It was the second game of the three-game home stand for the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night. This time, Buffalo played host to the Anaheim Ducks for the only time at the First Niagara Center this season.
Remember the last time these two teams squared off in Buffalo? It was on October 13, 2014 when the Ducks thrashed the Sabres 6-2 on home ice. Anaheim would out-shoot the Sabres 44-12, and after the game, former Sabres head coach Ted Nolan called his hockey team a, “peewee hockey team” compared to the high-powered offense of the Ducks.
In 2015, totally different story with Anaheim coming into Thursday’s game with just a 11-13-5 record (27 points), a league low 1.90 goals per game, and averaging around where the Sabres are in shot per-game and shots against per-game.
The Ducks were also beginning a four-game road trip that would end on Tuesday in Manhattan against the New York Rangers. Anaheim was also playing only its second game in 10 days.
The first period was a back-and-forth match with neither team able to find the back of the net. Sabres’ goalie, Chad Johnson stopped all 14 shots that came his way, while Ducks’ goalie, John Gibson stopped all eight he faced. Buffalo came out of the period also leading in the possession category with 19 shot attempts to the net over Anaheim’s 18.
After killing off a Johan Larsson penalty to start the second period, Jack Eichel had time and space with the puck to make a nice play to get Buffalo on the board. Eichel took the puck along the boards and back to the point, and threw a pass to the front of the net to Evander Kane. Kane tried to bat the puck out of mid-air, but is redirected off his leg and into the net for his seventh goal of the season.
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) December 18, 2015
With 6:25 left in the second period, the Sabres go ahead 2-0 with a goal from Jake McCabe. McCabe come in from the point, and accepted a beautiful saucer pass from Cal O’Reilly to net his third goal of the season.
For O’Reilly, it was his first point as a member of the Sabres, and it was his first NHL point since February 5, 2012.
Buffalo would head into the intermission on top of the Ducks, but Anaheim once again had the majority of chances in the second period with eleven shots over Buffalo’s eight.
In the third period, the Ducks were relentless by throwing shots on Sabres goalie, Chad Johnson. Most of the shots were not any quality chances, but Johnson stood tall, not giving up too many second chances for the Ducks.
It took Buffalo eleven minutes to get a shot on goal, but the Sabres get the dagger at the 13:50 mark of the third period courtesy of Jamie McGinn. Rasmus Ristolainen gathered a puck that was shot wide from the point, and took it to the net to create a chance. The puck would get away from Ristolainen, but McGinn was there to gather up the loose change and put home the puck into a wide open net.
Chad Johnson would shut the door from there, stopping all 44 shots he faced and earning his first shutout as a member of the Buffalo Sabres. It was also Buffalo’s first shutout of an opposing team since December 9, 2014 when Jhonas Enroth shut out the Los Angeles Kings on home-ice by a score of 1-0.
- Eichel finds the scoresheet
Jack Eichel was on his longest pointless streak of his young career coming into Thursday’s game. Eichel had not registered a point in five games, and was struggling to produce any type of offense.
Eichel snapped his skid in the second period with the primary assist on Evander Kane’s goal at the 2:36 mark. It was Eichel’s first point since scoring a goal in Edmonton on December 6 in a 4-2 loss to the Oilers.
Eichel would finish the night with his assist, a shot on goal, a blocked shot, and a plus-1 rating in 20:58 of total ice-time. Eichel was matched up very well against Ryan Kesler on the ice, and was keeping up with the veteran centerman.
Maybe a performance like Thursday’s will jump-start Eichel once again, but it was certainly good to see him find the scoresheet once again.
- So does Cal
Before Tuesday night’s game against the Devils, Cal O’Reilly had not played in an National Hockey League game since February 15, 2012 when he was with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
O’Reilly would spend a year and a half over in the KHL before returning to North America to spend another year and a half with the Vancouver Canucks organization. O’Reilly spent time with the Utica Comets, serving as team captain last season and helping the Comets get to the Calder Cup Finals against the eventual champion, Manchester Monarchs.
This offseason, the Sabres signed O’Reilly to a two-year, two-way contract, and spent time in Rochester with the Americans, serving as the team captain.
Now, in 2015, O’Reilly is back in the NHL, and could not be happier.
“It’s been a while, it’s been a long road,” O’Reilly said following the win. “Some surgeries, injuries, and spending time in Russia. I can’t thank the organization enough for giving me an opportunity this year, especially with my brother and being close to home. It’s a very special thing.”
