The Buffalo Sabres Are Back! (At The Bottom Of The Standings)
12:15 PM EST on November 17, 2022
It was very weird, seeing a potentially competent Sabres squad open the year with such a neat run of victories. Future generations might even look back and marvel at the early days of November 2022, when Buffalo was 7-3-0 and stood over such giants as Tampa Bay, Toronto, and Florida in the Atlantic Division standings. It was real, but order has since been restored. The Sabres have lost seven in a row since that fleeting brush with success, and now, sitting just one point ahead of last place, they have quite a hole to dig themselves out of if they're going to make the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
The latest blow came at the hands of their neighbors in the basement, the Ottawa Senators. With the score tied at one midway through the second period, the precocious Sens rookie D-man Jake Sanderson fired a long shot that hit the boards behind the net and ricocheted back toward the goal line. Captain Brady Tkachuk, standing mostly unbothered in front of the goalie, got his backhand on the bounce and smoothly tapped the puck past Eric Comrie for what held up as the game-winning goal in this 4-1 affair.
There was a lot of bad news for Buffalo in this one, including Comrie—who's been subpar since coming over from Winnipeg but is the only goalie under the age of 41 that they have—leaving the game after a friendly-fire injury, plus the team going just 1-for-8 on its power play chances. One bright spot, at least, is Tage Thompson, who scored the team's lone goal on an Ovi-esque one-timer from the circle and has emerged as a sort of unintentional heir to estranged ex-centerpiece Jack Eichel. The 25-year-old broke out last season, several years after being traded from the Blues in the Ryan O'Reilly deal; he is very tall (6-foot-7!) and reasonably charismatic and has what it takes to be the face of this franchise—if they ever become prominent enough to need such a thing again. For now, he's just putting a lot of pucks in the net across these losing efforts.
What struck me in the postgame, as the Sabres struggled to cope with this elongated stretch of failure, was how much attention the second-youngest team in the league paid to their mental health. It's like they saw how they could win in the first few weeks of the season, and still believe they can still hit that level, but have been foiled by their own fears.
"The challenge the last three games in this little bit has been a little bit more attention, anxiety. Psychological components," head coach Don Granato said. "Maybe that's why you don't score as proficiently, or you squeeze a stick a little tighter. And that's something, unfortunately, we've got to grow through."
Top defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, who's a five-year vet at age 22, echoed those thoughts.
"We're gripping the stick too much," he said. "We have our chances, but we can't really execute right now. We need more swagger to our game. We've just got to go back to work."
They don't seem all that off-base, actually. Over the course of the last seven games, the Sabres aren't outshooting their opposition, but per 5-on-5 Corsi they are putting pucks toward the net and stopping the other teams from doing the same at a more lopsided rate than anybody but the Hurricanes. They're not getting high-quality chances, but with Dahlin and the emerging Owen Power serving as a backbone, and with a few solid scorers on the attack, the Sabres at least have the vague outline of a group that can play some good hockey. There's just a killer instinct missing in the most dangerous areas of the ice—befitting a team that's spent over a decade now as a constant loser.
The goaltending has been a gigantic issue as well, as it always is. The Sabres have had to start six different goalies in each of the past two seasons, and with Comrie going down they're on their way to a third so far this year—likely young Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen from the minors. Comrie's actual numbers this year are not good, especially when compared to the solid work of Craig Anderson in his seven games. But with Anderson over 40, he's not the kind of day-in, day-out option an NHL team can rely on, and so Buffalo will continue their search for another shot-stopper to keep what can still be a very active offense in its games.
I hate to be defeatist this early in the season, but in a division stuffed with Cup contenders, even this little stretch of poor play might have doomed Buffalo to another lost season. But what they have displayed, even if it's been far from perfect, really is promising. They have a handful of pieces they can fit together to form something resembling a professional team, and if they can spend the next several months working on breaking in their prospects, testing opposing goalies more rigorously, toughening up on defense (i.e. not letting Brady Tkachuk open a hot dog stand at the crease), and developing that muscle system that prevents good teams from putting in consecutive poor performances, and also fixing their Zamboni, they might be ready to mount a more serious challenge in the medium-term future. I give you permission to cut down on your Sabres curiosity for the time being. But maybe next year.