Hockey

Jeff Skinner – It’s not a very ornery bunch along the Falls these days, so we’ll start with the leader of the “Yeah, But Who Gives A Shit?” brigade. Tamzarian here has 252 career goals in nine seasons plus this one, which means he’s averaged just a tick under 30 goals every season. And he’s scored over 30 four times. And not a single one of them has mattered. He’s never even sniffed a playoff team with Carolina or Buffalo. The Canes, not exactly bursting with finishers, punted him to Buffalo last year and suddenly were conference finalists. Certainly not all his fault, but certainly being categorized and world-class asshole is. At some point a 35-goal scorer has to matter, otherwise you’re just doing the scoring because someone has to score goals on a given night. Skinner might already be there.

Rasmus Ristolainen – Nothing to do with him, he just sucks. And he has sucked for a long time. And the only people who can’t seem to recognize that he sucks is the Buffalo front office. Even most other NHL front offices realizes he sucks, because the Sabres haven’t been able to find a trade partner. Usually you can fool someone. The Sabres can’t.

Vladimir Sobotka – Harkens back to the days when Blues fans would massively overrate a player because he had one good game against the Hawks once. We never thought we’d miss them.

Everything Else

Next stop on the Preview Tour in the Flortheast Division are the Buffalo Sabres, who after years of tanking both intentionally and unintentionally, finally landed the top overall pick in a year where it was almost impossible for them to screw it up. The Sabres were dead last in the league in almost any conceivable category last year, so in theory there’s nowhere for them to go but up, but this is still the city of Buffalo being discussed here, no there can’t be much that’s ruled out.

 

’17-’18 Team Marks: 25W-45L-12OT 62 PTS 199 GF 280 GA 19.1% PP 77.9% PK 47.61% CF 6.14% SH% .916 SV%

Goalies: Every year there’s a career backup that finally earns starter’s money from a desperate dipshit franchise desperate to find any kind of answer in net, and this year’s magic couple are the Buffalo Sabres and former Hawk great Carter Hutton. Hutton was admittedly stellar last year for St. Louis even playing way more than he had to while Jay Gallon continually shat himself, posting a .931 save percentage overall and .937 at evens in 26 starts and 32 total appearances. Both marks are 15 points above his usual rates, and Hutton will be 33 in December. Given how far away the Sabres are from meaningful spring hockey, this is clearly a team paying Hutton to be a placeholder, and a career journeyman finally getting a legit payday even at a decidedly modest $2.75 million a year for this season and two more. Everyone seems to get what they need out of this transaction even if none of it is all that inspiring for anyone from an actual standpoint of winning hockey games. Linus Ullmark at 25 and with 26 NHL games to his resume gets his shot at backing up Hutton, and if last year proves to be a major outlier for Hutton, Ullmark may get more of a look than that, but at least he has some shot of mattering the next time the Sabres do, which will be 10 minutes after never at this rate.

Defense: This is where top overall draft pick Rasmus Dahlin will be featured from day 1, and by all accounts from any scouting expert, Dahlin is close to a sure fire #1 defenseman as there’s been in the draft in a generation, with a rare combination of size, speed, skill, and hockey smarts. And he’ll need it, because the Sabres other Rasmus on the blue line, Ristolainen, has been kind of a giant turd. While Risto has put up solid scoring numbers from the blue line with two straight 40+ point seasons on dog ass teams, 48 of his 86 points in that time have come on the power play, and only last year was he even close to hovering around an already putrid team possession rate. And at 346 professional games, he’s long past the 200 game “getting it” threshold arbitrarily attributed to developing defensemen. In an ideal world however, the younger of the Rasmii now assumes the mantle of a true #1 that can legitimately handle top assignments and tougher zone starts, while Risto is given a more sheltered role. But there’s kind of no clearer indicator of a team in disarray than hoping a rookie will help a 5th year pro making $5.4 mildo a year by slotting him down. Zach Bogosian, Marco Scandella, and Beaulieu are all here, but they’re all of next to no long term consequence. Beaulieu at 25 maybe, but even that’s pushing it, as he would have shown even a flash of something by now if he were going to.

