Coming into Friday's matchup against the Carolina Hurricanes, the Buffalo Sabres were facing the challenge of falling in 7 straight outings. In a stretch that saw Buffalo take on six western conference teams that many see as Stanley Cup contenders, the Sabres struggled to find any offense. Against the Hurricanes, the Sabres rebounded nicely with a 4-1 victory. Here are my 5 takeaways.
1. Goaltending continues to be a strength against Carolina- Chad Johnson got the nod against Carolina and played admirably. Johnson stopped 27 of 28 shots on goal. Carolina controlled time of possession in the first period outshooting the Sabres 11-3. Buffalo struggled with turnovers giving the puck away in the defensive zone a total of eight times.
Johnson kept the Sabres in the game early on with his quick vision and good rebound control. Early on in the season Johnson struggled with awareness and positioning. Although you are still seeing some head scratching goals against the veteran goaltender, the Sabres are seeing a lot of improvement from both Johnson and Ullmark.
The goalies are giving Buffalo a chance despite the position being seen as the liability of the team. Buffalo allowed over two goals only three times in the skid against the west. The goalies and defense kept Buffalo in it against scoring powerhouses in Dallas, St. Louis, and St. Louis.
With Robin Lehner out for a while still, it looks like Buffalo is just fine with the combination of Chad Johnson and Linus Ullmark.
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2. The Sabres defense looks a lot better without Mike Weber- Piggy backing on the last takeaway, the defense has also looked solid as of late. A lot of it may have to do with the return of Zach Bogosian but maybe it has to do with the addition by subtraction of Mike Weber not in the line up. Weber constantly gave away the puck and missed checks that caused 2 on 1s.
With Mark Pysyk still out, Carlo Colaiacavo has been a steady presence. He is accurate with passes and has an accurate shot that has given the Sabres some offensive plays from the defense. A sure upgrade over Weber.
There isn't anything spectacular about the defense but they are getting solid contributions from everyone. Cody Franson continues to be a force on the power play and Josh Gorges added his first goal of the year to put Buffalo up 1-0.
Rasmus Ristolainen however has been a game changer. Ristolainen had another assist tonight against Carolina giving him 4 goals and 10 assists on the season. He is second in points behind O'Reilly with 14 total points.
Ristolainen is smart and disciplined in the defensive zone. He does a great job of using his size to keep the crease clear. He has yet to get a penalty on the season. What a difference a year can make for a player.
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3. Scratching Johann Larsson for Tim Schaller was the right move- Head coach Dan Bylsma called out Larsson in his press conference this morning saying he has tried everything with Larsson but he can't seem to find his role on the team. He was a healthy scratch and being upstairs may be the kick in the pants Larsson needed. Either way Buffalo was a better team with Tim Schaller in the game. He made responsible plays in the defensive zone and seemed to have great control over the puck.
Schaller assisted on David Legwand's second goal of the season. Buffalo has some flexibility with Schaller in case Bylsma sees the need to scratch a player to give them the wake up call they need.
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4. Eichel changes momentum against Hurricanes- The Sabres just seem to respond at a higher level when Jack Eichel scores. After Carolina scored to tie up the game, the momentum seemed to go on Carolina's side. They outshot Buffalo and were able to sustain long possessions in the Sabres zone. After the Sabres killed off another Hurricanes power play, Jack Eichel broke the game loose splitting in between two defenders and burying a bar down goal over Cam Ward.
The goal was Eichel's 8th of the season and his second in two days. His shot is on an elite level. The speed getting into the zone and the accuracy to beat a goalie from the faceoff circle is something you don't see in many players.
Eichel swung the momentum of the game despite Buffalo being badly outplayed. When the rookie sensation scores it sends a vibe around the team you just don't see with a David Legwand goal. He makes players around him better. Whether it is with an incredible pass or simply leading by example. Eichel gets his guys going more than anyone else.
5. With the win against Carolina, the Sabres are back in the wild card race- The 4-1 win against Carolina puts Buffalo at 20 points on the year, 5 points behind the New York Islanders who hold the final wild card spot. Despite the six game slump, this year's Sabres team looks to be a threat to do some damage in the second half of the season.
After 23 games the Sabres are in the top half of many statistics. Buffalo is 5th best in shots against, 12th in shots for, 13th in power play percentage, and 13th in face off win percentage.
The offense showed tonight it has all the offensive weapons it needs to make a playoff run, the defense continues to be rock solid as well. The issue with this young Sabres team is the inconsistencies in many areas that cause skids like the recent 6 game losing streak.
Dan Bylsma has work to do with this team but things are looking up for this Sabres franchise. Tonight's victory against the Hurricanes was another encouraging sign that the Sabres are moving in the right direction.