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Sabres continue to lean on their strengths

The Buffalo Sabres have had a tough go of things thus far in the 2016-17 NHL season. Buffalo finds itself once again in last place in the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic division. Its 28 points tie it with Toronto, just one point ahead of the worst record in the conference at-large.

However, despite the team’s struggles, there are reasons for optimism peaking through. For one thing, the team is 5-3-2 in its last 10 games and has only lost two regulation games in the month of December. The Sabres are also an impressive 5-5-3 on the road this season.

It’s quite unexpected that a team with such ineptness at both ends of the ice could be so competent away from home, but Buffalo actually has a couple real strengths on its roster this year: goaltending and the power-play attack.

Buffalo has the seventh-best team save percentage in all of hockey, right behind their rival Bruins. That mark is thanks to a great timeshare in net between starting goalie Robin Lehner and backup Anders Nilsson. Nilsson has been the better player thus far, though Lehner has been no slouch. Nilsson is 5-2-2 in nine starts, accumulating a 2.38 goals-against average and .932 save percentage. If he had enough outings to qualify, Nilsson’s save percentage would rank eighth in the NHL. Lehner hasn’t been quite that good, but he has performed well enough to garner 20 starts. With how badly so many goaltenders have been this year, for Buffalo to have two solid options is rather astounding.

The other strength of this Sabres squad has been on the power play. Buffalo ranks tied for fourth in the league in power play percentage. During the team’s last 10 games, the attack with the man advantage has really taken off. Buffalo has connected on 10 power-play goals in those 10 games, converting 10 of 37 chances. First-year Sabre Kyle Okposo and Rasmus Ristolainen lead the way with 12 points apiece. Matt Moulson leads Buffalo in power-play goals with six.

For a team with so few goals overall, it is remarkable that the team excels so much with the man advantage. It hopefully speaks to the promise and potential of this offense to eventually become an average unit overall. One of the issues it has had is in shooting percentage. Buffalo shoots just 7.3 percent, ranking 29th in the league, ahead of only Boston. Putting more pucks in the net at even strength has to be a real key for this team moving forward.

Jack Eichel has played in only seven games to this point after getting a late start because of injury. His healthy return will definitely help the team as a whole. He already has eight points and is easily leading the team with a 21.7 shooting percentage. His presence also opens up space for the rest of the skaters. A healthy Buffalo team is no longer a pushover.

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