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COMMENTARY

With Bills season over, here's a crash course on the Sabres

Mike Harrington

There's no trip to Kansas City, no Josh Allen-Patrick Mahomes showdown to ponder.

Since Labor Day, the Buffalo Bills' first 10-win season since 1999 has grabbed the attention of Buffalo sports fans. The Buffalo Sabres have had some good stretches and some terrible ones, but the general feeling during the first real run to the NFL playoffs since the days of Doug Flutie and Rob Johnson has been to check in on the other half of Pegulaville when football is done.

That time has come. The Sabres were off Monday, return to practice Tuesday and folks can watch a doozy of a game Thursday night, a trip to St. Louis to meet old friend Ryan O'Reilly and the defending Stanley Cup champion Blues.

The long and winding road to 19-17-7 has featured travel hither and yon to California, Western Canada and Sweden, a pockmarked path of injuries, some strong play from different corners of the dressing room and some struggles from others.

Let's play catch-up with the Sabres' season to date just past the halfway mark:

Captain Jack

While you were pondering Brian Daboll's play-calling, Jack Eichel's long-awaited rise to superstardom took place.

If you were voting on the Hart Trophy for MVP today, Eichel is certainly in the top five. If the Sabres somehow battle through their injuries and sneak into the playoffs largely on his shoulders, he might become the favorite.

Eichel has 26 goals, 29 assists and 55 points in 42 games and is going to his third straight All-Star Game. His pace is 50 goals and 106 points and he's in a ballpark no one on the Sabres has come close to since Alexander Mogilny and Pat LaFontaine 27 years ago. He already has a career-high seven games of three points or more this season, and only Edmonton's Connor McDavid (9) and Leon Draisaitl (8) entered the weekend with more.

"Maybe you've seen the rough body language in the past but you really see things I went through myself. I really understand the development side of it," former Sabres captain Michael Peca told me Saturday on '90s Day in KeyBank Center. "The work he's put in really, really shows. I speak to my son, my friends and they talk about his goals and things like that. To me, it's more about the way he plays away from the puck now, the turnovers he creates, the way he moves his feet, having his stick in the right direction. All that extra work he's putting in are the things leading to more offense."

Eichel got the upper hand on McDavid & Co. in overtime of both meetings this season, winning last Thursday's game here when the captain netted the first penalty shot goal in OT in franchise history.

Coach Ralph Krueger has regularly lauded Eichel for his play away from the puck and for his often spectacular puck-tracking coming back into the defensive zone, an aspect of Eichel's game that had been lacking in previous years. Eichel is plus-10 for the season after never doing better than minus-11 in his first four years, and he's matched his career highs in the faceoff circle (47%) and for 5-on-5 Corsi (51.4%).

"The stingier you play defense, the more offense you're creating," Peca said. "You're going to create turnovers and give yourself chances on the counterattack. He's really seen the benefits of that."

Up and down

The Sabres' season has been like watching a Josh Allen game. Full of peaks and valleys. They're 13-5-3 at home (one loss in Sweden) and 6-12-4 on the road.

Buffalo opened the season 9-2-2. Then it went 1-7-1, losing both games to Tampa Bay in Sweden.

The Sabres righted themselves by going 6-2-3. Then they collapsed again, going 1-6-1.

Now they've won two straight. No idea where it goes next.

Injury ward

Vladimir Sobotka (knee, out for the season); Jeff Skinner (upper body, out at least another two weeks); Victor Olofsson (lower body, out another 4-5 weeks); Tage Thompson (shoulder, remains indefinite).

Skinner is believed to be nursing a shoulder injury. Olofsson was seen in the arena in a walking cast and could be dealing with a similar high ankle sprain to the one that cost Eichel the first 20 games of the 2016-17 season.

In the first year of his eight-year, $72 million free agent deal, Skinner has just 11 goals. Olofsson has 16 goals and was one of the favorites for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. That's probably by the boards now.

Not-so-special teams

The Sabres start the week just four points out of a playoff spot but if they extend the league's longest postseason drought to nine years, their struggles on the power play and penalty kill will be the reason why.