Forwards: Whether anyone has been paying attention or not, and they haven’t, over the last two years, Jack Eichel has put up 121 points in 128 games, a .945 point per game clip. However there are two problems with this scenario, the first being that hockey seasons are 82 games long and 128 games is a lot less than 164 for two years. The second is that the guy picked ahead of Eichel, whom the Sabres nakedly prostrated themselves for in a tank effor has put up well over 200 points in that time frame. It’s not fair to Eichel to be compared to Connor McDavid, but he’s always going to be. And now he doesn’t have any protection on the center depth chart with Ryan O’Reilly getting traded to St. Louis for a big bag of bullshit coming back in the form of Patrik Berglund. But for as one sided as that trade was against the Sabres, getting Jeff Skinner for a prospect no one had ever heard of was as equal a theft. He and Eichel should form a fun top line together with whatever’s left of Kyle Okposo, but past that, hoping for the likes of Conor Sheary and Zemgus Gerginsons to make meaningful contributions is just flat out depressing. Sam Reinhart showed some growth last year increasing his goal output from 17 to 25, so naturally he remains one of the few RFA holdouts left league wide. Casey Middlestadt should get more time this year, but he’s not going to offer any protection to Eichel.

Outlook: It’s going to once again be an excruciatingly long winter for Sabres fans and players, and it’s pretty well documented how Phil Housely likes to entertain himself on go-nowhere teams. The only veteran pieces of any value that can be moved (assuming that the team still wants to build around Eichel) with expiring paper are Skinner and Jason Pominville, who already earned a spot on the All “Who Gives A Shit” Team last week. And within the context of this division, there’s not going to be any quick turnaround in sight considering how good the top of the division is and just how truly bad the Senators are trying to be.

Everything Else

 vs. 

RECORDS: Hawks 30-33-8   Sabres 22-36-12

PUCK DROP: High Noon

TV: WGN, NHL Network outside the 606

FIGHTING ON ARRIVAL: Die By The Blade

I’ll start this one with a story about what this one feels like. Many years ago, I was sitting in an OTB with my father and Freddie The Beard, something of a Chicago pool room legend now. Both avid horseplayers, as was I. Arlington ran a race with four horses, apprentice jockeys, on the turf. Freddie, never one for subtlety, turned to Tribune Horse Racing columnist Dave Feldman (at the time probably something like 138 years old) who happened to be sitting in the same room, and yelled, “Hey Feldman! Use your connections to get us more of ‘dis! We like ‘dis! Four horse race with the apprentice jockeys…on the turf!”

That’s how I feel about this one. This is a game going on because the schedule says it has to. No one particularly wants to watch it (and I’d be surprised if more than a few didn’t want to play it), and yet here we are because this is where we are. Hawks-Sabres. Saturday afternoon. March 17th. This is what we chose.

Both of these teams have dreams of Rasmus Dahlin, though the Sabres’s is much more likely. They are marooned to the bottom of the NHL standings, and really only the Coyotes are keeping them company down there. It has been nothing short of a disaster in a season when they were supposed to start to at least maybe think about considering taking a step forward in their rebuild.

It’s hard to know where to start. The goaltending has sucked, as it will tend to do when leaning on Chad Johnson and Robin Lehner. The defense has sucked because it was based on Rasmus Ristolainen playing like a top pairing d-man and quite frankly he’s never nor will he ever be that, despite some early season flashes. It had Zach Bogosian and Justin Falk and Jake McCabe as well at times, so you can guess what kind of smell that created night after night. The forwards lacked punch, as Eichel and Okposo have missed time and there’s just not much else. Sam Reinhart is still finding his feet, and also trying to figure out which Reinhart he is. Benoit Pouliot and Jason Pominville are either old, simply plugs, or both. It is not an inspiring bunch.

Because of that, and the moves at the deadline that saw Fuck Head Kane The Younger amongst others moved along, the Sabres are turning more and more over to the kids. Bailey, Baptiste, Eichel, Reinhart, Rodrigues, Guhle, and Ristolainen are all players that are under 25 that will kick into the lineup when healthy. The Sabres are going to find out what they have, because it’ll be good info and also will give them the best chance to end up with another Rasmus. You can never have too many Rasmuses (Rasmi?)

