Exactly one year ago today, the Buffalo Sabres were in the midst of a horrible stretch of hockey, losing 8 of their last 9, and sitting at 6-14-4 for the season. They were just coming off of their second out of SEVEN losing streaks of 4 games or longer on the season, and were battling it out for dead last in the NHL. Fast forward 365 days, and the script has been completely flipped.
Buffalo currently sits solely in third place in the entire NHL, with 34 points through 24 games. To reflect, the Sabres only had a measly 16 points last season in as many games. Besides the addition of a couple of players, what has changed in Western New York?
To give the most obvious answer, the roster changes have given the Sabres not only an upgrade in speed, but overall talent as well. Subtracting players like Ryan O’Reilly, Jordan Nolan and Jacob Josefson in lieu of faster, more talented players such as Jeff Skinner, Rasmus Dahlin and Conor Sheary created a culture shock that rippled through the locker room. Buffalo had lacked speed and consistency on the ice, especially with defensive zone breakouts, and that was a major task for GMJB to fix this offseason, which so far has looked much better.
In addition to the personnel changes, the Sabres have also seen quite a turnaround in the attitude of the team, from the players up to the front office. I’m sure most, if not all Sabres fans out there have grown tired of hearing the usual “We have to be better as a team” excuses. It’s more than a welcomed change to see Buffalo back amongst the top teams in the NHL. It goes without saying that winning generates a positive locker room and fan base. With a positive locker room/fan base comes current players and potential free agents who want to play here.
It’s yet to be seen if Jeff Skinner re-signs in Buffalo, however, he is having an incredible season thus far, and I’m sure playing with the likes of Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin will help sway his decision on returning next season.
Perhaps the biggest, and most relieving change this season has taken place in the goal crease. Buffalo has been snakebitten, so to speak, by it’s goaltending ever since Ryan Miller departed for St. Louis in 2014. The Sabres had tried out numerous goalies to no avail, until stumbling upon Carter Hutton in Free Agency this past summer.
Hutton, along with young star Linus Ullmark, have created a pretty dynamic one-two punch between the pipes in Buffalo.
As the graph shows, Buffalo’s goaltenders have been enjoying a good stretch to begin the season, which hasn’t occurred here in quite some time. Without the stellar play almost, if not every night, there’s no telling where the Sabres might be in terms of battling for a playoff spot.
(Props to Micah @IneffectiveMath for the graphic!!)
Lastly, the run the Sabres have been on the past three and a half weeks has been nothing short of spectacular. However, they wouldn’t be in this position without a decent amount of luck. During their current (knock on wood) nine-game winning streak, Buffalo has only managed to win ONE game by more than one goal, including six in either overtime or a shootout. They only have a +10 goal differential on the season, far-fetched from other top dogs in the league, which hover around +21.
If the Sabres want to gain some league-wide respect, they are going to have to figure out a way to effectively dominate teams, and try to stray away from the one-goal wins, as everyone knows the luck will eventually run out. When this nine-game streak unfortunately comes to an end, it will be vital that the Sabres come out and get right back on track. If they can prove they can fight back and continue to win after a loss, it will show the league and the fans that they are for real, and convince people they can make some noise down the stretch.
Sabres fans from Western New York and around the world can’t help but be excited for the direction this team is headed in, and the team has given the fans hope for a playoff run this season, a possible first since 2011. The only thing left to do, it seems, is to just keep playing hockey.