Thursday night’s 4-2 loss against the Tampa Bay Lightning marked game No. 41 of the year – the halfway point of the 2016-17 season for the Buffalo Sabres. Normally 41 games would suffice as a large enough sample size to accurately gauge the success of a team, but injuries have hindered such a process all season long.
The injury bug struck the Buffalo Sabres before the puck was even dropped on opening night. The high-ankle sprain injury to generational talent Jack Eichel quickly tailored fans’ expectations from a ‘probable playoff run’ to ‘treading water.’ Considering injuries to other key players like Evander Kane, Dimitry Kulikov, Zach Bogosian, Ryan O’ Reilly, Tyler Ennis, and Johan Larsson, the Sabres have actually put together a valiant effort of ‘staying afloat.’
The Sabres currently sit in seventh place in the Atlantic Division with a record of 16-16-9, good enough for 41 points. A record like that usually doesn’t warrant a painless road to the playoffs, but the Sabres find themselves very much in the race as many of their division foes have played similar brands of mediocre hockey.
They currently sit seven points behind the third place Ottawa Senators in their division, and trail nine points in the wild card race. To keep up in this race they’ll have to improve in many areas of their game.
It’s no secret that poor offensive output has plagued this team over the past few seasons, and this season is not much different (though trending upwards). Yet again the Sabres find themselves in the basement in goals-for with just 94, 27th in the league (2.29 GF/GP).
On the other side of the puck the Sabres are much closer to the league median in goals-against average with 2.66, 15th place.
The Sabres special-teams find themselves at polar opposites of each other.
Their power-play, which ranks 10th in the league at a clip of 21.6%, has been heavily relied on to provide offense for a team that struggles mightily to score on 5-on-5.
The penalty kill on the other hand has been nothing short of dreadful, with a last-place percentage of 73.4%.
Even with some of the poor team statistics though, the Sabres still have some individual bright spots with the play of both goalies leading the way. Robin Lehner (9 wins, 2.53 GAA, .921 Sv%) and Anders Nilsson (7 wins, 2.41 GAA, 9.28 Sv%) have done everything asked of them, if not exceeded expectations, especially Nilsson whose earned consecutive starts even with a healthy Robin Lehner.
As for defensemen, Rasmus Ristolainen has fully established himself as this team’s number-one defenseman. Through 41 games he is tied for the team lead in points with 27 (3G, 24A), and logging big minutes each night. His 26:53 TOI/GP ranks 5th in the league among defensemen. That’s elite company.
Though not providing the same offensive numbers, Jake McCabe is starting to turn heads as he’s joined Ristolainen on the top defensive pairing.
Even with abundant injuries and constant line juggling, the Sabres forward group has still managed to engineer some amount of respectability. Kyle Okposo has earned himself a trip to the All-Star game, leading the Sabres in goals (12) and points (27), while providing much needed leadership for a young team.
Sam Reinhart joins Okposo for the team lead in points, while recently riding a 10 game point streak collecting 12 points, playing both the center and wing position.
Jack Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly, arguably the Sabres two best players, have both missed extended periods of time throughout the first half of this season. Still, in 31 games O’ Reilly has 24 points (8G, 16A), while in just 20 games Eichel has 15 (8G, 7A). Also, longest tenure Sabre Tyler Ennis has been held to playing just 12 games because of a groin injury.
And that’s the storyline that won’t go away for this team.
A recap of the 1st 41 games of this season could be easily rendered through a simple injury report. Injuries have dominated the narrative for the Sabres all season long. Any semblance of an identity this team was trying to form was lost the day before the season started.
It seems though, the 2nd half of the season could provide a different story. Since the New Year, with an almost-healthy club, the Sabres own a record of 3-1-1. Last year the Sabres played at a 90 point pace through the second half of the season. If they can regenerate some of that same momentum through the second half this year, then they might stand a chance at cracking a playoff spot.
The Sabres will undoubtedly need to stay healthy along the rest of the way, and will eventually need to figure out how to come up victorious in the ever-illusive shootout.