Are the Sabers good? Maybe losing streak was outlier stretch of season

LAS VEGAS – It feels as if it’s time to ponder if the Buffalo Sabers might actually be good.

We all remember that not-so-small sample size that saw the club end last season 16-9-3 over its final 28 games, with wins against multiple marquee teams that included the rout of Toronto outdoors in the Heritage Classic.

With no pressure on the Sabers from the standings, the theory was they could play freely and easily and opponents could not. fair enough Absolutely plausible. Then this season started and the Sabers put a dent in the theory by going 7-3.

Observations: Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen is an ace again as Sabers hold off Vegas to sweep road trip

UPL has a .939 save percentage in its last three starts.

Not so almost. Next came that ugly eight-game losing streak that seemed to torpedo yet another campaign. That has been followed by the 9-3-2 run that has the Sabers rocketing up the Atlantic Division ladder, from last place to fourth in just 15 days.

So we have three dominant stretches since March totaling 32-15-5 – or a 109-point pace for an entire season. You obviously can’t throw the losing streak away. It happened. But much of it came with three defenseman out with injuries, and the Sabers played at Tampa Bay last month with four blueliners out as Rasmus Dahlin sat.

People are also reading…

The questions prompted by all this are simple: What if that eight-game skid was the actual outlier and the real “small sample size”? What if the 52 games around that stretch are what this team really is?

GM Kevyn Adams says Sabers are 'learning and growing' in wake of losing streak

LAS VEGAS – An eight-game losing streak in November might have put the Buffalo Sabers’ seaso…

What if this really is a team with a Hart Trophy candidate (Tage Thompson), a Norris Trophy candidate (Dahlin), a Calder Trophy candidate (Owen Power), the NHL’s No. 1 offense and its No. 2 power play? Dive into any areas you want, but all those items alone scream playoff candidate.

The Sabers wrapped up a 3-0 road trip with Monday night’s 3-2 nail-biter over the Vegas Golden Knights and came home just four points out of a playoff spot. Their plus-18 goal differential is better than seven current playoff teams. Development is happening just as they planned. There are still 50 games to play and now we see if the timetable for playoff contention gets accelerated.

Here are some takeaways from the trip:

1. There’s a sudden dilemma in goal. We know that 41-year-old Craig Anderson has been solid (7-4-1, 2.65/.922 – including 2-0-1, 1.99/.942 in December). And now Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen has put together the best three-game stretch of his career, posting a .939 save percentage and setting career-highs for saves in back-to-back games with 39 against Colorado and 41 against Vegas. But injured Eric Comrie, who was signed as a free agent to be the starter, has skated with the team for the last five days. Maybe he needs a game or two of conditioning in Rochester, but he’s going to be back soon. It seems unlikely the Sabers could carry three goalies and Luukkonen seems destined for more time in the AHL.

Remember what the preseason goal for Luukkonen was: The Sabers wanted him to get 50-55 starts – no matter what league he was playing in. Whether that meant all AHL or, like I surmised, a combination of 35-40 AHL games and 15 -20 NHL games. He has nine with Buffalo so far. It will be interesting to see how many more he gets.

Observations: Short-handed Sabers get huge night from Luukkonen in stunner over Avalanche

If you want to rate the signature win for this Buffalo Sabers season, the choice should be easy. Playing short-handed with only five defenseman against the defending Stanley Cup champions, you have to give the Sabers full marks for their 4-2 victory over the Colorado Avalanche.

“He was great for us tonight and I think we have to keep it in perspective,” coach Don Granato said after the Vegas game. “This is a guy three weeks ago, (people) were ready to say, ‘He can’t do it.’ But I love our team. That’s where you stand by your guys and then support them through the challenges. And he’s found ways to take adverse situations and adapt and become better.”

2.Star power. It seems impossible to imagine any scenario in which Thompson and Dahlin aren’t both in Florida for the All-Star Game in February, which would mark a first for the Sabers since Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner went to San Jose in 2019. Thompson is in the rarified air of battling Edmonton’s Connor McDavid for the Rocket Richard Trophy for most goals (McDavid leads 28-26), and his current paces of 67 goals and 128 points haven’t been seen by a Saber since Pat LaFontaine and Alexander Mogilny were ringing up pinball numbers in 1993. He’s on a career-high four-game goal streak.

Dahlin, meanwhile, has 10 goals and 37 points and is second to San Jose’s Erik Karlsson in both categories. He’s on pace for 26 goals and 95 points, which would shatter Phil Housley’s franchise record for a defenseman of 81.

3. The defense depth is improving. General Manager Kevyn Adams needs to keep working on this area, but it’s notable the Sabers didn’t completely collapse in the face of more defense injuries. Jacob Bryson and Henri Jokiharju missed the whole trip; Ilya Lyubushkin missed the first two games; and Owen Power went down a few minutes before the game in Colorado and didn’t play in any of the three games because of a lower-body tweak during a warmup session.

It remains to be seen if the Sabers can get Power back for Friday’s game against Tampa Bay, but it might make sense to just hold him out to give him another week before the Dec. 27 game in Columbus.

GM Kevyn Adams says Sabers are 'learning and growing' in wake of losing streak

LAS VEGAS – An eight-game losing streak in November might have put the Buffalo Sabers’ seaso…

Dahlin and Mattias Samuelsson obviously carried the load during the trip, but there were much better contributions from Kale Clague, Lawrence Pilut and Casey Fitzgerald as well. Pilut had a two-point night in Vegas, including his first goal in three years, while Fitzgerald pressed in to set up Thompson’s second-period tally. Samuelsson, who played 31:11 in Denver the night the Sabers had only five blueliners, has seen his team go 13-6-2 when he’s been on the ice. The Sabers went just 3-10 when he was out for more than a month with a knee injury. Relatively significant difference.

4. Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka are still a vast work in progress. The rookies are struggling mightily on the road, where they have to deal with tougher matchups and opponents whose physicality is riled up by the home crowds. Neither one had a point on the trip, with Quinn totaling three shots on goal and Peterka just one. They played only one 33-second shift in the third period Monday, with Quinn finishing the game with 9:45 of ice time and Peterka a season-low 9:27.

“I thought it was a tough night for them, but a great night for them to just absorb and learn,” Granato said. “Quinner and JJ were off. It happens. But it was still a game where they could take a lot out of it.”

Check this out: Peterka has 10 of his 15 points and five of his seven goals at home, while Quinn has all six of his goals and 11 of his 17 points at KeyBank Center.

Leave a Comment