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Behind Enemy Lines: Buffalo Sabres battling to score, fighting through injuries

The offensively-challenged Sabres make their final trip of the season to Raleigh tonight.

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Sabres enter PNC Arena for the final time this season on the back end of a back-to-back. After falling 4-2 to the Tampa Bay Lightning, they will look to avenge their two previous defeats at the hands of the Hurricanes. The Sabres will be without starting netminder Robin Lehner, as he continues to battle flu-like symptoms, and defenseman Josh Gorges who is still nursing a hip injury.

So far this season the Sabres have struggled to put together any sort of consistent play and are currently sitting exactly at NHL .500 with a 16-16-9 record, good for only 13th place in the Eastern Conference and seventh place within the Atlantic Division.

This season, head coach Dan Bylsma has dealt with a near complete offensive shutdown as the Sabres have only netted 95 goals in their 41 games played so far this season, good for 28th best in the league. New acquisition Kyle Okposo joins Sam Reinhart and defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen as a triumvirate atop the scoring table with 27 points apiece.

While the offense has been non-existent for large chunks of the season. the improvements made in net with the aforementioned Lehner and solid play from backup Anders Nilsson have allowed the Sabres to at least hang around in the first half of the season. Lehner has posted a sparkling .921 save percentage to go along with a 2.53 goals against average, while Nilsson has even been a tick better in 15 games played with a .928 save percentage and 2.41 goals against average.

Improved defensive play has also contributed with the likes of Ristolainen, Gorges, Cody Franson, and Zemgus Girgensons performing better on that end, but the Sabres still have not suppressed shots at a great rate, having allowed 32.7 shots per game, about 3 shots greater than league average.

Offensively, even with their atrocious numbers, there are players to pay close attention to. Second-year man Jack Eichel, who has missed approximately half of the season thus far with an ankle injury, is a talent that requires substantial effort to contain. In general, the collection of talent in Buffalo with the likes of Evander Kane, Ryan O’Reilly, and veteran Matt Moulson to go along with Okposo, Reinhart and Ristolainen should lend itself to more offensive firepower, but that has certainly not been the case this far.

The Sabres struggle at producing shots, as they rank 23rd in total shots and have problems capitalizing on the opportunities they do get with a team shooting percentage of 7.9%, good for 26th in the NHL. Strangely, the offense has been incredibly reliant on the power play, as the Sabres rank ninth best in the league at 21.6% with the extra man. In fact, 33 of the team’s 95 goals have come on the man advantage. The penalty kill has been a different story for the Sabres, however, as they rank dead last in the league with only a 73.4% kill rate. Compare that to the Hurricanes’ league-leading 88.5% penalty kill, and you can probably see that giving up a goal on roughly one of every four opposing power plays is not a very good recipe for success.

For the Canes, tonight is about taking advantage of an opponent that you matchup well with, without its top netminder and playing the end of a back-to-back while you are fresh, rested, and playing at home. Quite simply, if the Canes have any hopes of playing into the NHL’s second season, games like tonight need to end with two points.

What to Watch For

  • The Sabres’ main goal scoring weapon has been their power play (over a third of the team’s goals have been scored on the PP), but the Canes biggest strength has been stifling opposing power plays. Which unit wins out in these matchups will be crucial to victory.
  • Anders Nilsson is likely in net for back-to-back games. This is not something typical for the Sabres backup. Let’s see how he reacts physically and see if the Canes can keep consistent pressure on him.
  • Tyler Ennis is a game-time decision for the Sabres. Let’s see if he returns to the lineup for the first time in over two months.
  • It is possible that we have another Justin Faulk vs. Justin Falk game. If you are watching at home, enjoy as John Forslund attempts to clarify which “Justin” has just played the puck. Always fun! (No truth to the rumor that you will pay double for queso at Moe’s tomorrow if Justin Falk scores a goal tonight, though.)