Yes, the Buffalo Sabres had good reason to be shell shocked after Jack Eichel’s ankle injury.
Yes, watching Evander Kane rolling around in pain after sliding full speed into the boards and cracking three ribs felt like a punch in our gut.
But those aren’t enough reasons to justify this team—and its’ fans—going into a panic for the next six to eight weeks.
Sunday night’s rout of the Edmonton Oilers should have solidified that. Sans Eichel and Kane, the team traveled to the other side of the continent, shut down Connor McDavid, and handed the Oilers their first loss of the season in emphatic fashion, piling up six goals from four different players.
It proved that, even without the budding superstar that we all fell in love with, and many were willing to “tank” for, this team isn’t all that bad.
It actually might be a good team, and good teams should continue to play hard no matter what piece or pieces they’re missing.
Sam Reinhart, Kyle Okposo, Ryan O’Reilly—that’s a formidable top line. Head coach Dan Bylsma better not have even a fleeting thought about breaking up that trio. The same goes for Marcus Foligno, Brian Gionta, and Johan Larsson. Why has that third line proven so effective dating back to last season? Not even the hockey gods can probably explain that one.
For now, though, explanations are of little significance. What actually matters is that they can play—and they play very well together. They did so last year even while O’Reilly missed a chunk of the schedule due to injury.
If Foligno, Gionta, and Larsson could all continue competing while O’Reilly—a player who put up more points than Eichel—was out for a little over a month, they darn sure better be competing while Eichel and Evander Kane miss the next few weeks.
Every player better be competing, and some need to outright excel while two of our top guys are temporarily on the shelf. Reinhart finished last season just a goal short of Eichel’s final tally; he has no reason to fall into a sophomore slump. Rasmus Ristolainen needs to live up to that lucrative contact he just signed and continue being the relentless defenseman who is also a setup machine for his forward teammates. Matt Moulson has two goals in two games thus far—he’s far from being washed up.
O’Reilly, Okposo, Tyler Ennis and Robin Lehner all have an obligation to bolster their efforts.
Lehner’s obligation might actually be the greatest. Despite his history of injuries, he’s endured as the target of Tim Murray’s faith.
Chad Johnson made the undeniable claim last season that he could be a starting netminder, and our general manager allowed him to ship off to Calgary. Lehner needs to prove that we didn’t watch as our best option in net went west this summer, and we can’t afford for Lehner to suffer another catastrophic injury.
This team will live and die based on how many games Lehner can suit up for. If 50-60 appearances isn’t in the cards for him, there likely won’t be a lot of improvement to be found in our relation to the standings. Linus Ullmark isn’t quite NHL-ready, and Jason Kasdorf has a much longer road ahead of him, in that regard. Anders Nilsson is a backup, and that’s exactly what he should remain. The Sabres don’t have many viable options beyond Lehner’s well-being. Let’s remember, Lehner showed off some dynamite goaltending while he was in good health last season—around the same time that the whole team began to gel.
Those boys made a run in the latter portion of the year. They were one of the better teams in the entire NHL during the second half, finishing the season with a 20-14-7 stretch. At one point, they went 6-2-2 through ten games and threatened to find themselves in a playoff position.
They may very well have secured a playoff berth had they done better than their 15-22-4 to start the season.
If there’s any impetus for this team to go full steam ahead until Eichel and Kane return, it’s the end result of last year. The 2015-2016 was a firm reminder that you need to play hard for the entirety of an NHL campaign to earn a shot at Lord Stanley’s Cup.
When April rolls around, there’s no reason why we should be sitting just a few points out of the playoffs because of a lengthy slide that occurred in October and November 2016.
With or without Eichel and Kane, this team is too good for that.