Connor McDavid's annual visit to Buffalo was marked by his team being in a relatively similar spot as the Sabres. The Edmonton Oilers burst out of the gate in October, going 7-1 in their first eight games, but have been trying to find their game ever since.
They hit town just 3-7-1 in their previous 11 and nearly became the first team in NHL history to blow a six-goal lead Tuesday against the New York Rangers. Edmonton won that game, 7-5, after a 6-0 advantage in the second period turned into a narrow 6-5 lead late in the third. The win put them fourth in the Pacific Division and holding onto the final West wild-card spot.
The Oilers came into Thursday's game with the NHL's No. 1 power play but were minus-23 at 5-on-5. The Sabres, by comparison, were plus-4 in that category.
"It's about defending. We have to defend as a team and when we do that, good things happen," the Edmonton captain said before the game. "We have to keep working at it, watching lots of video on it and practicing."
McDavid started the night leading the NHL with 64 points on 22 goals and a league-high 42 assists. But after making the playoffs one time in his first four years, he's not too focused on his own numbers.
"I'm not too sure what it was," McDavid said of the quick start. "We were finding ways to win games and lately we're finding ways to lose games, so that's frustrating."
Having a defensive-minded coach like new bench boss Dave Tippett hasn't curtailed McDavid's offense.
"A lot has been made about being defensive-minded and it's something we're still working and something we want to get better at," McDavid said. "But 'Tip' has been good. He still allows us to play our game, within reason. You play within the system. There have been games we've been real good at it and games we got away from it."
Tippett said it's much more comfortable for him to have McDavid on his bench than to be formulating plans to try to stop him.
"The speed in which he executes and the speed he thinks the game is at an elite level," Tippett said. "He gets that little gleam in his eye when he gets the puck, gets going with speed and he can make a big difference in a game.
"It's been a lot of fun to watch him but the thing I've been most impressed about him, though, is his will to win. He wants our team to play well together. He has to do his part but his recognition of us playing a strong team game, from a coaching standpoint, been really good to see."
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Forward Vladimir Sobotka's season is apparently over, according to an Instagram post by his wife, Nicole.
"I believe in two things in life. Karma and the fact that everything happens has a reason," she wrote. "Unfortunately, the season ended this year for my man before we expected. Unfortunately in hockey it goes so. You never know what happens and you have to be ready for everything. It was two difficult months in the USA without hockey."
Sobotka, who had knee surgery after taking a hit from Tampa Bay's Nikita Kucherov Nov. 8 in Stockholm, was pictured with the post in a leg brace and on crutches.
Asked about the report during the first intermission Thursday, Sabres GM Jason Botterill said of Sobotka, "It's something that we'll probably re-evaluate but it's more likely that's probably the case."
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In the wake of Jack Eichel's scintillating short-handed goal Tuesday against Tampa, might the Sabres think of using their captain on the penalty kill more often?
"We had a gut feel to put him out the other day," coach Ralph Krueger said after the morning skate. "And he scores a short-handed and everybody gets excited – until we went and screwed up the rest of the game."
Eichel's goal put Buffalo ahead, 4-1, in the second period but the Sabres gave up five unanswered goals and lost, 6-4.
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The Sabres placed forward Dalton Smith on waivers Thursday and are likely to send him back to Rochester if he clears. Smith skated in both the morning skate and pregame warmup while awaiting his fate.
"It's a great story. Here's a young man who came into our organization and developed," Botterill said. "(Amerks coach) Chris Taylor is in charge of developing young players at age 20 but he's also in charge of developing players of all ages. Here's a 25-year old who came into our organization and ... earned that NHL contract."
Smith played only four shifts in Tuesday's game and took a roughing penalty with Tampa Bay's Luke Schenn. It was defenseman Jake McCabe who dropped the gloves with Tampa's Mikhail Sergachev after a hard hit on Eichel.
"It's great to see (Smith) earn that contract," Botterill said. "And I also thought Jake McCabe stepping up in that situation was great. Our guys played with team toughness and that's what we have to do in the second half."