ST. LOUIS – The Buffalo Sabres have had a lot of practice playing past regulation time this season and have enjoyed plenty of success.
More than a third of the Sabres' games have stretched into overtime or shootouts. The total is an NHL-high 13 of the first 37 games and Buffalo is 8-5, also leading the league in victories after 60 minutes.
Last season, Buffalo played 18 games beyond regulation for the season, going 6-12 overall and just 5-10 in overtime decisions.
Asked in recent days for some of the secrets to the team's play in extra time, coach Phil Housley doubled down on taking the pulse of a game and going with the players who are hot. But a closer look at the numbers shows Housley, in fact, has made some clear conclusions about his personnel when it comes to overtime.
If things are tied at the end of regulation when the schedule resumes Thursday night in Enterprise Center against the St. Louis Blues, definite patterns will be on display.
Housley gives heavy usage in overtime to Jack Eichel, Rasmus Ristolainen and Rasmus Dahlin, and any reasonable coach would do that. Sam Reinhart also gets a good deal of ice time. The Sabres have played nearly 39 1/2 minutes of overtime thus far, almost two-thirds of the way to an extra game, and those four players are the only ones who have compiled more than 10 minutes.
Eichel has played 21:49 of the 39:23, more than 55 percent of the available ice time. Ristolainen is at 19:17 and Dahlin at 18:25, after playing just 1:23 of the first three OTs before Housley started to go with him. Reinhart clocks in at 13:42.
Skinner doesn't see much ice
Where things get murky is when you consider the usage of top-line left winger Jeff Skinner, who leads the team with 26 goals overall and has three of its five overtime winners. He's tied for the league lead in that department with Calgary's Johnny Gaudreau, Winnipeg's Mark Scheifele and Detroit's Dylan Larkin – but don't expect to see him on the ice much at all unless the Sabres get a power play.
Housley has not shown much faith in Skinner when the numbers are equal and the room is plentiful in OT. Skinner took an offensive zone penalty in the Nov. 10 shootout win against Vancouver and committed a grievous turnover at the Toronto blue line in the Dec. 4 loss to the Leafs, and those two plays have seemingly tipped Housley's hand.
Skinner has played just under 9 1/2 minutes in OT – and only 3 minutes, 25 seconds at even strength in the extra periods. That's less than Conor Sheary (8:31), Casey Mittelstadt (6:20), Evan Rodrigues (5:11) and Vladimir Sobotka (5:00), who all would be considered substantially less dangerous when it comes to scoring.
But the Sabres' success in OT is rooted in possession, and it seems Housley feels that's an area where Skinner is lacking. The Sabres have outshot opponents in OTs, 36-14, and out-attempted them, 54-24.
Skinner was diplomatic when recently asked if he's surprised he hasn't had more chances in 3-on-3 play.
"It's not my call, but you just try to do as best you can," he said. "I'm part of the puzzle here. There's a lot of guys that can play well here in any situation. You get you chance, you try your best."
"It's a little bit of feel for the game, how the game is going," Housley insisted. "Obviously, we'd love to have him out there. He has played before. That's just a feel."
This was a topic the normally affable Skinner was clearly uncomfortable talking about. And it was obvious he was aware of the numbers, even as he tried to deadpan the conversation away.
"For me as a player, I don't read into those things," Skinner said. "I have only one person to worry about, myself. That's the way I try to keep it. That's as much as I can handle right now. I don't have kids. I don't have a wife. I worry about me, being ready for the next shift and doing my best to prepare for the next one."
But has he brought up the subject to Housley?
"Like any coach and player, you have a dialogue throughout the season," Skinner said. "But look, he's got 23 people to worry about. I've got just one. Me. There's a lot of stuff that goes on through the course of a game. You can pick any number of situations that pop up, whether it's matchups, people that are tired. You can come up with so many things."
Better at shootouts
The Sabres have been much improved in shootouts this year, posting a 3-1 record. They were just 5-15 the last three years, with former starting goaltender Robin Lehner's troubles getting lots of attention. But Buffalo shooters never did much in the skills competition, either.