O’Reilly finished the night with his assist, and a plus-1 rating in 9:27 of total ice-time. Even though it has only been two games into his campaign with Buffalo, head coach Dan Bylsma is happy with how the 29-year old has played.
“He’s a lot like his brother with what he brings,” Bylsma said. “He’s good in a lot of different areas, but he has the ability to make plays. He could have had four [points] tonight. He made the nice play to Deslauriers in the first, and then three on that [second period] shift were three outstanding plays. That play he made to Jake [McCabe], back door is a pretty special pass.”
It seems likely that O’Reilly could be sent back down to Rochester when Tyler Ennis comes back from injury, which appears to be on Saturday against Chicago, but for Cal it has to feel good to be back in the NHL, especially to play alongside little brother, Ryan.
- Treinta y uno shutting the door
Chad Johnson has been very good over the past few games in net for the Sabres, and on Thursday he was lights out by stopping all 44-shots that he faced.
“Tonight was a big game for us against a good hockey team,” Johnson said. “I just tried to do my thing, and our team played very well. They had a lot of shots, but we were there battling and defending in the crease. It was a good overall win and shut out as a team.”
Over the past eight games in which he has played, Johnson has a 5-2-0 record with a .942 save percentage and a 1.74 goals-against average.
While Johnson got some early-season criticism for his struggles in net, Johnson has bounced-backed very nicely, and has solidified his roll as the team’s backup when Robin Lehner returns from his high ankle sprain.
But until Lehner remains out, expect to see Johnson get more time in net, even with Linus Ullmark playing well in net behind him.
“They are giving us a chance to win every time, and tonight was a great game by ‘Johnny,'” Sabres forward, Nic Deslauriers said. “We let a couple guys in the slot have a grade-A chance, and he just stopped them. It was huge.”
- Reinhart thriving
Samson Reinhart was stellar in Tuesday night’s loss to the New Jersey Devils, and on Thursday he carried over his excellent play against Anaheim.
Reinhart finished the night with a secondary assist on Evander Kane’s second period goal, and had a plus-2 rating in 18:56 of total ice-time.
What is impressive with Reinhart’s play was that he was matching Anaheim’s physical play with his own, and was making some impressive plays with the puck. Reinhart had two great passes on one shift in the third period to give Buffalo a chance to extend its lead, but both Ryan O’Reilly and Jamie McGinn could not find the back of the net. Reinhart’s stick checking ability and his puck movement was also on point in the win.
The second overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft has been stellar in his, official, rookie season, and has matched up very well playing alongside O’Reilly on the top line. It seems like the perfect match for the two players, and the 20-year old is taking advantage of playing with on the top line every single night.
- What is wrong with the Ducks?
It is a train wreck season right now in Southern California as the Ducks continue to struggle on the ice. Anaheim now sits at 11-14-5 on the season, and are tied for 29th overall in the NHL with 27 points. The Ducks now average a league worst, 1.83 goals per game (lower than the Sabres finished with last season at 1.89) while averaging 30-shots a game.
While Anaheim’s penalty kill is right at the top of the NHL, the team’s powerplay is in the bottom-10 of the NHL at just 16.7-percent.
After a slow start to the season, both Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry have rebounded to now lead the team in scoring. However, both Perry and Getzlaf struggled on Thursday with producing any quality chances to get the Ducks back in the game.
The Ducks are also known for being a physically tough team to matchup with, but the Sabres out-matched Anaheim physically, and seemed to push the Ducks around many times over the course of the contest.
And also to post 44 shots on the Sabres, and to not score once is also a major concern.
Ducks head coach, Bruce Boudreau has been on the hot-seat for the sluggish start to the season, and could be in even more trouble after Thursday’s loss in Buffalo. Anaheim will travel next to New Jersey on Saturday to face the Devils, then will have a back-to-back with the New York Islanders and Rangers on Monday and Tuesday.
If the Ducks do not come up with some points, or wins in the final three games, watch for a possible coaching change as the Ducks will head into the Christmas break. Former Ottawa Senators head coach, Paul MacLean is on the Ducks staff and could be a possible candidate. Other possiblities could include former Tampa Bay Lightning coach, Guy Boucher, former Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards, and current Team USA coach at the World Junior Championship, Ron Wilson.
It is a rough patch for the Ducks right now, but they have to make the quick turn around in order to get back in the hunt for the playoffs. Anaheim is playing in a weak Pacific Division, but the clock is ticking, and time could be quickly running out.