled every facet of the game and at one point in a completely one-sided second period, the Bruins outshot the Sabres 14-3 and spent most of the first 15 minutes inside Buffalo's zone.
This Sabres team didn't know what to do last night and it showed just how bad they could be without their leader, Jack Eichel, while also showing just how much weight he was carrying.
Buffalo went into Boston tied with the Bruins for third place in the Atlantic division, but on the outside looking in because of having less regulation/overtime wins. The game represented a four-point swing to the winner and the Sabres looked frightened. They were flat-footed and slow to the puck, showed no energy and even less puck-support, cheated up ice and generally looked like some of the worst this franchise had to offer over the last five seasons.
Their top line was ineffective save for Jeff Skinner who worked hard to create multiple chances for himself but couldn't put one past Boston goalie Tuuka Rask, and we also found out that Evan Rodrigues should be no where near a top-line center role. Those who came to play up-front in Eichel's absence included Johan Larsson and...props should go out to Tage Thompson for his stickwork and stick-to-itiveness and to C.J. Smith who, along with Larsson, carried the weight of Buffalo's best line last night.
As for the rest? You can have 'em.
For as lopsided as the scoring chances (36.73%) and high-danger shots (24.32%) against the Sabres were, it's hard to pin this one on the defense (save for one instance) or especially goaltending. Linus Ullmark was strong in net and must have had flashbacks to his 2016-17 season in Rochester when he faced the most shots in the AHL (1,678) by a wide margin (145) over his next closest competitor. If it weren't in Boston where homerism reigns supreme, Ullmark may have been named third star of the game as he allowed only two goals on 41 shots in a game that could easily have been 5-1. (One Boston goal did get called back because of obvious goaltender interference and I think I can still hear the Bruins play-by-play team whining about it.)
The one gaffe on defense came from 18 yr. old rookie Rasmus Dahlin who was a bit too lackadaisical while cutting in front of his own net and had the puck jump over his stick, which led to Boston's first goal. Dahlin, obviously, is still learning the game and for as much incredible skill and skating as he displays, one of the things that gets him into trouble is puck management. In situations like that, and while under pressure in any zone, he needs to bare down a little bit more as the North American rink is smaller, the NHL checking tighter and the ice surface can be anything but smooth.
Buffalo's defense tried to hold their own with a forward group that seemed to have no interest in playing, at least through the first 35 minutes or so. Zach Bogosian showed some aggression in his play and Rasmus Ristolainen came to play. Ristolainen got jostled around and fell to the ice early in the game while crashing the Boston net but he would score Buffalo's lone goal on a wrister that beat Rask late in the third period. Gotta love his demeanor after the goal as there was no overt celebration while knowing his team had sucked most of the game and still had 2:38 to play.
No doubt we were spoiled by the 10-game winning streak earlier in November and if you didn't notice prior to his absence, Eichel was carrying a lot of the weight this season, especially in the forward ranks. The holes on this team are large and ever expansive without him in the lineup and it shows just how far this team has to go to distance themselves from the tank years and the subsequent rebuild. Both the Sabres and the Rochester Americans have been stabilized and are showing the propensity to play good, competitive hockey on a nightly basis with the Amerks still clinging to the division lead. But there's still a talent gap up and down the organization that will take time to fill. In Buffalo, Eichel covered for a lot of that discrepancy with his skill and leadership. He makes the entire team better when he's on the ice and gives them the confidence and a belief that they can beat any team. Last night without him, in a big divisional game, it wasn't there at all and they looked like a bottom-five team.
Post-game calls by fans on social media for the Sabres to recall players from the Amerks is wasted energy. After the loss last night social media was begging for Buffalo GM Jason Botterill to call up some players to spark his NHL club, yet the only Rochester players worth calling up are already with the team. Defenseman Lawrence Pilut has been in Buffalo since the end of November and he's playing like he won't be going back any time soon while Smith was a recent recall and he's done what's been asked of him in a bottom-six role.
Both Pilut, who was tied for third in the AHL in scoring (22 points) when he got the call to Buffalo on November 27 and Smith, who was tied for the team lead in scoring (29 points) before his call-up on New Years Eve, earned their promotion with consistent, mostly stellar play at the AHL-level. What's left in Rochester is a small group of players that have shown flashes of their high skill-level but have yet to make the impact that those two had made, at least on a consistent basis.
The two names most frequently mentioned are wingers Victor Olofsson and Alexander Nylander, two highly skilled players who've shown spurts of upper-level talent but are still learning how to put their game together at the AHL-level. Sure, the middle-six in Buffalo can use an influx of skill and talent, but those two are still developing and keeping them there is the right thing to do.
Despite the huge hole Buffalo has in the middle-six right now, Botterill and Co. won't rush players into situations they're not ready for. If it takes a difficult season where his Sabres miss the playoffs despite the 10-game winning streak then, much to the consternation of many in Sabreland, so be it. This isn't to say that Botterill doesn't have a trade or two lined up to bolster his club for a playoff run, but to think that he'll derail player development for the possibility of a short-term fix doesn't seem to be in his make-up.
And cries from desperate fans on social media won't sway him.
The word 'patience' when it comes to Buffalo sports teams has been thrown around to the point where Sabres fans are sick of it and they've been getting restless as of late. After enduring two tank seasons and three more seasons resulting in a re-rebuild, their patience has worn thin. And it shouldn't be held against them. That said, they should take solace in that fact that Botterill has done some magnificent things (and some not so magnificent) since he took the reigns in 2017 and the long-term fruits of his first year-and-a-half on the job are still in the developmental stages.
Buffalo has two rookie first round picks in Dahlin (2018, 1st-overall) and 20 yr. old center Casey Mittelstadt (2017, 8th) who have been with the club from the start of the season and two other rookies in 2018 free agent signee Lawrence Pilut (22 yrs. old) and Smith (signed in 2017) who are presently with the club. Olofsson (2014, 181st) came over from Sweden this year and Nylander (2016, 8th) along with defenseman Brendan Guhle (2015, 51st,) who also looks the part but needs to work on his consistency, represent the top of their prospect wave.
In the pool are a number of players doing well at their particular level including four who participated in the just concluded 2019 IIHF World Junior Championships. Forward Matej Pekar (2018, 94th) made the Czech team but they were ousted before the medal rounds while three others were in the gold medal game last night.
Defenseman Mattias Samuelsson (2018, 32nd) was on the silver medal-winning USA team while fellow defenseman Oskari Laaksonen (2017, 54th) won gold with Team Finland.
Finn goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen was taken by the Sabres in the second round (54th) of the 2017 NHL Draft and led his team to the gold medal while also being named to the All-tournament team. Luukkonen adds his name to six others in the organization who received recent WJC All-tournament honors:
--2018 Mittelstadt (Tournament MVP,) Dahlin
--2015 Sam Reinhart
--2013 Jake McCabe
Although the loss last night outright sucked and the last 16 games haven't gone as planned, there's plenty to be excited about moving forward. Granted, for the NHL club that excitement begins with Eichel's return to the lineup, but in the big-picture Botterill has the organization on a strong path.
Sabreland just needs a little more patience.