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When a measuring stick reads wrong
It was supposed to be a Sabres weekend to see where they stand, but things changed
Having a back-to-back set of games is demanding on any team. Doing them on the road adds to the difficulty level. Doing it while missing half of the top-six defenders on the team is like playing on hard mode. Doing it without your best player is expert mode. Doing it against a pair of true Stanley Cup contenders turns it into Mission: Impossible.
Hit the music.
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The Sabres didn’t have to rappel into a climate-controlled room that would set off every alarm if the temperature in it increased too much but going into Raleigh and Tampa for back-to-back games is kind of like that.
If you want to continue with the metaphor, the Sabres upbeat start to the season was going to be a heat check against two of the best teams in the league from last season. Carolina has one of the best attacks in the league and Tampa has been to the Stanley Cup Final three straight years and are a bar to be measured against.
The test results came out like they have in the past, but even though it was two 5-3 losses, they were essentially one-goal games. Empty-net goals help skew the view on the final score, but this is a Sabres team that’s been rolling without Mattias Samuelsson and Henri Jokiharju for a while now and was without Ilya Lyubushkin for the past few games.
That’s half of the starting six on defense gone when trying to wrangle Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov, and Teuvo Teravainen among others. That’s usually a recipe for a blowout, but instead it saw the Sabres blow 1-0 and 2-1 leads en route to defeat. Aho had a hat trick and there was a hearty touch of nasty thanks to Rasmus Dahlin and Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
It wasn’t a full-blown fight, but the punch from Kotkaniemi that caught Dahlin on the button had aftereffects because Dahlin missed the Tampa game the next night with an upper-body injury.
Scuffles and scraps are worrisome because stuff like that can happen. When it involves a couple of guys that do not put fighting at the top of their résumé, a gloved right hook can happen. I don’t like the flippant punch thrown by Kotkaniemi. It’s not a sucker punch necessarily, but it’s greasy and something I’m positive Dahlin and the rest of the Sabres will not forget about when they meet next time in February in Buffalo.
Trying to hold one-goal leads against Carolina must be like trying to fight an actual wolverine: It’s unpleasant and they can hurt you in a lot of different ways. It’s just a thoroughly unpleasant experience. But it wasn’t a moral victory sort of game because moral victories aren’t real and just a way to feel good about not being good enough. What the Sabres did do was figure out they can not only hang with the Hurricanes but also have success against them.
The fancy stats were close, and Buffalo had more high danger chances at 5-on-5 than Carolina. Playing road games means not getting the matchups you want because the home team gets last change. This is interesting now because Tage Thompson is the threat to contend with and teams will send their best out there after him. Rod Brind’Amour put Jordan Staal and Jesper Fast, two of their best defensive forwards, out against Thompson. Home ice advantage is a real thing and the Hurricanes used that very well. They’re a favorite for the Cup for a few reasons and those were on display Friday.
Against Tampa, the Sabres were without Dahlin because of an upper-body injury, and I think we can all guess what that injury was. Question is how long will he be out? Weirdly enough, it was a game against Tampa back in 2019 in which he received a concussion when Erik Cernak caught questionably up high. He missed two weeks from that injury which cost him eight games.
That also led to one of the more baffling and pathetic moments during the years of absence from the playoffs and that is saying something. But let’s stay focused here.
Without Dahlin, hopes weren’t very high for success going into a game against a team that has had their number for years and in a building where nothing but L’s have piled up. But it was a strong showing despite, again, missing half of the starting group on defense, only this time with Dahlin taking the place of Lyubushkin who returned to the lineup.
Twice the Sabres were able to recover from a Lightning goal to tie the game. Girgensons made it 1-1 after a Nick Paul goal in the first, and Casey Mittelstadt tipped in a shot on the power play after Brayden Point scored on a power play minutes earlier in the second period to make it 2-2. Gutsy and spunky.
The Sabres briefly had the lead in the third period when Jeff Skinner scored his second of the year, but it was short-lived when Sabres draft pick Brandon Hagel tied it and Nick Perbix put them ahead with under five minutes to play. Point added an empty-net goal for the 5-3 final, but a team losing a step in the third period in the second game of a back-to-back on the road is a pretty common thing. Not a moral victory, but something else to build on.
The fancy stats in the game were virtually even, the Sabres being one shot attempt short of the Lightning only because of a 16-8 disparity in the first period is somewhat impressive. However, Tampa beat them out with scoring chances and high danger chances at 5-on-5. That’s not-so great, but remember, they played without Dahlin eating up 25-plus minutes and with rookie Owen Power taking the lead as the No. 1 guy.
