The Buffalo Sabres pregame skate starts early today as they visit the Washington Capitals (22-16-6) in a Sunday matinee. The Capitals have plenty to be happy about at the midway point of their season given that they’ve won their last two games and they sit at second in the Metropolitan Division, but that won’t mean much if they fail once again to put away the Sabres. Given that the Caps sit between 19th and 21st in nearly every statistical category and the Sabres (12-26-5) are slowly climbing up from the depths in those same areas, this game should be a close one.
If the Capitals miss the playoffs by a point this year, December 29th will likely be a night they look back on and shake their head. On that night in Buffalo, the Capitals gave up a point in the standings by losing to the Sabres in a shootout. At this point, the Sabres have proven to be quite a conundrum for their opponents. While it’s easy to think of the team with the fewest points in the league as an easy two points, the Sabres haven’t been so easy to mooch points off of late and if the Capitals aren’t careful, their inconsistent goaltending and their 20th ranked defense could cost them a point or two more in the playoff race.
The key for the Buffalo Sabres lies, as always, in their goaltending and the defense playing closest to him. Ryan Miller will almost surely get the call against a star-studded forward corps lead by superstar Alex Ovechkin. Ovie leads the league in goals this year with 32, which is seven more than second-place goal scorer Sidney Crosby. Ovechkin has also taken 50 more shots than the next most prolific shooter in the league (Patrick Sharp, who has played 5 more games than Ovechkin). All of that is before you get to Nicklas Backstrom (who has two more points than Ovechkin), Mikhail Grabovski and four other players who have at least 20 points this season. Contrast that with Buffalo who has, um, zero. Ryan Miller will need to be his usual stellar self for the Sabres to stay afloat.
The same goes for the Capitals. Their goaltending hasn’t always been great, but it’s also tough to call the position a weakness given that Washington has been a pretty average club. Consider that DC’s record is a clean .500 if you count OT/SO losses as just losses and that they’ve scored only 2 more goals than they’ve allowed and you have a perfectly mediocre team with no goaltender sporting worse than a .910 save percentage and all that offense we just talked about. This puts the onus on the blue line and the two way play of the forwards. The Capitals currently sit as the 20th best 5v5 possession team in the league, which matches their rank in goals against in the league.
What does this mean for the Buffalo forwards? Patience. If the Sabres can play stout defense, keep the Capitals shots to the perimeters (and the Ovechkin shots to a minimum) then they can try to capitalize on offense. Matt Moulson should be a big presence as well in front of whichever DC goalie gets the start.
In addition to continuing their role in the NHL as Slowly Improving Spoiler, the Sabres and their fans will be interested to see how the team plays now that a General Manager has been named. While it’s not a move that should affect the on-ice product all that much this year, every player and coaching staff member can now hear the microscope click ever so slightly as the lens is adjusted and a new eye examines an organization still trying to pick up the pieces left from an awful run of management. It’s almost like working at a job where the boss’s boss is replaced and now they’re walking around your office or cubicle with that unreadable look.
It will be interesting to see who steps their game up under that increased scrutiny. It was pleasantly surprising when guys like Drew Stafford and Marcus Foligno and Tyler Myers picked up their game after Ted Nolan‘s arrival, but these guys and others need to carry this out and continue to improve for the rest of the season, lest they be traded. Nolan will be the coach for the next forty games and Murray will be the guy building the roster for longer than that. The clock starts now on the new era in Sabres hockey, and the guys who get that will be the ones who stand out. Games like this one against Washington are a chance for plenty of players to step up and make it clear through their efforts that they want to be a part of a new era in this franchise. Above all else, that will be the most interesting subplot for Sabres fans.
If you have any predictions about who might come up with a big game in the matinee, comment below and we’ll start the discussion into the afternoon.