For today, both Eichel and Okposo look like they won’t make the bell coming off an ankle sprain and brown brain, respectively. Which means the outfit the Hawks will see today is decidedly punchless. Ryan O’Reilly is simply doing miraculous work as the only forward who’s been above water in his underlying numbers, and he also murders the Hawks. But he can only do so much. Then again, things seem to always go stupid at HSBC Arena. The Hawks never have it easy there.

For the Hawks, JF Berube will get his turn at the wheel after Forsberg’s wheel kept on turning in net on Thursday. And then we’ll cycle back through this again and again for another three weeks. We’re almost there, people. There really aren’t any other lineup changes to be made with Duclair injured. Q shuffled up the lines during practice yesterday and below the top one they’re a real piece of work. But who knows how long he’ll stick with them because that’s his thing.

Let’s just get through it.

 

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 vs. 

RECORDS: Sabres 7-17-4   Hawks 12-11-5

PUCK DROP: 7:30pm

TV: NBCSN Chicago

THROUGH THE TABLE IN THE PARKING LOT: Die By The Blade

If the Hawks can’t get healthy now, then you might want to abandon all hope. They’ll begin a three-game homestand against the mat-shots of the league: the Sabres, Yotes, and Panthers. If you needed to work some shit out, start to gain a little confidence, and maybe find a slump-buster, you could hardly order this up better.

Once again, the Hawks will be rolling out a new look, including their first call-up of the season if you can believe it. Vinnie Smalls, a.k.a Vincent Hinostroza has come in from the cold, Rockford air to replace Tanner Kero on the roster. He immediately slots into the lineup, though where isn’t exactly clear as he wasn’t allowed to participate in the morning skate. Our best guess has him replacing Hartman at center between Sharp and Panik, but it could be anything. Because god forbid anyone on the juggernaut 4th line, with its 40 CF%, be replaced.

Other changes see Alex DeBrincat move into the top six. Real stroke of genius to get one of the league’s top rookie scorers there. He’ll play opposite Saad and next to Toews, which we’re actually kind of jonesing to see. It would work better if Saad and Top Cat would swap sides, but one thing at a time, people. The Schmaltz-Wide Dick Arty-Garbage Dick line is reunited, because they’re basically Q’s blanky right now. It doesn’t really add up, has its faults, but they did score when together before. And the Hawks need scoring.

Corey Crawford will return to the net, and if you’re thinking, “Man this seems quick,” you’d be right. The word earlier in the week was that he wouldn’t return until Sunday. But throw in a loss that had Q pretty pissed and purple, and suddenly you’ve got a panicky coach. And though you shouldn’t need Crawford against the Sabres, and though Forsberg has been pretty solid aside from one game in Denver and one bad goal in DC, Q isn’t waiting around, even if it shoots Forsberg’s confidence into the moon. Q thinks the Hawks need points and now, and he’s not totally wrong. But if Crow should re-aggravate something badly…

And again, you shouldn’t need major inspiration to find two points against this hillbilly station wagon that constitutes the Buffalo Sabres. This is the league’s worst team, which is a real disappointment for fans that thought they could maybe at least be representative this year. It’s been a mess, no one’s sure Phil Housley has any idea what he’s doing, and if there’s a plan in place no one can identify it. There’s still Jack Eichel, and he’s really good. The Other Asshole Kane is having a career year, which probably will get some team to hold their nose and pick him up before the deadline, and the Sabres had better turn that into assets for now and the future. Rasmus Ristolainen has had an upswing on the blue line this year, but that’s really it. We’ve always loved Kyle Okposo, but he’s on the third line at the moment. Ryan O’Reilly murders the Hawks, but is having a rough go at the moment, as he has two goals since November 11th and two points at all in his last seven. Aside from those names there is just nothing here.

Making it worse is that the Sabres goalies, which were pretty good last year, have not been this year. Robin Lehner has been terrible, and at 26 is running out of runway to claim he’s “The Real Thing.” Chad Johnson has been even worse. The last thing a bad team needs is bad goaltending, otherwise you get this current carcass smell.

Don’t have to overthink this one. The Sabres suck out loud, and theHawks need to get healthy on this part of the schedule. Rack up six of six before having to head to Winnipeg next week. Nothing less will do.

 

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 vs. 

