After losing two of their last three games following the All-Star break, the window is closing on the Buffalo Sabres’ playoff hopes.
On Monday, Sabres head coach Phil Housley overhauled his lines at practice after a disappointing 7-3 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday. The most notable change in the lineup is with the top line as Jack Eichel is now centering a line with Conor Sheary and Kyle Okposo. Jeff Skinner has moved to a line with Casey Mittelstadt and Jason Pominville, while Sam Reinhart will play on a line with Evan Rodrigues and C.J. Smith.
Housley feels that the shakeup of the line combinations was much needed after the loss on Friday.
"I think there's a lot of thought that goes into it," Housley said with Howard Simon and Jeremy White on Tuesday. "We just felt that after the result against Chicago, [we wanted to] mix things up. Sometimes there are points during the season where you need to change the chemistry, get a spark, get some guys going and we just felt it was a good time. It was moving in the wrong direction, and we're just trying to get new life."
The Sabres' top line with Eichel, Skinner and Reinhart has been the driving force of the offense for a majority of the 2018-19 season. All three players lead the team in scoring, with Eichel at the top with 54 points (17+37), Skinner right behind with 47 points (31+16), and Reinhart following suit with 45 (12+33).
However, Housley says that his decision to separate the trio is an attempt to establish a more balanced offensive game plan.
“Sometimes when you’re not getting results, it gets a little stale," Housley said. "Maybe that will bring new life to the players."
In an attempt to add some additional offense to the lineup, the Sabres recalled Smith from the Rochester Americans on Monday after waving Remi Ellie on Saturday. Smith played three games with the Sabres earlier this season, and netted his first career NHL goal in a win over the New Jersey Devils back on January 8. After he was re-assigned to the Amerks, Smith continued his strong play with five goals and seven assists in eight games played.
Housley is looking forward to seeing what the 24-year-old can bring to the lineup in his second stint with the Sabres.
“I really like C.J.’s game when he was up here. He had a really good game against Florida, his first game up, he provided a spark,” said Housley.
After being shut out by Dallas last Wednesday and being outscored by Chicago on Friday, the team could use a big spark on offense if they look to squeak into the playoffs. With the final third of the season starting to wind down, Housley’s goal is to freshen up all four lines as they search for chemistry offensively.
The Sabres have their fair share of problems on the defensive side of the ice, as well. Housley focused on “defense first” when commenting on the defensive game plan moving forward.
The Sabres are not abandoning from their aggressive play from their defenders, but Housley wants the back-six to tighten up and make calculated decisions on when to join the rush.
“We have to protect our net. Everything stems and our foundation starts from there," Housley said. "Obviously we want our [defense] to add to the rush, but there’s times to jump in and there’s times to not.”
If the defense can minimize the amount of odd-man rushes that Minnesota will bring on Tuesday, then that will bode well for Linus Ullmark, who gets the start in goal.
Carter Hutton has struggled recently, but Housley was not so quick to put the blame on Hutton.
“Linus has played strong, but in Carter’s defense, he’s getting a lot of odd man situations that’s coming at him," Housley said. "We need to tighten up that area because the quality of the chances teams are getting against him are grade-A plus.”
The Sabres look to bounce back on Tuesday night as they host the Minnesota Wild at KeyBank Center. Faceoff is set for 7 p.m. on WGR.
You can listen to the entire interview below: