March 17 – Day 149 – Killing two birds with one stone, even though there’s only one bird team here

In preparation for Saturday’s action there’s not too many games happening tonight – four, to be exact. Half of those contests drop the puck at 7 p.m. (Florida at the New York Rangers [NHLN/TVAS] and New Jersey at Pittsburgh [SN360]), followed two hours later by Dallas at Calgary. Finally, Buffalo visits Anaheim at 10 p.m. to complete the night’s festivities. All times eastern.

Unfortunately, the action this evening, in addition to not being high-volume, is not expected to be exceptionally noteworthy. Since it’s been a while since we’ve featured either Anaheim or Buffalo, let’s kill two birds with one stone and catch their matchup at the Honda Center.

 

This season has not treated the 28-31-12 Sabres how they would’ve liked. Many fans came into the campaign dreaming of making the playoffs, but with the club currently sitting in 14th-place in the Eastern Conference, it seems those dreams will be dashed for the sixth year in a row.

Much of the reason for that is an offense that has managed only 177 goals in 71 games, which ties for the seventh-worst rate in the league. Of course, much of that is due to Jack Eichel‘s lower body injury suffered in a practice only a day before Buffalo‘s season got underway. Even though he’s missed 22 games this year, he still leads the team in points with 48, but Buffalonians can only dream of what he could have done playing a full 82-game season.

Another players who’s missed considerable time but has still produced is Evander Kane. He’s had to sit out a dozen contests, but his 25 goals still top the squad.

Believe it or not, the season’s injury list actually continues. In total, the top four forwards (Eichel, Kane, Ryan O’Reilly and the currently injured Kyle Okposo) have all missed a combined 41 games. With Kane and O’Reilly both playing on the top line, it’s proven difficult for the Sabres to maintain consistency and build chemistry.

But when Buffalo fights through the injuries and manages to put a quality roster on the ice, it’s more than proven what it’s capable of. That’s no more apparent than when the Sabres take to the power play, as their 23.4% success rate is second-best in the league. Rasmus Ristolainen, coincidentally one of the big-names on the Sabres‘ roster that hasn’t missed a game yet this year, has been at the head of that attack with his 24 man-advantage points.

Ristolainen has made a hobby of setting up linemates, as most of those are assists. Instead, it’s Matt Moulson who has scored the most power play goals on the team, with 10 to his credit.

Unfortunately, special teams giveth, and special teams taketh away. As great as the Sabres have been on the power play, they’ve been equally terrible on the penalty kill. Buffalo defends only 76.4% of its penalties, the second-worst rate in the league even though Josh Gorges has done all he can with his 34 shorthanded shot blocks (11th-most in the NHL).

Even with that effort, 19-22-8 Robin Lehner has still faced 255 shots against when his club is shorthanded, the third-most in the league. He saves a more-than-respectable .886 of those, but has not been rewarded with improved defensive play in front of him. Until Buffalo can improve on that defensive effort, it will not be a true Cup-contender. We will have to wait and see what Tim Murray has planned for the offseason.

Hosting the Sabres this evening are the 37-23-10 Ducks, winners of their past two games that currently occupy second place in the Pacific Division. Defense is the name of the game in Anaheim, as the Ducks have allowed only 173 goals against this season, which ties for the sixth-lowest total in the league.

At the core of that defense is 23-16-8 John Gibson, Anaheim‘s first-year starter. He’s done admirably in his new position, but recently suffered a lower body injury. In his stead, the Ducks are expected to start 14-7-2 Jonathan Bernier, whose .913 season save percentage and 2.62 GAA rank 29th-best in the league among the 60 netminders with at least a dozen appearances.

Randy Carlyle and Bob Murray prescribe to a decent philosophy: an under-worked good goalie becomes a great goaltender. That’s where Cam Fowler‘s group comes into play. Thanks in part to Fowler’s team-leading 118 shot blocks, the Ducks allow only 29.6 shots to reach Gibson’s (now Bernier’s) crease per game, the ninth-lowest average in the league.

The solid defensive effort continues when Anaheim is forced to defend a penalty. 85.1% of the time the Ducks are forced into a shorthanded situation, they do not yield a goal, which ties for the third-best rate in the NHL. Just like he is at even-strength, Fowler is very responsible for the Ducks‘ penalty kill success as he has a team-leading 24 shorthanded blocks.

With only 24 days remaining on the NHL calendar for the regular season, it’s not a surprise that this is the last time the Ducks and Sabres will meet this year. The Ducks visited Buffalo on February 9 and exploded for a 5-2 victory.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include Anaheim‘s Ryan Getzlaf (44 assists [tied for sixth-most in the league]) and Buffalo‘s Ristolainen (38 assists and 154 blocks [both lead the team]).

A -210 line is never a good sign for the road team, and it’s definitely discouraging me from picking against the Ducks. Not only are they on The Pond, where they’ve won all but 11 of their contests, but they also have a defense that can cover for an injured goaltender (Exhibits A and B: the last two games). Anaheim should have another two points after tonight’s game is complete.

Hockey Birthday

  • Craig Ramsay (1951-) – This longtime Sabres left wing saved his best for the last season of his career. Selected by Buffalo 19th-overall in the 1971 NHL Amateur Draft, he retired immediately after winning the 1985 Frank J. Selke Trophy.
  • Andrew Ference (1979-) – Pittsburgh may have selected this defenseman in the eighth round of the 1997 NHL Entry Draft, but he’s spent most of his career with Boston. He was a member of the Bruins‘ 2011 Stanley Cup-winning team, and also earned the 2014 King Clancy Memorial Trophy.
  • Ryan Parent (1987-) – It simply never panned out for this defenseman, the 18th-overall pick in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft by Nashville. He played 106 career games in the league – 102 with Philadelphia – and only had three points to show for it.
  • Bobby Ryan (1987-) – Anaheim selected this left wing second-overall in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, and that’s where he spent the first six years of his career. Since 2013, he’s called Ottawa home, where he’s registered 182 points.
  • Ryan White (1988-) – This center was selected 66th-overall in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft by Montréal, and that’s where he’s spent a majority of his eight-year career. That being said, he currently plays for the Wild after being traded from the Coyotes at this season’s deadline.

If I had to guess, the best way to break the resolve of a team is by by scoring four unanswered goals in a period. The Maple Leafs did just that to best Tampa Bay with a five-goal shutout in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Since Third Star of the Game Roman Polak (Tyler Bozak) was the first Leaf to score a goal – a slap shot 9:19 into the game – he gets to take credit for the game-winning tally. It’s a special statistic for a defenseman, as this is only the sixth of his 11-year career, and his first of the season.

Where Toronto truly won the game was in the second period. In the span of 13:17, Second Star Morgan Rielly (Nazem Kadri and Alexey Marchenko), Matt Martin (Matt Hunwick and Nikita Soshnikov), Connor Brown (Leo Komarov and William Nylander) and James van Riemsdyk (Rielly and Mitch Marner) all scored to set the score at the 5-0 final.

Frederik Andersen earned his First Star award in the final 40 minutes of the game. The Lightning fired a total of 26 shots in the second and third frames, but Andersen did not let a single one by to earn his fourth shutout of the season.

In all, Andersen saved all 33 shots he faced for the victory, while Andrei Vasilevskiy takes the loss after saving 11-of-15 (73.3%) shots faced. He was replaced following Brown’s power play goal (the score read 4-0 then) by Peter Budaj, who saved five-of-six (83.3%) for no decision.

For two days in a row now, the 76-53-22 road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series have scored five goals en route to a victory. Those offensive explosions has given the visitors in the series a three-point advantage on the hosts.

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