Con­trary to pop­u­lar be­lief, the sky isn’t fall­ing

The Buffalo News - - SPORTS - COM­MEN­TARY

If you want hys­te­ria and hy­per­bole about Sun­day’s loss by the Sabres, this is not go­ing to be your place. The sky isn’t fall­ing. Se­ri­ously.

There are 27 games left. The Sabres are two points out of the play­offs. Two. Not 10. Not 20. Two. And ev­ery one of you would have taken that in Oc­to­ber if I told you this was go­ing to be the sce­nario in mid-Fe­bru­ary.

(Now, that 10-game win­ning streak and first over­all stand­ing at the end of Novem­ber should have been more than enough for them to com­fort­ably make the post­sea­son party, but that’s been frit­tered away. We’ve well es­tab­lished that fact. It’s time to deal with the here and now).

Still, I’m with Jack Eichel and Phil Hous­ley that there are no

longer any moral vic­to­ries when you’re 55 games into the sched­ule. Sun­day’s 3-1 loss to Win­nipeg was a bum­mer when you con­sider it was a tie game at home with four min­utes left. As Hous­ley said, at the very min­i­mum, you want to get that game into over­time to steal at least a point and take your chances.

It didn’t hap­pen. Matt Hun­wick made a turnover in the neu­tral zone and the Sabres got caught in their zone for more than a minute. Jack Eichel and Kyle Ok­poso, who was stuck on the ice for nearly two min­utes, col­lided and Ok­poso was the vic­tim of a Win­nipeg pick. Poor Ras­mus Dahlin, who was on the ice for all three goals against, left Blake Wheeler and it was an easy tap-in for the Win­nipeg cap­tain that snapped a tie with 3:55 to go.

The Jets held on to end an 0-2-1 rut that was their worst of the sea­son. They pulled back into the lead in the Cen­tral Di­vi­sion and got within one point of Cal­gary for the lead in the West. The Sabres, mean­while, failed for the eighth straight time to win two in a row.

As ugly as that sounds, you have to step back for a sec­ond. Back in the fall, I’m not the only one in the world who picked Win­nipeg to win the Stan­ley Cup come June.

The Hockey News, which play­fully dubbed the Jets the 2019 champs four years ago in true Sports Il­lus­trated-Hous­ton Astros style, dou­bled down on its choice for real.

The Jets are, ahem, scary good when you look at their lineup, their size and their speed. Even if Pa­trik Lane still be­longs on the back of a milk car­ton af­ter play­ing less than 11 min­utes and go­ing with­out a goal for the 11th straight game in what might rate as the most bizarre 25-goal sea­son for a sniper in re­cent NHL his­tory.

The Sabres sur­vived in a shootout in Win­nipeg in Novem­ber and they could have done like­wise Sun­day. They out­shot the Jets, 36-29, and ou­t­at­tempted them, 66-51. They also won 27 of 47 face­offs. They didn’t win. That’s why you saw long faces af­ter­ward in the dress­ing room.

“It was tight check­ing, a 1-1 game go­ing into the third and with five min­utes left it’s tied,” Eichel said. “It’s just they get the goal and we don’t.”

Win­nipeg is now 11-0 — yowza — when knot­ted through two pe­ri­ods. The Sabres, mean­while are 8-5-2 when the game is up for grabs through 40 min­utes. A lot of that is ex­pe­ri­ence and men­tal for­ti­tude.

You think the Jets gleaned some of that by get­ting to the West­ern Con­fer­ence fi­nal last spring? That was 17 play­off games worth.

“We had some suc­cess in the play­offs, hav­ing to stay pa­tient in tough en­vi­ron­ments and tough games,” said Wheeler. “When you know you’ve done it in the past, and you’ve had suc­cess do­ing it, it be­comes a lit­tle bit eas­ier to stay in those games, stay­ing a lit­tle more pa­tient and not try to open things up.

“Re­ally in this league, the dif­fer­ence a lot of nights comes down to that, the team that’s able to stay with their game plan and force the other team to make that ex­tra mis­take or try to make that ex­tra lit­tle play that isn’t there. And that’s where you cap­i­tal­ize.”

Uh-huh.

It’s yet another ex­am­ple of why the view from here is that it’s im­per­a­tive for the Sabres to sneak into a wild-card slot and learn what it’s like to go deep into April. It will help next year and a lot of next years. But if you never make the play­offs, you never learn what it’s go­ing to take to win.

One thing we’ve learned about Eichel is his abil­ity to bounce back and have big im­pact in a game af­ter he’s had an off night.

Eichel en­tered Sun­day with just two goals in the last 11 games and had no shots on goal in Satur­day’s win over Detroit. He had four shots Sun­day on seven at­tempts and scored his 18th goal of the sea­son on a laser of a wrist shot in the sec­ond pe­riod. And he was skat­ing and at­tack­ing with the puck with much more con­vic­tion.

“I felt pretty good to­day,” said Eichel, now with 59 points in his 52 games. “It’s 55 games into the year and you’re not go­ing to feel good ev­ery night but I’m just try­ing to do what I can to help us win. It wasn’t enough tonight. We don’t get any points at home so that’s frus­trat­ing.”

“I thought he was a force out there when he had the puck,” Hous­ley said. “I like when he comes down and starts think­ing shot in­stead of pass­ing it. He scored a power play goal, so to speak (four sec­onds af­ter a penalty ex­pired). He can do more of that. He’s try­ing to do the right thing.”

So Buf­falo is now 2-2-1 on its seven-game home­s­tand with the Is­lan­ders and Rangers left to hit town. A 4-2-1 stand col­lect­ing nine of the 14 points would be pretty de­cent, but that’s ob­vi­ously go­ing to be tough when you’re talk­ing about that pesky lit­tle prob­lem of not win­ning two straight games for two months now.

Still, if you want to throw out NHL math, here’s a lit­tle per­spec­tive for you: The Pen­guins — with Sid, Ev­geni and the rest of the boys with their fancy Cup rings — are 28-27 this sea­son. The Sabres are 27-28 and they’re right in it. With Pitts­burgh com­ing here twice in March. Carolina is one point up on Buf­falo. The trade dead­line is two weeks away. Lots can hap­pen.

It beats the heck out of the tank­ing stand­ings and the daily check of the NHL Draft Lot­tery odds.

James P. McCoy/Buf­falo News

Sabres cen­ter Jack Eichel, right, bat­tles Jets cen­ter Jack Roslovic for the puck dur­ing the third pe­riod at KeyBank Cen­ter on Sun­day.

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