RECORDS: Sabres 7-17-4   Hawks 12-11-5

PUCK DROP: 7:30pm

TV: NBCSN Chicago

THROUGH THE TABLE IN THE PARKING LOT: Die By The Blade

If the Hawks can’t get healthy now, then you might want to abandon all hope. They’ll begin a three-game homestand against the mat-shots of the league: the Sabres, Yotes, and Panthers. If you needed to work some shit out, start to gain a little confidence, and maybe find a slump-buster, you could hardly order this up better.

Once again, the Hawks will be rolling out a new look, including their first call-up of the season if you can believe it. Vinnie Smalls, a.k.a Vincent Hinostroza has come in from the cold, Rockford air to replace Tanner Kero on the roster. He immediately slots into the lineup, though where isn’t exactly clear as he wasn’t allowed to participate in the morning skate. Our best guess has him replacing Hartman at center between Sharp and Panik, but it could be anything. Because god forbid anyone on the juggernaut 4th line, with its 40 CF%, be replaced.

Other changes see Alex DeBrincat move into the top six. Real stroke of genius to get one of the league’s top rookie scorers there. He’ll play opposite Saad and next to Toews, which we’re actually kind of jonesing to see. It would work better if Saad and Top Cat would swap sides, but one thing at a time, people. The Schmaltz-Wide Dick Arty-Garbage Dick line is reunited, because they’re basically Q’s blanky right now. It doesn’t really add up, has its faults, but they did score when together before. And the Hawks need scoring.

Corey Crawford will return to the net, and if you’re thinking, “Man this seems quick,” you’d be right. The word earlier in the week was that he wouldn’t return until Sunday. But throw in a loss that had Q pretty pissed and purple, and suddenly you’ve got a panicky coach. And though you shouldn’t need Crawford against the Sabres, and though Forsberg has been pretty solid aside from one game in Denver and one bad goal in DC, Q isn’t waiting around, even if it shoots Forsberg’s confidence into the moon. Q thinks the Hawks need points and now, and he’s not totally wrong. But if Crow should re-aggravate something badly…

And again, you shouldn’t need major inspiration to find two points against this hillbilly station wagon that constitutes the Buffalo Sabres. This is the league’s worst team, which is a real disappointment for fans that thought they could maybe at least be representative this year. It’s been a mess, no one’s sure Phil Housley has any idea what he’s doing, and if there’s a plan in place no one can identify it. There’s still Jack Eichel, and he’s really good. The Other Asshole Kane is having a career year, which probably will get some team to hold their nose and pick him up before the deadline, and the Sabres had better turn that into assets for now and the future. Rasmus Ristolainen has had an upswing on the blue line this year, but that’s really it. We’ve always loved Kyle Okposo, but he’s on the third line at the moment. Ryan O’Reilly murders the Hawks, but is having a rough go at the moment, as he has two goals since November 11th and two points at all in his last seven. Aside from those names there is just nothing here.

Making it worse is that the Sabres goalies, which were pretty good last year, have not been this year. Robin Lehner has been terrible, and at 26 is running out of runway to claim he’s “The Real Thing.” Chad Johnson has been even worse. The last thing a bad team needs is bad goaltending, otherwise you get this current carcass smell.

Don’t have to overthink this one. The Sabres suck out loud, and theHawks need to get healthy on this part of the schedule. Rack up six of six before having to head to Winnipeg next week. Nothing less will do.

 

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The Sabres have been thrashing about in the pool for a while now, seemingly never able to get their feet to the bottom of the pool or even tread water before they can start swimming. They have swayed from plan to plan and coach to coach and now GM to GM, and remain anchored to the bottom of the standings. If you squint, you can sort of see what they are trying to do. If you’re building a hockey team, you want a true #1 center, and maybe one more behind that. You want a surefire top pairing defenseman, though as the Penguins showed last year if you have two, genuine #1 centers, or more to the point two Hall of Fame centers, you don’t really need the d-man. And you’d like a goalie. The Sabres thought they had the goalie in Robin Lehner. That hasn’t worked out. They have the center in Jack Eichel. And they have another really good one in Ryan O’Reilly. And they told everyone they had the d-man in Rasmus Ristolainen.

The thing was, no one else believed them about Rasmus. We had seen him utterly dominate the World Juniors with our Dear Sweet Boy in Finland’s gold medal run of 2014 in Sweden. We knew about the draft pedigree. The size and skating ability are there for all to see.