The Sabres aren’t perfect, clearly, but they’re also much, much better than they’ve been and the gap between them and the top teams has closed significantly. Again, this isn’t a playoff-level team, and I won’t be tricked into making that valuation early ever again with this franchise because fool me once, shame on you, fool me two other times and I am just not getting involved anymore. They’re better, they’re more potent, and how they’ll look if/when they’re fully healthy is going to be really interesting.
But about Power…That’s worth taking a closer look at.
He’s Got the Power (sorry, sorry, trying to delete, etc.)
Power led all Sabres (and Lightning) in ice time with 28:14 played. At 5-on-5 he had 23:30. He was on ice for 30 shot attempts for and 14 against, plus-16 Corsi and a 73.2 CorsiFor percentage.
For over a period’s worth of time when Power was on the ice the Sabres had 73 percent of shots attempted. Look at that again:
He turns 20 years old soon, it was his first NHL game in which he had to shoulder the bulk of the load on defense, and he was up against a team that’s been to three straight Stanley Cup Finals and won two of them. And he made sure his team had the puck for nearly three-quarters of the time he was on the ice. Astounding. The best any player did on the ice against him was Mikhail Sergachev who was on ice for one more attempt against Power than he helped generate (5-4). He was 50-50 against Point and Nikita Kucherov. Everyone else he had the full advantage against.
All of that led to a 73.9 expected goals for percentage for the game meaning when he was out there, the chances of the Sabres scoring a goal were extremely high and the chances the Lightning would score were rather low. I don’t know how much I have to Joe-splain this so if I don’t need to, let me know, just I understand some of the fancy stats create “WTF” moments if you’re new to them or don’t know what they are anyway.
He was one of three Sabres players with a positive plus/minus rating (I know, I know — shut up) with a plus-1. Peyton Krebs was also plus-1, and his defense partner Kale Clague was a plus-2. Everyone else was even or minus. It’s a one-game sample, the smallest of sample sizes, but damn it all if all of that isn’t really freakin’ impressive.
Depending how long Dahlin is out (or out at all - we’ll know more later this morning), it would appear the defense is in very capable hands with Power in charge. The only thing he hasn’t gotten going yet this season is goal scoring, but that’s only a matter of time at this point. He’s playing with high confidence and that’s been very evident in his passing and play making.
It’s not all grim on defense this week. Jokiharju began doing rehab skating last week and there’s a chance we’ll see him back sooner than not. He had fractures in his face behind his nose which I take to mean his sinuses got crunched by the puck to the face and breathing well is a rather substantial part of sports, so best that he be as close to 100-percent as possible before rejoining the lineup and shouldering the load of a lot of ice time.
There’s a conversation to be had about Clague in the near future because he’s showed a lot of promise teaming up with Power. He’s held his own and made for a solid partner for the rookie and his advanced numbers bear that out. It’s not as if Clague is some throwaway player, he was a second-round pick by the L.A. Kings in 2016 (51st overall), the draft that was held in Buffalo. He might be a late bloomer, he might be on a heater, he might just be comfortable with the role he knows he has to play and is taking advantage, or maybe he’s just the right guy in the right place at the right time. Whatever it is, he’s made the pileup of injuries easier to handle by playing well and that’s valuable for him and the Sabres.
It’s a rather large week ahead for Buffalo. They host Arizona, who just beat the Capitals in Washington and should not be looked past even though there’s a pretty obvious reason to be caught looking ahead on Thursday with Jack Eichel and Vegas coming to town.
I’ve beaten the joke into the ground by now, but the fervor that surrounds Eichel returning to town after (accidentally?) going full shoot promo on the fans in Buffalo last season is so intense it reminds me of the scene in “Slap Shot” when Reggie Dunlop is walking up the arena ahead of the final game against Syracuse (I think…) and he sees the ambulance he planted in front of the building not getting the crowd whipped up enough and tells the driver to circle the building a few more times to really get ‘em going.
There won’t be ambulances circling KeyBank Center, but it’ll be a fever pitch inside. Jack only got mostly booed last season. It’s going to be everyone now and that’s the exact kind of situation he thrives in. He’s playing great this season and Vegas is on fire. The drama should be off the charts.
As if that wasn’t enough, the Bruins are in town on Saturday, you know, the other team that’s had a monster start to the season. Old Friend Linus Ullmark has been great, Brad Marchand has looked super since returning a month early from hip surgery, and Patrice Bergeron rules. If Dahlin can’t go in that game, it’s unfortunate for a few reasons but mostly because he’s reached his troll final form and he and Marchand have always annoyed the garbage out of each other.
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