Both of those areas have been cleaned up this season.
The shooters are 8 for 21, with Eichel and Mittelstadt both going 2 for 4. Eichel had been just 1 for 9 in the first three years of his career. In net, goalies Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark have combined to stop 15 of 21 shots. Hutton is tied for fourth in the league with nine shootout saves, while Ullmark went 6 for 7 in his one appearance, the Nov. 24 victory at Detroit.
Housley is starting most shootouts with Eichel and then using Mittelstadt and a combination that's included Pominville, Tage Thompson and Conor Sheary. Again, no Skinner and the numbers bear it out: Skinner is 0 for 1 this season and just 6 for 36 in his career.
Speed and possession game
Speed matters. Older players don't get the call much from Housley. Kyle Okposo has played just 45 seconds in OT and Jason Pominville has yet to appear. Before he took off on the team and had his contract terminated, Patrik Berglund had not been on the ice in OT, either.
Overtime is a puck possession game and the Sabres have excelled at winning faceoffs and keeping the puck. They've won 20 of 33 faceoffs in OT, a 60.6 percent success rate that's well better than their 47.6 mark in regulation. It's a key reason they have a startling 72 percent of the shots on goal and 69.2 percent of the shots attempted in their overtimes.
The Sabres went 7-0 in OTs and shootouts during their 10-game winning streak that tied the franchise record. And with underlying numbers like those above, you can easily make the case they should be better than 5-4 in games decided by an overtime goal.
But they lost their Nov. 30 game in Florida on an Aleksander Barkov goal after holding the puck for nearly the first two minutes of play. They got beat in the Toronto game by an Auston Matthews laser with 2.7 seconds left in overtime when Sobotka backed in on the play instead of attacking the puck with the clock ticking away, and lost in a shootout Dec. 15 in Washington after an OT that saw them dominate with seven shots on goal and nine attempts – even though Skinner never saw the ice.
Ristolainen, in particular, is strong defensively and hard on the puck but is always thinking offense as well. He has four overtime winners in his career, including the Nov. 8 slapshot that beat Montreal's Carey Price and got Buffalo the first victory of its 10-game winning streak.
Ristolainen, best known back home in Finland for the Golden Goal in OT that won the 2014 World Junior Championship, is the franchise leader among Buffalo defensemen with four OT winners.
"I love overtime. I'm always looking to score," Ristolainen said. "There's a lot of room and you have a chance to make big plays for your team."
Key numbers from the Sabres' NHL-high 13 overtime games this season:
- Total ice time: 39:23
- W-L: 8-5 (5-4 OT goals, 3-1 shootout)
- Shots on goal by Sabres/opponents: 36-14
- Shot attempts by Sabres/opponents: 54-24
- Faceoffs W-L by Sabres/opponents: 20-13
- Shootout goals: 8-21
- Shootout saves: 15-21
Individual ice times (All)
- Jack Eichel 21:49
- Rasmus Ristolainen 19:17
- Rasmus Dahlin 18:25
- Sam Reinhart 13:42
- Jeff Skinner 9:22
- Conor Sheary 8:31
- Casey Mittelstadt 7:50
- Zach Bogosian 6:27
- Evan Rodrigues 5:22
- Marco Scandella 5:00
- Vladimir Sobotka 5:00
- Tage Thompson 3:19
- Johan Larsson 2:38
- Kyle Okposo 0:45
- Jake McCabe 0:30
Individual ice times (3-on-3)
- Jack Eichel 14:59
- Rasmus Ristolainen 12:23
- Sam Reinhart 12:23
- Rasmus Dahlin 12:17
- Conor Sheary 8:31
- Casey Mittelstadt 6:20
- Evan Rodrigues 5:11
- Vladimir Sobotka 5:00
- Zach Bogosian 4:20
- Jeff Skinner 3:25
- Tage Thompson 3:19
- Marco Scandella 2:53
- Johan Larsson 0:46
- Jake McCabe 0:30
- Kyle Okposo 0:04
Source: Buffalo News research via NHL.com