The Buffalo Sabres have waited all season to play the Columbus Blue Jackets.
This may not be the best time for the Sabres to meeting their Eastern Conference foes.
The teams are trending in opposite directions and meet for a back-to-back weekend, playing in Nationwide Arena at 7 p.m. Friday then returning to Buffalo for a 7 p.m. matchup on Saturday.
The Blue Jackets are putting together a late-season surge thanks to incredible goaltending and timely scoring. The Sabres are in the midst of a late-season collapse, unable to keep other teams from scoring or hold on to a lead.
“Columbus has played really well all year. They’re obviously at the top of the standings for a reason,” Sabres defenseman Cody Franson said after the team practiced in HarborCenter Thursday morning. “They’re a team that’s going to make us earn what we get. We’ve got to manage the puck well, not feed into their transition game. You know they’re not going to give up much defensively so we’ve got to bury the chances that we do create.”
The Blue Jackets' upward trend is backstopped by goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who has three straight shutouts. He has a career-high six this season and no one has scored on him since Montreal’s Alex Galchenyuk beat him in overtime on Feb. 28.
He’s one of the reasons the Blue Jackets are hot again.
They were the darlings of the NHL earlier this season, stopping one shy of setting the league record for consecutive wins by stringing together 16 straight.
But then the team lost urgency. After the historic run ended on Jan. 5, the Blue Jackets went 7-9-1 with a 3.38 goals against average in that span.
A team meeting on Feb. 10 became a turning point. While not characterized by players as an “emergency meeting,” it reportedly allowed players and coaches to open up – to talk about what was going right, what was going on, what they felt would be a more productive way for both sides to approach the losses and creeping inconsistencies.
And the Blue Jackets got their mojo back.
“Early on in the year when we watched them, from a distance, go through 16 wins in a row, they’re really one of the most aggressive teams – physical team, heavy forecheck,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. “A lot of being a dangerous offensive team with how they play. They won 16 in a row, they haven’t been on that pace the last 20 games or so but they’re still probably going to be the heaviest forechecking and most aggressive team that we’ve seen.”
The pace may have cooled, but the Blue Jackets are still on a hot streak. They have four shutouts in their last seven games and have won three in a row at home.
Overall the Blue Jackets are 24-9-1 in the friendly confines of Nationwide Arena. With 90 points they sit in second place in the Metropolitan Division behind Washington, gearing up for a playoff run.
On the opposite side of the trend sit the Sabres.
Since Feb. 10, the Blue Jackets have scored 34 goals while allowing just 17.
The Sabres have scored 36 goals, but have allowed 41. They are 3-5-2 in their last 10 games and since returning from the bye week are just 1-4-2 with four games with blown third-period leads.
But there have been pockets of bright spots for the Sabres during the season, including generally playing well against good teams, including going 4-0-1 against the Ottawa Senators and 2-0-1 against the New York Rangers.
“We’ve played certain teams, good teams, and done well against them,” Bylsma said. “I think it is a sign and it is an indicator of how we can be. You can’t play the New York Rangers and beat them like we have, you can’t beat the Ottawa Senators, and not see how good we can be.”
“When we play really well, we manage the puck really well,” Franson said. “We stay on the D-side of the puck. We don’t put ourselves in situations where we’re chasing from behind and accepting odd-man rushes. The last stretch of games we’ve doing just that – not staying above checks. There are small, little details in our game which have forced us to play more D-zone than we’d like. When we’re playing really well, we’re playing really well against good teams and we’re managing the puck, not turning it over often. The odd-man chances we do give up we have good support.”