Sabres close out their season series with the Red Wings on Tuesday

Jack Eichel
Photo credit Photo: Timothy T. Ludwig - USA TODAY Sports
By WGR 550 SportsRadio

For the second time in five days, the Buffalo Sabres will welcome the NHL's worst team in the Detroit Red Wings to KeyBank Center.

Both teams faced off against one another last Thursday, where the Red Wings prevailed over the Sabres in a shootout 4-3. The Sabres never got their legs under them until the third period when down 2-0, but managed to fight back to tie the game at 2-2 just eight-and-a-half minutes in. Even after the Red Wings took the lead again with a late power play tally from forward Tyler Bertuzzi, the Sabres got some late-game heroics from Evan Rodrigues, who scored with 47 seconds left in regulation to send the game to overtime.However, the Sabres failed to close the game out in overtime, and in the shootout failed to get goals from Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart. Detroit managed to get goals from Dylan Larkin and Andreas Athanasiou in the shootout to beat Buffalo for the first time this season, and the first time in four tries.

If the Sabres are to avoid another disappointing loss to the Red Wings on Tuesday, the team knows they cannot get out to another slow start.

"I think it was another game where we put ourselves behind the eight ball," said Sabres forward Jimmy Vesey following Tuesday's morning skate at KeyBank Center. "We got down 2-0, and it's not really the recipe for winning, so we have to come out and jump on them early. I think they haven't won a lot of games this year, so if we cam impose our will on them right away, I think it will make for a long night for them."

Since Thursday's meeting, both teams have gone 1-1-0 with the Sabres beating the New York Rangers on Friday by a 3-2 score, while losing on Sunday afternoon 3-2 to the Anaheim Ducks at KeyBank Center. The Red Wings lost a 2-0 game to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday night on the road, while bouncing back with a 3-1 home win on Sunday afternoon over the Boston Bruins.

The Sabres responded well to their disappointing loss on Thursday night by bouncing back with a solid performance from start to finish against the Rangers on the road. Buffalo got out to the better start and ended up taking the first lead halfway through the first period. Buffalo would then go on to add another goal in the second, followed by their third goal at the 11:56 mark of the third period to take the 3-0 lead. Things nearly got messy in the dying moments of the game as the Rangers pulled to within 3-2 with 1:38 to play, but Buffalo managed to leave Manhattan with a win.

Two days later, the Sabres got off to another slow start against the Ducks, surrendering three goals in the first 12 minutes of the game. Sabres goalie Jonas Johansson gave up two goals that he would probably like to have back, but he was able to bounce back from the early blunders and shut the door the rest of the way. Buffalo managed to get back to 3-2 in the second period and play as the better team in the later stages of the game, but the team failed to solve former Sabres goalie Ryan Miller the rest of the way.

Vesey believes that one way to get the early advantage against this Red Wings group is to try and continue its play from the other day against Anaheim.

"[We have to] try and take the momentum from the last 50 minutes of that game," Vesey said. "It was a tough start, but everyone thought we carried the play after that. We ultimately feel short one goal, but we've got to play the same way tonight right from the drop of the puck. We need the points."

Vesey has found himself playing a much better game than from the start of the 2019-20 season. The 26-year-old has had an uptick in his overall performance over the last few games, especially playing on the left wing on a line with Eichel and Reinhart. Vesey is currently riding a three-game point streak that has seen him score two goals and register two assists for four points. 

He feels that his time on the top line has allowed him to play more comfortable and play more of his game.

"I've tried to get back to the basics a little bit, making sure I'm moving my feet skating. I think it's noticeable when I do that. You can tell when I'm on my game," Vesey said. "But playing with those guys (Eichel and Reinhart) - I think I've had a couple of games with them throughout the year, but now I think I've played with a little but more confidence and swagger. I'm making some plays with them and it feels nice to get rewarded statistically. We're in a grind here and we've got to find a way to get wins.

We've gone 11-7 a lot, guys have played with everyone, but that's not really an excuse. We have to find a way to get wins and I think everyone is dialed in and everyone's on the same page here. I think we've played some good hockey lately. We just have to find ways to play complete games and make sure we're putting ourselves in a position to win. I don't think going down 3-0 is a recipe for winning, so I think we have to have a little bit of a better first period, especially here at home."

Sabres captain Jack Eichel is coming off a game where he played a career-high 28:22 of ice-time. His 24:48 of ice-time at even strength was the highest a Sabres forward has skated since the NHL started tracking ice-time in the 1997-98 season. The previous high for the Sabres was Dixon Ward at 23:40 of ice-time at even strength back in 1998. Eichel's average ice-time of 22:08 is second in the NHL among all forwards, only trailing Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl, who averages 22:26 of ice-time per-game.

While the minutes piled up for Eichel on Sunday, Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger said it was not according to plan.

"We did everything possible, like we do every night, to win and a tired Jack Eichel on the ice right now increases our mathematics of scoring, so most of those minutes were down in the last five or six minutes. It was pushing him," he said following Tuesday's morning skate. "We're communicating all of the time. There were a lot of timely timeouts there. He was at either end of the timeouts in the third period and that can happen. I wasn't surprised, but there's a lot of fight in this group, there's no give up in this group and there's no give up in this coaching staff. We tried what we could do, and of course those aren't minutes that you are shooting for. Jack's settling in at 21, 22 minutes, and he has no problem with it. He's an unbelievably conditioned athlete. He does a really good job of using days off."

