BUFFALO – Given the Sabres’ sorry state these days, it’s almost difficult to remember now. But for a brief stretch earlier this season, they morphed into a young team on the rise, winning a string of exciting games in dramatic fashion.
The rebuilding club triumphed 10 times in 13 games – they have only 20 victories in 75 outings all season – during a rollicking run in November and December, roaring back night after night.
The Sabres were never out of any contest. They were scoring goals, having fun and even developing some swagger. The talk about finishing last and drafting either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel calmed down a bit.
The First Niagara Center started to buzz again. After a dramatic 5-4 shootout win Dec. 15 against Ottawa, the Sabres crept to within four points of a playoff spot.
The Sabres, of course, had no margin for error. They won eight one-goal games – four in overtime or a shootout. To win, they needed everyone on board.
So when injuries started ravaging the Sabres, they fell apart.
The Sabres’ season officially imploded Dec. 21 in Boston, about 14 minutes into their 4-3 overtime loss to the Bruins, when Marcus Foligno passed the puck to Brian Gionta just inside the Buffalo blue line.
Boston’s Matt Bartkowski hit the Sabres captain high, flipping him on his face. Foligno, who was playing perhaps the best hockey of his four-year career, then broke his hand fighting Bartkowski.
Gionta missed 13 games. Foligno missed 19 games. Several other regulars were injured then, including former ace defenseman Tyler Myers, who was traded to Winnipeg on Feb. 11.
The Sabres mustered one more thrilling win, a 4-3 shootout against the New York Islanders on Dec. 27, but their season was essentially over. They lost a stunning 14 games in a row with a patchwork lineup.
Clearly, with Gionta and Foligno, the Sabres would’ve won some games. A few wins during that epic skid would’ve dramatically changed their season.
If the lineup had stayed healthy, they might be in, say, 25thor 26th place today, not 30th, a spot they will almost certainly cement tonight with another loss to the 29th-ranked Arizona Coyotes.
Yes, the Sabres are bad. But with a little luck and some different personnel choices, they wouldn’t be in this spot.
Here are some happenings that influenced this season.
Playing No. 2 pick Sam Reinhart instead of Brian Flynn: Yes, Reinhart’s one of hockey’s biggest prospects. But the teenage center wasn’t ready for the NHL. He did little during his nine-game trial in October, managing only one assist as the Sabres lost seven times.
Flynn, who was dealt to Montreal on March 2, isn’t an elite talent. Still, he’s a versatile, stabilizing presence. Flynn played regularly after the Sabres sent Reinhart back to junior. Not coincidentally, they won seven of the next 14 games.
Nikita Zadorov’s maturity: Sabres coach Ted Nolan, probably rightfully so, wouldn’t play the defenseman early, scratching him 11 of the first 12 games as the staff worked with the Russian to develop better habits.
The Sabres took off once Zadorov earned regular duty in early November, beginning their hot streak two weeks later.
Zadorov showcased stretches of future stardom when the Sabres caught fire. But the rookie’s sitting again now, his maturity still the major issue. Nolan believes the 19-year-old has developed poor habits. He benched him for chunks of Thursday’s 4-3 loss to Arizona before scratching him outright for Saturday’s 5-3 loss in Colorado.
If Zadorov had stayed near the top of his game, the Sabres would have a few more wins.
Sending Mark Pysyk down Jan. 1: Some observers think keeping Pysyk, who’s proven he’s ready for regular NHL duty, in Rochester was the Sabres’ “tankiest” move.
With Pysyk in the AHL, Nolan had to keep playing Andre Benoit and Andrej Meszaros, two of the NHL’s worst defensemen. Pysyk, the 23rd pick in 2010, is efficient and smooth. He was often the Sabres’ best defenseman last season, when he played 44 games.
It can be argued letting Pysyk perfect his game in the minors and “overcook” a bit was OK. But stashing him with the Americans almost all season looks fishy. The 23-year-old, who’s likely done for the season after collapsing Feb. 28, played only six NHL games.
Nolan wanted Pysyk up badly. A day before the Sabres sent him down, Nolan said Pysyk was “ready for primetime.”
General manager Tim Murray disagreed. Would the Sabres have lost 14 straight games with Pysyk playing?