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Travis Yost's Sabre Metrics: Why December success is so important to Sabres

Travis Yost has been involved in the world of hockey analytics for a decade and is currently part of TSN's Hockey Analytics team. Prior to joining TSN, Travis was a contributor at the Ottawa Citizen, the Sporting News and NHL Numbers, and has been a consultant for an NHL franchise. He will be contributing breakdowns on the Sabres for The Buffalo News this season. Follow Travis on Twitter: @travisyost

A 10-game winning streak put the Buffalo Sabres in prime position to steal their first playoff berth since the 2010-11 season. But the fan base is still uneasy, and understandably so.

This is uncharted territory for a core part of this roster, and there are going to be ebbs and flows over the course of the regular season. Case in point – the Sabres followed up that unbelievable winning streak with a five-game (and counting!) losing streak. And in the matter of two weeks, the Sabres have already dropped from being in the Eastern Conference’s pole position to third place in the Atlantic Division, just one win up on the chasing Boston Bruins. The Sabres play in Boston on Sunday.

If you thought burning standings equity from this five-game losing streak was bad enough, I bring additional bad news. The schedule ahead for the Sabres is, in one word, grueling.

With about two months of the regular season wrapped up, we have a pretty good understanding of team quality by now. And at this point of the season, strength of scheduling analyses can be quite informative. To that end, I have went ahead and built up every team’s schedule by expected opponent quality through the remainder of the season by Adjusted Corsi%. (Adjusted Corsi% is not only considerate of home/away splits, but also back-to-back scenarios where team performance is known to degrade. And at the 25-game mark, Corsi% is actually one of the most robust measures we have in predicting future win percentage.)

Here is a table showing strength of schedule by month, where the higher number indicates more difficult opponents (with the associated rank relative to every other team’s strength of schedule off to the right). Pay specific attention to January and February of 2019:

Any deviation from 50 percent is notable, particularly because a team can play anywhere from 10 to 15 games in a calendar month. So when you see that the average Sabres opponent in January will carry just less than 52 percent of the play, that’s terrifying. (52 percent shot advantage teams, by and large, reach the playoffs; 48 percent shot advantage teams, generally speaking, will miss the playoffs.)

No team has a tougher schedule than Buffalo in the month of January. Their average opponent carries about 52 percent of the play, and the Sabres will actually only play three games the entire month at the KeyBank Center. They also have a scheduling disadvantage in January, where they will play two games – Tampa Bay on Jan. 12, and Dallas on Jan. 30 – where they will play the second leg of a back-to-back against a rested opponent.

And guess what? The schedule really doesn’t lighten up in February. The Sabres have the seventh-hardest schedule in that month – a busier month that will see them play a ridiculous 13 games in 26 nights, most of those coming against relatively quality opponents.

The next table shows the 23-game schedule from Jan. 1, 2019, to Feb. 26 that will ultimately make or break this Sabres season.

As you can see, the Sabres really hit the trifecta here: (A) a wave of quality opponents; (B) a healthy serving of road games, particularly in the month of January; and (C) scheduling disadvantages, where the Sabres will play more "schedule loss" games than their opponent will.

The saving grace here? Buffalo’s end-of-season schedule is much more kind. That’s kind of the beauty of the 82-game schedule – every team, at some point in time, will go through a difficult stretch. The only issue for the Sabres is it appears to be longer than usual in nature and is on the imminent horizon.

Buffalo, truthfully, cannot afford to sacrifice more points in the standings in December. Doing so will put them at tremendous risk of falling out of the playoff picture when the schedule stiffens.

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