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Behind Enemy Lines: Sabres Keeping Pace

Buffalo comes to town on a two-game winning streak.

NHL: New York Islanders at Buffalo Sabres Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Hurricanes will play the second half of a home back-to-back, following last night’s shootout loss to the Capitals with a matchup against the Buffalo Sabres (who are also playing a back-to-back) in PNC Arena tonight.

The Sabres (12-11-6) have played 29 games to Carolina’s 30, but sit just one point back of the home club. They are 11 points behind the second wild-card spot, but just five points away from third place in the Atlantic Division.

Buffalo has been led in forward scoring by Kyle Okposo thus far with 22 points, followed by Ryan O’Reilly and Sam Reinhart with 17 and 15. Jack Eichel has been as consistent as they come since returning from a high ankle sprain he incurred before the start of the season, scoring five goals and three assists through eight games played.

The Sabres’ team offense has been sparse, averaging 2.21 goals/game (27th in NHL). They average 29.9 shots/game, however, and are tied with Carolina for 16th in the League in that regard. They also possess the League’s third-ranked power play unit, scoring on 22.9% of their chances.

Part of the reason for that discrepancy has been the lack of their natural scorer in Eichel, but the continued offensive emergence of defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen has Buffalo excited. The Finnish defender is second in team scoring with 21 points (2g, 19a) through 29 games, and is their leader in ice time, takeaways, and blocked shots. He has also taken the third most total shots of any Sabres player.

Ristolainen is the undisputed leader of a defense featuring a mixture of young and veteran players. Jake McCabe—a second-year NHLer—Dmitry Kulikov, and Josh Gorges round out the top-four in ice time, with Cody Franson also seeing 18+ minutes per game in the absence of Zach Bogosian (MCL sprain).

Buffalo’s defense has been relatively solid, ranking 10th in goals allowed/game at 2.55. They do give up a large volume of shots, though, coming in at 27th League-wide with an average of 32.4 shots against/game. Their penalty kill unit has been a major pitfall, as they sit dead last with a 73.3 kill %.

In goal, the Sabres feature Robin Lehner most prominently. He has taken 21 starts to Anders Nilsson’s nine, but holds only two more wins than his backup. Lehner boasts a .920 SV% and 2.45 GAA through 21 games, while Nilsson maintains a .932 SV% and 2.30 GAA through his nine games.

The Sabres, much like the Hurricanes, have not had much to cheer about in terms of season-long success over the past few years. But with young players like Eichel and Ristolainen starting to lead the team in Buffalo, this could be an interesting matchup of two teams with star draft picks coming into their own.

What to Watch For

  • The special teams battles could decide this game. Buffalo’s severe discrepancy between their 3rd ranked PP and 30th ranked PK could prove costly against Carolina’s 6th ranked PP and 1st ranked PK.
  • The Sabres and Hurricanes are separated by just one point in the standings, but have vastly different paths to a playoff spot. Both are 10+ points behind the wild-card, but Buffalo could move just three points behind a divisional playoff spot with a win over the Hurricanes.
  • Sabres’ scorer Evander Kane has dealt with some injury troubles this season and hasn’t quite hit the marks he has been expected to, but he has come on of late, posting four points in as many games and riding a two-game point streak.
  • Expect Anders Nilsson in net, with Lehner having won in OT against the Islanders last night.