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Behind Enemy Lines: Previewing the Buffalo Sabres and Minnesota Wild

Carolina hits the road for the remainder of the week to visit a pair of currently struggling clubs.

NHL: Minnesota Wild at Buffalo Sabres Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Buffalo Sabres

Thursday, 7:00 p.m. at KeyBank Center

New York Islanders v Buffalo Sabres Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

The Buffalo Sabres began the 2019-20 season much in the same fashion they began the 2018-19 season: red hot. Jumping out to an 8-1-1 record in their first 10 contests, the Sabres appeared to have taken the next steps that would lead them to contending seriously for their first playoff berth since 2011. That swift start has been curtailed lately, as the Sabres are in the midst of a five-game losing streak as the Canes head to Buffalo.

Perhaps the main culprit in the recent swoon has been goal scoring. In their past seven contests, the Sabres have scored two goals or fewer six times. Jack Eichel has put together the expected solid start, notching 19 points in the 17 games to date. The issue has been scoring deeper in the lineup. Former Cane Jeff Skinner has added seven goals, but only three assists.

Overall, the Buffalo offense has functioned best on the man advantage. Coming in at a tidy 25% on the power play, the Sabres have utilized their top unit to score 14 goals with the extra man thus far.

One of the questions that the Sabres needed to answer this season was if they had real solutions in goal. Carter Hutton was pegged again as the starter with Linus Ullmark returning as the backup. Both had posted decent numbers a season ago, but there were discussions about whether that tandem had enough room for growth remaining to drive the team forward to the postseason.

The early results this season have been nothing but encouraging. Some have given credit to new coach Ralph Krueger, who has implemented a more defensively responsible system for his team. Nevertheless, Hutton and Ullmark have posted a terrific combined .918 save percentage and 2.69 goals against average. Posting top-five defensive results should be good enough to push the Sabres into the playoff discussion for the entire season.

For the Canes to have success in Buffalo, getting a hold of the Eichel line is very important. Staying out of the penalty box would also remove the greatest offensive weapon that the Sabres possess. If they keep the top line quiet, they should be able to generate enough offensive chances to steal a win in Western New York.

Minnesota Wild

Saturday, 2:00 p.m. at Xcel Energy Center

Minnesota Wild v Anaheim Ducks Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The beginning of the 2019-20 season has seen the continued decline of the Minnesota Wild. Bruce Boudreau currently sits on one of the hottest seats in the NHL as his aging team has limped out to a 6-11-1 start. Struggling in all phases of the game, their regular lineup consist of at least seven players over the age of 30. One of those veterans has been a bit of a bright spot to date. Eric Staal has continued his solid work as a member of the Wild into the early portion of this season, as he leads the team with 14 points in 18 games to date. His six goals also lead the squad, as the Wild struggle to produce goals across the board.

Veterans such as Zach Parise (35), Mikko Koivu (36), Ryan Suter (35), and Mats Zuccarello (32) have all had varying success, but none are at the level they each sustained for the bulk of the prime of their careers. Saddled with big contracts that they will be looking to shed, the Wild may be the team that is the biggest seller at the trade deadline early in 2020.

The veteran theme for the Wild continues in net as Devan Dubnyk (33) and Alex Stalock (32) have shared the net with mixed results. Dubnyk has been the long time starter, but his .893 save percentage in 12 games has yielded an unsightly 3.43 goals against average. Some of this has been due to the number of high quality chances that the netminders have faced, but overall they have faced the 20th most shots in the league. If the Minnesota defense can start to limit the high-quality opportunities, the goalie play should significantly improve.

The Wild are clearly an organization in flux. Many faces will be spread out across the NHL by February, but in the interim, the Wild will have to do everything they can to pull together and compete. For the Canes to be successful, using their clear advantage in speed will be a significantly important strategy. Keeping up the pace of the action, and staying at five-on-five play as much as possible over 60 minutes should give the Canes a significant advantage in attacking the veteran Wild. Getting on the board early and forcing the Wild to chase the game a bit would be the ideal way to establish the pace the Canes want in order to take advantage of the Wild’s greatest weaknesses.