But Rasmus never really put it together. All of his even-strength metrics for his entire career have been underwhelming, and that’s being kind. While the Sabres have sucked deep pond scum for years, Ristolainen couldn’t even match that. His relative Corsi ratings were -1.7, -0.57, -3.4, and -5.5. Again, that’s on some dog ass teams, but Rasmus couldn’t even manage “dog ass.” His relative xGF% marks weren’t any better. Again, they’re “sub-dog ass.”

Sabres fans, in their desperation most likely. would point to the last two seasons of 40+ points. However, of Ristolainen’s 86 points the past two seasons, 45 of them came on the power play. Rasmus’s even-strength numbers didn’t even crack the top 50 among d-men for even-strength scoring.

But…Rasmus seems to have turned a corner this year, even if his team remains steadfastly “dog ass.”

Ristolainen’s CF% is 50.6, and that’s above the team-rate by 1.7 points. His xGF% of 50.1 is miles above the team’s mark, by 8.36 points. That’s one of the best relative xGF% in the league. Ristolainen has seen his points per game drop, but that’s not really on him. Also, Rasmus is averaging way more attempts at even-strength himself than he ever has, he just can’t get any of them to go in. That will change.

More impressively, Ristolainen is taking on the toughest competition of his career and harder zone starts. He’s acting like a real live #1 d-man.

Perhaps Ristolainen being tossed in the deep end at 18 was a bit much to ask. Maybe it takes until the age of 23 to really figure out what’s going on. It’s only 27 games, and Rasmus will have to do this over a whole season. If he does though, he becomes one of the bigger bargains in the league. He signed an extension before last season that pays him $5.4 million per year for four more seasons after this one. Considering what the going rate is for top pairing d-men, that could end up a steal. That’s what happens when you pay for what you think a guy will do and get it right, instead of trying to compensate for what he’s done.

The Sabres still have a lot of pieces to fill in. They might not have another d-man on the roster who’s going to be there when they matter again. They are a few forwards short. But you’re definitely not going anywhere if you don’t have the big pieces solved. Check out the Oilers for more evidence. The Sabres might have been right all along.

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Melissa Burgess is a contributor to DieByTheBlade.com (still our favorite hockey blog name). You can follow her on Twitter @_MelissaBurgess.

Maybe it only seems like the Sabres are in year 87 of a rebuild, but with names like O’Reilly, Eichel, Okposo, Ristolainen, Kane why has this season been such a balls-up?

Honestly, I wish I knew. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t frustrating. Every season, we talk about the rebuild, and every season, the results are the same. This year realistically should be different. The Sabres have all this great offensive talent, like the names you mentioned, plus a new head coach in Phil Housley. But some nights, it seems like they’re just kind of skating around rather than actively playing the game, fighting for the puck, battling in the corners. The opposing team will score goals that leave me scratching my head, thinking “… how did [goalie] not save that?”
I don’t think anyone really expected the Sabres to be playoff contenders this year, but many expected them to at least battle, or be able to compete against other NHL teams. Instead, you’ve got all these seemingly-great players who are barely showing up. Eichel is hit-or-miss. It took O’Reilly seven games to get his first goal of the season, and Okposo 12 games. Overall, sometimes it seems like they lack heart. It doesn’t mean they want to lose, per se, but just that the passion and energy to win isn’t there.
Throw in more off-ice team-building exercises. Shake up line combinations in practice and in games and figure out what works. Make players want to be here, and make them want to fight for their spot. Do whatever it takes, because the team needs SOMETHING to get going here.
Speaking of Ristolainen, he’s in the top three in the league in minutes per game. But is he actually worthy of that kind of load?
 
The short answer, in my opinion, is… yes. As I write this, Ristolainen (27:00) is second in icetime leaguewide, behind only Ryan Suter. Suter’s averaged four seconds more ice time per game than Ristolainen, in eight more games played. He’s been a critical point of the Sabres’ defense and is really, observably, one of the anchors of Buffalo’s blue line. He’s also quite effective on the power play, with 10 shots and 2 takeaways with the man advantage this season.
Is it ideal to have one player skating in nearly half of every game? Probably not. Ristolainen actually played 30:42 in the win over Colorado on Tuesday night. Is there a concern about overworking him? Is it realistic that he could play those minutes every night? Probably not. But is he worth playing that much? Absolutely.
Before the draft of ’15, it felt as if Eichel was right there with McDavid. Run CMD has an MVP and 100-point season to his name. Eichel has had effective, quality seasons as well, but not quite the heights of McDavid. Is that a question of teammates? Just a different learning curve? Something else?
 
