Contrary to popular belief, the sky isn’t falling
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.”
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.
Sabres center Jack Eichel, right, battles Jets center Jack Roslovic for the puck during the third period at KeyBank Center on Sunday.