BUFFALO, N.Y. — Who had the Buffalo Sabres breaking their eight-game losing streak with back-to-back wins over the Montreal Canadiens and the red-hot St. Louis Blues?
I think I can safely say the Sabres aren’t as bad as their losing streak, but also not as good as they were beating Montreal, 7-2, and St. Louis, 6-2.
This team is somewhere in between and there were certainly some good signs. Many fans took it as an excuse, but this team desperately missed Mattias Samuelsson for 13 games and with that, missed Henri Jokiharju when he was out. They just aren’t deep enough to replace any of their top four defensemen if they get hurt.
Going into Montreal, I watched some of the worst penalty killing I had ever seen in the NHL. In the loss to Toronto, the Leafs scored two power play goals in just 34 seconds of power play time.
In the losing streak, Buffalo was dead last in the NHL killing just 60% of their penalties. In the two wins, adding Samuelsson, Zemgus Girgensons and Tyson Jost to the mix, they killed off eight of the nine shorthanded situations they faced.
You’ve heard me say your best players must be your best players. In Montreal, the line of Tage Thompson, Jeff Skinner and Alex Tuch had 12 points. In the two games Skinner had four goals and three assists for seven points, Tuch had one goal and four assists for five points and Thompson had a goal and three assists for four points.
If the Sabres get the kind of goaltending they got in the two wins, they wil improve greatly this year. Craig Anderson and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen made big saves when they were needed. That was especially true for the 23-year-old kid. He made many huge point blank stops to keep the game in Buffalo’s control. It’s his job to make it difficult for the Sabres to send him back to the Rochester Americans when Eric Comrie gets healthy and if he keeps playing like he did against St. Louis, he will do that.
Luukkonen is in the best shape of his short NHL career and you can see it in his quickness throughout the game. He made 34 saves and very much earned the game’s second star.
The two wins also saw the emergence of the kid line. JJ Peterka and Jack Quinn have been struggling for most of the first two months of the season. All of a sudden, things started to click for them in Montreal and then on Wednesday, they were full of confidence creating numerous scoring chances.
Peterka started a slick tic-tac-toe goal for their center Dylan Cozens and Quinn scored two very pretty goals. On the first one, it was a 2-on-1, but Quinn stopped in the right circle. He was up against a forward in Ivan Barbashev so Quinn set him up to screen goalie Jordan Binnington and he picked a corner with a wicked wrist shot through Barbashev's legs. Later, Quinn came in open down the right side of the slot. He gave Binnington a slight move to put him down, skated right around him and slid the puck into the empty net. Those are goals that are scored by high end talent and first-round draft choices. Those are the goals fans in Rochester got used to seeing last season when Quinn scored 26 goals in 45 games.
Quinn and Peterka were taken one-two in the 2020 draft and if they start hitting their stride, it will give Buffalo two dangerous lines.
Cozens is 21-years-old and he’s the old man of the line. He really has blossomed into a solid player that can be counted on at both ends of the ice. He has five points in his last five games and overall has 15 points in 20 games. That would give him a very solid 62 points by the end of the year.
The lesson here is nobody ever said this was going to be a playoff season. This team needs the year to help their youngsters find their way. Peyton Krebs isn’t even close yet and his confidence looks shot, but that’s because they keep throwing him on the wing where he has shown time and time again that he isn’t an NHL winger. Krebs has to play at center and only at center to find his game.
Thompson is quite capable of leading this team on the ice. At his present pace, he’d have 53 goals and 53 assists for 106 points by the end of the year. Tuch would have 41 goals and 45 assists for 86 points and Skinner would have 37 goals and 49 assists for 86 points.
Rasmus Dahlin is on a pace for 35 goals and 65 assists for 100 points. Victor Olofsson is looking at 41 goals too.
Take all that and add in big saves from Luukkonen and Anderson, I think you can expect better play. They’ll need it Friday when they host the New Jersey Devils. New Jersey just had its 13-game winning streak snapped on Wednesday by the Leafs. Overall, Lindy Ruff’s crew is 16-4-0.