The Sabres went 9-2-2 in October and were first overall. The power play was second in the NHL at 29.8%, with a goal in 10 of the 13 games, and the penalty kill was 20th at 79.4.

Since Nov. 1, both units have cratered – as in last in the league. The power play is at 10.8% in that stretch and Sam Reinhart's goal in Saturday's win over Florida snapped an 0-for-16 run over the previous six games. The penalty kill is at 72.5%.

The power play remains a work in progress, especially now that Olofsson and his team-high nine power-play goals are out. The PK should see instant improvement when Michael Frolik, a veteran with extensive experience in the skill, arrives this week after being acquired from Calgary.

In the nets

Linus Ullmark has held the fort in his first extended run as an NHL starter (13-11-3, 2.83/.911). Since Dec. 1, Ullmark is at 7-6-1, 2.67/.912. He's started 14 of the last 16 games and team is closely monitoring his work in practice.

"Three years ago, I had the same kind of stretch in Rochester and I'm happy I did my job down there," Ullmark said after Saturday's win over Florida. "I have a lot of guys helping me. Physical therapists, trainers, doctors. Lots of props to those guys."

Still, a crisis is looming here as veteran Carter Hutton is 0-6-4 in his last 10 games and hasn't won since going 6-0 in October. The Sabres have started Hutton just twice in the last 16 games and he gave up six goals in each. Their next back-to-back is this weekend and Hutton likely will get the call Sunday in Detroit. If he can't beat the last-place Red Wings, the Sabres may have no choice but to reach to Rochester for AHL All-Star Jonas Johansson.

Buzzwords that work

The Sabres love playing for first-year coach Krueger. He simply will not be caught down in the mouth by injuries, trade requests from the likes of Zach Bogosian and Evan Rodrigues, blown leads or any of the many calamities that can occur in a hockey season. Under Krueger, you must know the key words. Think of the Process in Sean McDermott's world.

Under Krueger, there is Structure. There is Symmetry. And you have to Play Connected, the phrase that's on the dressing room wall.

It's about playing a responsible game, where your work away from the puck is as important as your work with it, just as Peca pointed out with Eichel. It makes a difference.

The Sabres' goal differential at 5-on-5 is plus-5 in Krueger's first season, a huge improvement from the last four years when the team already had Eichel and was out of the tank era. In Phil Housley's time as coach the last two seasons, the figure was minus-57 and minus-31. In Dan Bylsma's two years, it was minus-28 and minus-30.

If the Sabres fix their special teams, especially the power play, their 5-on-5 game has been good enough to get them places.

The postseason road

It seemed for several weeks that the Metropolitan Division would have five playoff teams and the Sabres' only chance in the Atlantic was a top-3 finish in the division, an unlikely scenario. Things are slowly shifting where Buffalo has more of a chance at a wild-card berth.

The Sabres' issues are largely their record against the Atlantic's top trio of Boston, Tampa Bay and Toronto, who entered Monday a stunning 21-2-7 when you combine each of their last 10 games. The Sabres are a disastrous 1-8-1 against that group, which means they are a quite fine 18-9-6 against the NHL's other 27 teams. That's a 104-point pace if it was spread to all 30 opponents.

There's certainly good news to be gleaned from the schedule. The Sabres have only two games left against the top three and both are at home (Toronto, Boston). They are 6-1 against the other four Atlantic foes and there are still nine games left against Montreal (3), woeful Detroit (3), Ottawa (2) and Florida (1).

As for the wild card, the Sabres are four points back of Florida and Philadelphia, who are tied for the last spot, and three points behind Columbus. Buffalo has two games remaining against the Flyers (including the April 4 season finale here) and two against the Blue Jackets, both at home.

And the Sabres really need to simply stay afloat until the Jan. 28 visit by Ottawa – five days before Super Bowl LIV in Miami. The matchup with the Senators will mark the opening of a 10-game stretch of which nine are at home. And seven of the nine are against teams currently out of the playoffs.

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