We should probably get the obvious out of the way right now--the visiting Winnipeg Jets are not the Detroit Red Wings, the team Buffalo beat 3-1 yesterday afternoon. The 34-18-3 Jets sit atop a two-horse race in the Central Division just one point ahead of Nashville and their 71 points put them neck-in-neck with Western Conference leaders Calgary (74) and San Jose (73.)
The Jets are big, fast and skilled with a group of skaters that are averaging an NHL fifth-best 3.44 goals/game. Today's matchup represents a big problem for Buffalo although they did manage to eek out a 2-1 shootout win vs. the Jets back in November. Goaltending was key that game as starter Carter Hutton came up big when needed and stopped five of seven shootout attempts to earn the win and the game's first star.
There have been a lot of games played since then and while the Jets have maintained a spot near the top of the conference, the Sabres peaked in November (moving to the top of the NHL via their 10-game winning streak) but have faltered ever since. Right now they're stuck alternating between wins and losses (4-3-1 in their last eight) and if they can pull off a win today, it will be their first two-game winning streak since December 11-13.
The Sabres are still looking for chemistry within their group of forwards, although it's not as bad as it was back in November. Even during their 10-game winning streak the only players that seemed to be clicking on a consistent basis were Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner on the top line, Zemgus Girgensons and Johan Larsson on the fourth line. The in-between has a mishmash all season, however it does seem as if their getting some continuity and consistency in certain areas as of late.
Buffalo clearly has two players on the top line--Eichel and Skinner and they formed a pretty potent line with Sam Reinhart on right wing. But after a 7-3 to Chicago, head coach Phil Housley blew up his lines which moved everyone around. Housley got mixed results and two games later he ended up going back to the Eichel/Skinner, Girgensons/Larsson first and fourth-line duos and filled in the rest.
What to do with right wing Kyle Okposo has been a problem dating back to last season, but he may have found a spot on the fourth line while getting second-unit powerplay duties. Granted, at $6 million per season, one would expect a helluva lot more, but it is what it is right now. Okposo is plugging his way towards, but is still a ways away from, respectable numbers although his 10 goals rank him fifth on the team. We all know his story and unless something weird (or miraculous happens,) Okposo and the four-plus years remaining on his contract will be here for at least the rest of the season. The good news is that he's been playing better and has at least been able to take advantage of this powerplay opportunity.
With Reinhart off of the top line, Housley has been struggling to find a right-winger for the Eichel and Skinner. What's bad news for them is good news for the middle-six and secondary scoring. Reinhart was put on a line with rookie Casey Mittlestadt at center and Conor Sheary at left wing and the trio have really looked sharp out there in the two games since they were formed. "That line, for me," Housley told the gathered media yesterday, "has been really tenacious. The chemistry is forming. They're getting some opportunities now. A lot more offensive zone faceoffs. I think they just read off each other very well."
With two lines looking good and a top-line pairing inseparable, the Sabres are looking to fill in holes on Eichel's right wing and the second middle-six line. Thirty-six year old Jason Pominville was on the top line yesterday but isn't as quick as he once was and struggled to keep up with Eichel and Skinner making the ice much tighter for Buffalo's top two players. The other mid-six line was formed with Evan Rodrigues, who's been hot lately (six goals and four assists in his last 12 games,) Vladimir Sobotka and for yesterday Tage Thompson. Rookie C.J. Smith sat in the pressbox yesterday afternoon despite playing solid hockey in a limited role.
Smith has two goals in six NHL games this season and the Sabres really need to make some room for him somewhere in the lineup as he plays a type of quick skating, feet-always-pumping game that Buffalo would like to move forward with. But someone needs to sit.
Would Housley give Smith a shot on the top-line even though he may not have that kind of overall skill-set? It wouldn't hurt. Smith has the skating ability to keep up and the smarts and skill to take advantage of scoring opportunities and he would create a little more ice for Eichel and Skinner. A move like that would mean a spot in the press box for one of Pominville, Sobotka or Thompson, something that wouldn't offend this blogger at all.
The Sabres are going to need all the help they can get today and that includes goaltending that will need to be at least solid, possibly spectacular, against the Jets Hutton, who will probably get the start today, who has been anything but that in his last four starts, will need to find some kind of groove as he's allowed 17 goals on 101 shots during that span (.832 save percentage.) Granted, Buffalo's defense has pretty bad lately, but the key saves at key parts of the game that Hutton (and backup Linus Ullmark) were noted for earlier in the season have not been there lately and it hasn't helped Buffalo's situation.
The Eastern Conference wild card race is tight and the Sabres need all the points they can get. Winnipeg is a tall order, especially with them on a two-game losing streak having lost to the Ottawa Senators 5-2 last night, and a win will go a long way towards getting back some to the confidence the Sabres enjoyed back in November. However, it does come back to the point that the Wings are not the Hurricanes or the Jets and that the Sabres are in for a huge test this afternoon.