Eichel put up an assist on Rasmus Dahlin's second period goal against the Ducks, which upped his point total to 69 (31+38) this season. He is currently on pace to score 46 goals and register 102 points this season. With one more point, he will become the first player since Derek Roy to record 70 points in consecutive seasons with the Sabres.

In the last 13 games against the Red Wings since the 2016-17 season, Eichel has scored four goals and registered 10 assists for 14 points, but was held pointless in Thursday night's affair in Buffalo. 

One player who is in desperate need of a goal is winger Jeff Skinner, who has now not scored in 18 consecutive games for the Sabres. The 27-year-old last scored back on Dec. 2 against the New Jersey Devils, and one more game without a goal on Tuesday will establish a new career-long drought. In those 18 games, Skinner has only produced two assists, and he has not registered a single point in nine straight games.

Krueger and the coaching staff has been endlessly working with Skinner to try and get him out of his scoring slump and back to producing at the rate that he has shown to be capable of over the years with the Sabres and the Carolina Hurricanes.

"We're responsible for everything, good and bad. We take responsibility in everything. We are working with players whether they're in scoring streaks or slumps. We work with them and give them very honest feedback," Krueger said. "We're using video, one-on-one coaching meetings, we're trying to get them to focus on certain things in practice, and we're all in this together. When a player is struggling to perform the way he wants to perform, we do what we can to try and get him into spaces where he can be successful."

Skinner was skating on a line with Evan Rodrigues and Michael Frolik during the morning skate.

After missing Sunday's game due to an illness, forward Marcus Johansson will make his return to the Sabres lineup on Tuesday night. He was playing on the left wing on a line with Curtis Lazar and Conor Sheary. The 29-year-old is in a bit of a scoring slump as well, going goalless in his last 14 games since the Sabres' Dec. 31 matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Sabres forward Kyle Okposo was back on the ice with his teammates on Tuesday for the first time since leaving Buffalo's game back on Jan. 30 with an upper-body injury. However, he did not take part in any line rushes for the evening's game. Okposo appears to be a bit ahead of schedule with his recovery, and it seems that a return to action on Thursday against the Blue Jackets or Sunday against the Toronto Maple Leafs is a possibility.

"I think I'm probably a week ahead, so it's good," Okposo said following the morning skate. "[I] healed quickly, and just tried to do the things that I could to get back.

"I still have to talk to the coaches and go through that, but I think that both those games are possibilities. We'll see kind of how I do in a real practice, it was just a pregame skate today, so I'd like to get a good practice in tomorrow and then go from there."

Victor Olofsson was also on the ice with his teammates again on Tuesday, but like Okposo, he did not take part in any line rushes.Krueger did say that both Okposo and Olofsson are likely still a few games away from making a return to the lineup.

Here is a look at how the lines played out on Tuesday:


Vesey - Eichel - Reinhart

Johansson - Lazar - Sheary

Skinner - Rodrigues - Frolik

Girgensons - Larsson - Wilson


The defensemen did not skate in pairs at the morning skate, but Krueger did say that they will dress seven defenseman for the pregame warmup with 12 forwards and make a game-time decision with the lineup. Defensemen Lawrence Pilut and Zach Bogosian skated late following the team portion of practice with Okposo and Olofsson.

Carter Hutton will return to the net for the Sabres after missing Sunday's game against the Ducks due to "family circumstances". In Hutton's last outing against the Rangers on Friday night, the 34-year-old was very impressive in net, stopping 37 of 39 shots faced in a 3-2 win for the Sabres at Madison Square Garden. Overall this season, Hutton is 8-9-4 with a 3.24 goals-against average and an .894 save percentage.

As for the Red Wings, their 14-39-4 record this season continues to put them in last place in the overall NHL standings, 11 points behind the New Jersey Devils for 30th place.

Detroit ranks at the bottom of almost every major statistical category from a team perspective, ranking dead-last in goals-for (118), goals-against (213), and shots-for per-game (27.4), while ranking 29th on the power play (14.9%), and 27th on the penalty kill (74.9%) in shots-against per-game (33.0). The Red Wings also provide the worst goal differential in the league at minus-95, which is 49 goals worse than the Devils. The Red Wings also boast the worst road record in the NHL at 5-21-2.

Anthony Mantha is one of a number of young players on the roster right now that are near the top of their scoring list. However, he has not played since Dec. 21 after suffering an upper-body injury. At the time of his injury, Mantha was having a productive year with 12 goals and 12 assists for 24 points in 29 games. 

The 25-year-old is expected to make his return to the lineup on Tuesday for the Red Wings, while forward Frans Nielsen could also make his return from an upper-body injury as well. Both players were activated off injured reserve on Tuesday.

Also returning to the lineup for the Red Wings on Tuesday is forward Darren Helm, who has missed the last two game with a lower-body injury.

One Player who will not suit up for the Red Wings on Tuesday is forward Robby Fabbri, who is our day-to-day with an upper-body injury.

Detroit goalie Jonathan Bernier stopped 29 of 32 shots that he faced on Thursday against the Sabres in the win, and he will get the start for the Red Wings once again. Overall this season, the 31-year-old has gone 12-14-2 with a 2.82 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage.

Be sure to tune in for the Paul William Beltz Pregame Show starting at 6 p.m. with Mike Schopp and the Bulldog at (716) Food and Sport, where you will hear more from Krueger, Okposo and Vesey.