I understand where it’s easy for people to put Eichel and McDavid up next to each other, since they both came in the same draft year and all. But in reality, they’re two very different players. McDavid grew his offensive prowess playing in juniors alongside other young guns like Dylan Strome and Alex DeBrincat. Eichel played in the USA Hockey system and only one year at Boston University.
Ultimately, I think what it comes down to is… well, a lot of things. First, you’ve got to consider the different conferences. Yes, you’re seeing a lot of the same opponents overall, but the styles of play and competition in the Eastern Conference as opposed to the Western Conference aren’t the same.  Look at the overall league standings from last season. Three of the top four teams in the league were from the Eastern Conference. Six of the league’s top ten scorers came from Western Conference teams. Do we ever take into consideration not just teammates, but who teams are playing against, and the level of competition there?
It’s also a matter of considering how they’re being used on their respective teams and alongside their teammates. Look at last season, for instance. McDavid had 100 points (30-70) in 82 games. He averaged 21:08 ice time per game. Eichel had 57 points in 61 games; if he had played a full season, that may have amounted to about 77 points in 82 games. His average ice time was 19:55, slightly less than McDavid. Of course, both have been playing on teams that are pretty much at the bottom of the league. McDavid is also significantly a passer, which is pretty evident by the fact that he had 70 assists last year. They’re just different players at the core, and they’re going to be utilized differently in different systems, and having unique learning curves.
With Evander Kane having the numbers he does and this being the last year of his deal, are the Sabres going to flog him for whatever they can get at the deadline?
 

I don’t think you can just let Kane go for anything. Botterill (Sabres GM) has to really carefully consider what he’s doing here. Yes, Kane is having a good year. Yes, this is the last year of his deal. But at what point do you decide “okay, this package is good enough to make this trade” over “we’re going to try and re-sign him?”

I wouldn’t be surprised to see him traded at the deadline, but the problem with that is, you may not get as much for him since he could end up just being a rental player somewhere else. Focusing on his on-ice skills, Kane’s one of the best players on the Sabres right now – you can’t just give him up for nothing.

 
If you were GM, what are you doing to move this thing along so the Sabres can once again be a playoff team in what is a pretty crap division?
 
Night in and night out, I seem to be saying the same thing as I watch games: something’s gotta give. Okay, maybe I’ve been saying that for years now. And the team has tried different things – new coaches, new players – but the bottom line is, they can’t keep being at the bottom of the league, and the division. It’s obviously easier for a team to let go of one coach versus swapping out 20+ players, but getting rid of the coach isn’t always the right answer. Players have to be committed to the team’s system, and have to want to succeed. Right now there’s a level of frustration building around this team, and although the circumstances aren’t great, maybe that frustration is exactly what they need, to give them that extra spark, that extra push.
If I’m GM, I think I’m trying to move Robin Lehner for the right price. He’s played most of the Sabres’ games this season but still fails to show consistency and lets in a lot of goals that shouldn’t have been. I’m also getting Josh Gorges out of the picture, as he really just seems to be slowing down the team’s defense. I think the other thing that can be done is to really make guys fight for their roster spots. Just the other night, Zemgus Girgensons was a healthy scratch. He has four points this season and, quite frankly, needs to be doing more. So you scratch him, have him sit a game or two, and hope that brings some spark when he returns.
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Game Time: 5:00PM CDT
TV/Radio: NBCSN, WGN-AM 720
Frank Sedita Is Corrupt As Shit: Die By The Blade

Because today is the contrivance that is Hockey Day In America, both the Hawks and Sabres will be travelling from the midwest to play a prime-time game rife with manufactured storylines. The one in particular that will get beaten to death will be the return of Buffalo’s prodigal son, one Garbage Dick, as it always does whenever the Hawks play the Sabres. But because the NHL is now a giant warm, flat beer of parity, the Sabres now find themselves threatening for a playoff spot with only the briefest spasm of competence.