Although he allowed a pair of goals early in the Buffalo Sabres loss on Saturday afternoon, goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen managed to prevent the Tampa Bay Lightning from scoring again. It resulted in yet another close outing between the two clubs, and overall, Luukkonen had yet another game where he allowed two or fewer goals since the final one came on an empty-netter.
Luukkonen was the clear-cut winner in January, and if he looks good again in two of the Sabres three games out west in Week 16, expect him to keep getting most of the starts. But there have been two more winners this week - not individual players, but group efforts, along with one major loser.
What has gone right (and wrong) in the Buffalo Sabres first eight games of 2024?
Winner - The Sabres are beating teams they should beat
Remember when the Sabres were terrible playing against teams that were nowhere near their caliber from a talent standpoint to the point that they allowed nine goals vs. the Columbus Blue Jackets? They are 5-0-0 against those teams so far in January, with victories over the Montreal Canadiens, Pittsburgh Penguins, Ottawa Senators, San Jose Sharks, and Chicago Blackhawks.
Of the teams in question, only the Penguins are within three points of a wild card with 48 points. The Sabres are finally winning games they should win, and with two more weaker teams coming up in Week 16, they can easily score two more W’s before January fades into February.
Loser - Performances vs. playoff-caliber teams
The Sabres played the Vancouver Canucks well - at least defensively - and kept things close vs. the Tampa Bay Lightning, but it doesn’t negate the fact that they are 0-3-0 in 2024 vs. teams that have a legitimate chance to make the playoffs in 2024. Vancouver is a shoo-in this season while the Lightning hold the third spot in the Atlantic Division.
Only the Seattle Kraken (47 points) aren’t in a top-three or a wild card spot, but they are just four points back as of Sunday morning. In Week 16, the Sabres will play a Los Angeles Kings team that is currently holding the top spot in the wild card, and recent history is not on their side here.
Winner - Sabres playmakers
If the Buffalo Sabres wanted January through April 2024 to be more successful than October through December 2023, their top scorers needed to step up. And while they are still having trouble getting things going vs. stronger competition, they have fared much better in the early going of 2024.
Casey Mittelstadt and Rasmus Dahlin have eight points in as many games, and both are sporting at least an even plus-minus. The latter is especially good for Dahlin, who has a minus-14 on the season. Alex Tuch (seven points), Tage Thompson (six points), and Jeff Skinner (six points) have also been making things happen.
While they must get going vs. some of the NHL’s better teams to earn a chance of reaching the postseason, there has been noticeable improvement throughout January. And it’s time that they continue producing well and win at least two more games before the month ends.
(Statistics and information provided by Hockey-Reference and QuantHockey)