Buffalo Sabres at Washington Capitals Game Preview 1/24/21

UPDATE: Tom Wilson will not play for the Capitals today.

Hours before the opening kickoff of the Bills vs Chiefs AFC Championship game, the Buffalo Sabres have business to take care of against the Capitals. As a reminder, Washington is without Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Orlov and starting goaltender Ilya Samnsonov due to COVID positive tests, violations and quarantines.

A lineup change has been announced this morning, with Casey Mittelstadt replacing Dylan Cozens. While activated to off the IR, there is no word if Kyle Okposo will make his debut this afternoon.

Expected Lines:

Buffalo Sabres

Hall – Eichel – Reinhart
Olofsson – Staal – Thompson
Rieder – Eakin – Mittelstadt
Skinner – Lazar – Sheahan

McCabe – Ristolainen
Montour – Jokiharju
Dahlin – Miller

Ullmark

Washington Capitals

Vrana – Backstrom – Wilson (OUT)
Panik – Eller – Oshie
Hagelin – Dowd – Hathaway
Sprong – Pinho – Sheary

Dillon – Carlson
Siegenthaler – Schultz
Chara – Jensen

Vanecek

News and notes:

Will Dahlin Bounce Back?

After a season low time on ice of 10:08, Rasmus Dahlin is looking to rectify a forgettable game on Friday night. The emphasis on it being early in the season to start really scrutinizing Dahlin’s game cannot be understated. At the end of the day, he’s still a 20 year-old defenseman with incredible upside, a slow start doesn’t take that away from him.

While I won’t say Friday night was rock bottom for Dahlin, it’s difficult to imagine having a second consecutive game where he’s benched due to poor performance. Dahlin has it in him, the clip below shows he still has his puck carrying abilities at his disposal. Maybe this is something the coaching staff could tell Dahlin to do more in order to revive some confidence in him.

Ullmark Playing Second Straight Game

Linus Ullmark is expected to be between the pipes again this afternoon. There are some analytics that could be discussed, but with only two games as a sample size, one being the incredibly messy first game of the season, it’s best to hold off until for data can be collected.

What the data says and what the fans can see themselves, the Sabres need someone to make a big stop to help the Sabres win games. Right now, it’s not enough to be average at best, Ullmark is going to have to put together a full 60 minutes of locking down the goal.

This isn’t all on Ullmark either, the Sabres need to pick up their man and clear out the garbage in front of the net when Ullmark makes a stop. Yes, there will be times where Ullmark will need to make the first, second and maybe even third stop, but reducing that as much as possible puts Ullmark in a better position to help the team win.

Sabres leading East Division in underlying numbers

The two animated charts below display not only a team that is better than the results they show, but they were in the category of fun for however brief their stay was. The second chart really encapsulates what we can all see. The Sabres are playing well on both sides of the ice and their lack of finishing that has brought them to 1-3-1. The Sabres are leading the East Division in Average Expected Goals Per 60 Minutes and Aberage Expected Goals Against Per 60 Minutes. The gameplan is working, now all the Sabres need to do is stay the course, find the back of the net and help clean up their own zone so goaltending is less of an issue.

Capitals Big Three vs Sabres Top Pairing

With Ovechkin, Wilson and Kuznetsov out, the Sabres have three main guys on offense to shut down: Tom Nicklas Backstrom, Jakub Vrana and TJ Oshie. Despite Wilson being out, it’s expected Vrana will flank Backstrom on the top line. Expect to see a lot of Jake McCabe and Rasmus Ristolainen against them. That pairing looks nothing like the pairing that was shelled constantly last season.

Jake McCabe is playing very well and Rasmus Ristolainen, while still having his faults, is playing physical, but isn’t running out of his way to make hits. It may be Krueger’s system that heavily relies on forwards helping on the defensive end, but if that means Ristolainen and McCabe are playing significantly better, that’s a major positive for the Sabres.

In fact, among defensive pairings with at least 40 minutes played together, McCabe and Ristolainen rank 2nd in the NHL in Expected Goals For Percentage (a stat where shot quality is used to determine which team is expected to score more goals when a certain player is one the ice by looking at the difference between expected goals for (xGF) and expected goals against (xGA).

image 1 Buffalo Sabres at Washington Capitals Game Preview 1/24/21
Source: Natural Stat Trick

Prediction

After a 1-3-1 start, I would expect the Sabres to come out like they did against Philadelphia for thier first win on the season. If they can choke off high quality chances for Washington and continue to produce their own, the Sabres will walk away with this victory.

One of Eichel and Skinner will find the net while Ullmark won’t have an easy game, but he won’t be gettign bombarded either.

TCB says: 3-1 Buffalo with Eichel or Skinner scoring their first of the season.

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