The top line that buoyed the Buffalo Sabres to the top of the NHL for one day in November has been broken up again.
When the Sabres reconvened for practice Thursday in Harborcenter, Jack Eichel skated on the top line with Alex Nylander and Conor Sheary. Sam Reinhart joined Casey Mittelstadt and Vladimir Sobotka during the second rush, followed by Jeff Skinner with Evan Rodrigues and Jason Pominville.
The overhaul came after the Sabres were outshot, 46-24, during a 4-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs in KeyBank Center Wednesday night. Coach Phil Housley, who did not speak to reporters following practice, threw his lines in a blender after watching the Sabres generate only 15 shots on net through two periods and is likely to utilize a different look for Saturday night's game in Montreal.
Despite the Sabres' struggles, the changes did come as somewhat of a surprise since Housley had been hesitant to break up his top line. Eichel, Skinner and Reinhart have skated together for the bulk of their 5-on-5 ice time this season. Their 51.36 percent shot-attempt differential and plus-7 goal differential during 5-on-5 are far better than the team's production when none of the three are on the ice. They combined for 13 goals and 18 assists during the Sabres' 10-game winning streak in November.
Additionally, Eichel and Reinhart have already set career highs in points, while Skinner has matched his previous high for goals (37) with nine games remaining. Skinner has one goal over his last 16 games, while Reinhart has not scored in his last 11 games and Eichel does not have a goal in his last five games.
Eichel and Skinner have recorded a point on the same goal 31 times this season, making them the most productive Sabres duo since Pominville and Thomas Vanek combined on 39 goals in 2011-12.
At least one of the two has recorded a point on 101 of the team's 196 goals this season, or 51.5 percent. Eichel has struggled when not playing with either one, however, both Skinner and Reinhart have proven they can help carry a line. Secondary scoring has been a problem for much of the season – Pominville ranks fourth on the team with 15 goals – and the Sabres have scored the sixth-fewest goals in the NHL since Dec. 1.
Their struggles against the Maple Leafs opened the door for change. Nylander, 21, scored a third-period goal on a one-timer with 14:23 remaining in regulation and has three points over his last two games. Pominville was a healthy scratch in the past two games but has thrived when playing with Skinner and Eichel this season.
Mittelstadt and Reinhart have produced a plus-3 goal differential in 130 minutes, 43 seconds of 5-on-5 ice time together this season. Still, the changes may not last long since Housley has been quick to make changes as of late – Nylander, Rodrigues and Sheary were broken up after one ugly period Wednesday – and all involved are aware there is no exact science to piecing together a lineup.
"It's kind of weird how it works," Sheary said of constructing lines. "Some games you click, some games you don't. There are certain guys you click with more often than you don't and there are some guys where it's hit or miss. I think it's finding a balance of finding guys who have good chemistry and putting them in good situations to succeed."
Bogosian, Hunwick miss practice
Defensemen Zach Bogosian and Matt Hunwick did not practice with the Sabres, forcing Tage Thompson and Scott Wilson to fill in on the blue line. While changes will be made when/if either defenseman returns to practice Friday, Housley reunited Rasmus Dahlin and Brandon Montour, who were split up after the first period Wednesday.
Luukkonen voted among OHL's best
Sabres prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, a 20-year-old goalie playing for Sudbury, was recognized in the Ontario Hockey League's Coaches Poll, which asks the league's 20 coaches to vote for the top three players in 20 different skill categories within their own conference.
Luukkonen, who won 38 regular-season games and posted a .920 save percentage with a team-record six shutouts for the Wolves, was voted the Eastern Conference's best shootout goalie and finished tied for first as the best puck-handling goalie. He won a Gold Medal for Finland in the World Junior Championships, and Sudbury opens the OHL playoffs Friday night against Mississauga.
Story topics: Buffalo Sabres