The Buffalo Sabres were on the fast track to Connor McDavid (or Jack Eichel) after one of the worst Octobers in their history. Many of their numbers, be they standard or advanced ones, are still pretty ugly – but a lot changed in the second half of November.
The Sabres wrapped up the month with a 6-6-1 record after sweeping a home-and-home series with the Montreal Canadiens, who started the set Friday atop the NHL’s overall standings.
The Sabres, who opened the season 1-7 and were 2-8-1 in October, have found some offense and have ridden the white-hot goaltending of Jhonas Enroth to five wins in their last six games.
For goalies with at least 10 games played this year, Enroth is eighth in the NHL in even-strength save percentage at a glossy .935. And that’s ahead of plenty of big names like Corey Crawford, Cory Schneider, Carey Price, Tuukka Rask, Marc-Andre Fleury, Jonas Hiller and Henrik Lundqvist.
Until the Canadiens broke through Saturday, Buffalo went more than 14 periods – including four complete games – without giving up a single goal at even strength.
Enroth was adamant he wanted the back-to-back set against the Habs to test himself and was thrilled by the results. He wasn’t happy when he went back-to-back in October in losses to Florida and Boston, the latter being a 4-0 defeat.
“I’m feeling a little bit more comfortable, and I’m putting a couple games together,” said Enroth, who stopped 41 of 44 shots and all five shootout attempts in Saturday’s 4-3 win at the Bell Centre. “It’s five good games in a row for me. It’s a result of how good we’re playing five against five. All the guys have been playing better, and we’ve been scoring goals, too.”
The Sabres seem to have tightened the gap between their defense and forwards and it’s allowed for shorter, crisper passes and better puck movement out of the zone.
“It’s definitely improving,” said defenseman Tyler Myers. “There’s still improvement to be made, but a big part of it is we’ve incorporated more video into our off-ice preparation. Allowing guys to see different situations is helping our group be more compact and more solid as a unit.”
November was the month coach Ted Nolan figured out his lineup, forming his top two lines of Zemgus Girgensons between Matt Moulson and Tyler Ennis and Torrey Mitchell centering Brian Flynn and Brian Gionta. The Sabres also formed two minutes-gouging defense pairs with Myers pairing with Tyson Strachan and 2013 first rounders Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov joining forces.
The Sabres have gone from buried in last place overall to 27th, and within five points of five other teams. Now the quest continues for more offense.
Burly Chris Stewart has scored a spectacular breakaway goal in classic power forward mode in two of the last three games. Taking advantage of Marcus Foligno blocks in both cases, Stewart outraced the Winnipeg defense for a loose puck Wednesday and split the Montreal tandem of Mike Weaver and Bryan Allen to give the Sabres a third-period lead Saturday.
“Something I really work on in the offseason is my first five steps and my explosiveness, and I think it showed there,” Stewart said. “I’ve got to get hungrier on pucks and really win those one-on-one battles, shoot to score and it’s paying off.”
Whether you look at Corsi percentage (a puck possession measure that figures shots on goal, at goal and blocks) or Fenwick (not including blocks), the Sabres have ghastly numbers. They’re last in the league in both, and a good 5-6 percentage points behind every other team in the league.
The Sabres are last in the league in shots on goal against at 36.5 per game and last in shots for at 23.3. Last in goal differential at minus-35 (not counting shootouts). They routinely get annihilated in the faceoff circle, with the Habs having a monstrous 92-40 edge in faceoffs over the weekend and Buffalo’s 41 percent success rate for the season a distant 30th.
But goaltending has proved to be a great equalizer.
In even-strength play in November the Sabres and their opponents were even at 23 goals apiece. In October, Buffalo was outscored, 29-10, in such situations. Because Enroth has struggled while the Sabres have been short-handed, Michal Neuvirth has been better overall with a .920 save percentage to Enroth’s .914.
“Goaltending hasn’t been an issue for us all year,” Stewart said. “Our goaltenders really battle, and we’re reaping the benefits.”
What’s on tap for December? The Sabres definitely have some schedule issues. First off, there’s 14 games in the month’s 28 allowable days (the CBA prevents games or practices from Dec. 24-26). One of the contests is the Dec. 15 game against Ottawa, moved from February to accommodate the rescheduling of the Nov. 21 postponement against the New York Rangers.
Then there’s the opponents. Three of the games are against Tampa Bay, the current chic favorite in the Eastern Conference, and the Steven Stamkos-led Lightning are here Tuesday night to open a home-and-home set.
There are visits to Buffalo by defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles, as well as early-season surprises Calgary and the New York Islanders. The road schedule includes trips to Boston and Detroit, and a one-game jaunt all the way to Winnipeg.
The Sabres took Sunday off and returned center Tim Schaller to Rochester. The 24-year-old made his NHL debut Saturday night and had one shot on goal while getting 11:52 of ice time, including a stint on the penalty-killing unit late in the third period. Nolan said Saturday there’s a good chance Drew Stafford will play Tuesday after missing Saturday’s game.