What a November it has been for the Buffalo Sabres and their fans. Before Thursday night’s 5-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Sabres had rattled off 10 straight wins and hadn’t lost a game in the entire month.
Even though they came up on the short end of the game against the Lightning, the Sabres may have turned a corner after a long stretch of poor play. I think it’s a good idea for gamblers and hockey fans to look at this team in a little more detail, to see if this was a fluke or if Buffalo is the real deal.
How Are the Sabres This Good?
Sometimes Its Good to Be Bad
Let’s face it. The Sabres have not been very good for a long time. In fact, it is soon coming up on the 20th anniversary of Buffalo’s heartbreaking loss to the Dallas Stars in the Stanley Cup Final (yes, we know Brett Hull’s skate was in the blue paint…). After the end of Dominik Hasek’ career, the team has been struggling to find its way.
However, over the last decade, the team has really stunk up the joint. The Sabres have found themselves in the lottery conversation almost every year. Now, this can actually work to your advantage.
The Quebec franchise, which later would become the Colorado Avalanche, went through a terrible phase in the early 1990s, which netted them Eric Lindros (who they traded to Philadelphia for a haul unlike anything we will ever see again), Peter Forsberg and Mats Sundin. The Avalanche would put together some more pieces and find themselves at the top of the league soon after.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are the most recent worst-to-first success story, having nabbed Malkin, Fleury, Letang and some guy named Crosby in years where they finished at or near the bottom of the league. Now, it can go wrong (sorry, Edmonton) but realistically, if you are bad for a long time, the draft is supposed to make you whole.
This year’s Sabres have no less than 6 first round draft picks in their lineup.
All are making major contributions to the team (Jack Eichel, Rasmus Dahlin, Rasmus Ristolainen, Casey Middlestadt, Sam Reinhart, Zengus Girgensons). What is different about these draft picks than say, the Oilers, is that they have been lucky enough to draft highly in years where top defensemen are available. This core looks to be all on the same page, and for the time being is one major reason the team is doing so well.
Free Agency and Trades Are Making Management Look Very Good
Now, it can’t just be drafted players that keep an NHL team running. Teams have to trade for players and pick some up in free agency to find the right mix of offense and defense to go on these long winning streaks. Despite some disappointments in the past (sorry, Brian Gionta), this year’s crop of adds seems to have come back a winner.
Whether it is the speed of Connor Sheary, who was acquired from the Penguins, or the goal-scoring touch of Jeff Skinner (signed from Carolina), the team has found ways to complement the young stars they have on the roster.
Maybe the biggest move the team made this offseason, however, was to pick up goaltender Carter Hutton to compete for their starting role.
Goaltending has been a challenge, to say the least in Buffalo, as seen in the graveyard of former goalies in the team stats. Hutton himself was a risk – an undrafted goalie that was originally signed in 2010 by the Philadephia Flyers, Hutton spent a couple years in the minors before being called up by the Chicago Blackhawks. He then managed to find a stint backing up Pekka Rinne in Nashville for 3 years before becoming part of the goaltending carousel in St. Louis.
The Sabres took a chance on the goalie, and it has paid off handsomely for them, as Hutton has emerged as the starter over a very passable goalie in Linus Ullmark. So, the team management and scouts can pat themselves on the back for a series of excellent transactions.
You Have to Be Lucky to Be Good
Now, to win 10 games in a row, some things have to go your way, but for the Sabres, this has meant staying alive for a long time. If you look at the Sabres win streak, it featured 7 wins in either Overtime or a Shootout.
Not that there is anything to lessen the quality of the streak, but with 3 on 3 overtime and a gimmick like a shootout, this is pretty close to winning a coin flip seven times in a row.
Can the Sabres Sustain This Level of Play?
Well, the streak is now over, but that just means it is time to start another one, right? As I write this, the Sabres find themselves tied with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Atlantic Division, only one point behind the Lightning who leapfrogged them Thursday night.
36 points are also good for 2nd overall in the whole NHL, by the way. Do I think that the Sabres will end up the season in the top 3 in points in the league? Absolutely not. However, I do think they will be competitive, and my prediction is that hey will make the playoffs this year. If you can find an online sportsbook that is taking futures bets on NHL teams making the playoffs, now is the time to jump on that.
As for the more immediate future for the team (and for those of you who like to gamble), let’s look at their upcoming schedule.
As you can see from the schedule, there is a bunch of disparity between the teams they have to play. The clash with Toronto will be must-see TV, and two games at the Capitals at least gets those out of the way before the Caps really get into the playoff-prep mode. If you are a good team, there are games you are just supposed to win, and I see 5 of them in the next 10 games – 2 against Florida, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Arizona.
Now, the positioning of the last three games is such that the team could find themselves on a bit of a small heater again., which could lead to a win in Washington. Overall, I see the team going 6-4 in their next 10 games, and that is a record that the team should be very happy with as they make their way into the Christmas break.
Is it too early for fans to get excited about a deep run for these Buffalo Sabres? In almost every instance that I am asked that question, my answer would be yes.
However, to the good folks of Buffalo, I say jump right on that bandwagon and hang on for dear life. This is the most excited the city has been able to be about hockey in a long time, so there is no reason to keep that hope bottled up any longer!
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