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.
Entering tonight, the Sabres have won 3 straight, and 6 of 9 to put them 2 points out of a playoff spot, though they have played more games than any of the teams ahead of them. They’ve done so the old fashioned way, by getting a spike in goaltending from the revolting Robin Lehner, proving that yes there are Scanandavian scumbags too. Lehner has started 9 of 10 games in February for the Sabres, during which he has sported a .950 save percentage, including two shutouts. Lehner played yesterday evening in St. Louis, and with the Sabres in the position they are in the standings, it would not be surprising in the least to see Disco Dan Bylsma come right back with him at home tonight in another game they need to have. But in the event that he does go with Blackhawks Legend Anders Nilsson, he still boasts a .922 overall this season.
And the goalies have had to be good, because the skaters in front of them certainly haven’t done much to tilt the ice in their favor during this or any stretch of the season. The Sabres are 28th in the league with a 46.63% share of shots, and only once this month have they out-attempted a team 5v5, and that was against the Canucks so it doesn’t actually count. But, as is the case with any young team that hasn’t quite figured it all out yet, the Sabres are quite adept on the power play, with the second best rate in the league at 23%. Having toys like Jack Eichel, Ryan O’Reilly, and Kyle Okposo certainly help with that, and Okposo is currently leading the Sabres with 39 points, 20 of which have come on the power play. The at-one-point-unfairly criticized, but now totally fairly criticized Evander Kane has crossed the 20 goal threshold far earlier than he ever has, thanks to a spike in his shooting percentage up to nearly 12.9 after three straight years below 8%.
On the blue line, Rasmus Ristolainen has piled up the assists, particularly on the power play with 19, but he’s the centerpiece of a unit that routinely gets dong-whipped in its own end with exception of statistical darling Cody Franson, the only Sabres defenseman above water, and barely at that at 50.2%. Franson is in a walk year and has a relatively light cap hit at $3.25 mildo. But teams have spent plenty of money and assets on Franson in the past only to have him disappoint, and the Sabres would have to admit that they’re out of it in the next week and a half, which they don’t seem like they’re doing at the moment.
As for the Men of Four Feathers, they’ll get right back after it after getting goalied pretty solidly by Cam Talbot last night, and against at least a middling possession team in the Oilers, at least when McDavid is on the ice. There is no such juggernaut for the Sabres, and if the Hawks keep the gas pedal floored, they should get enough shots on Lehner or Nilsson to make it hurt no matter what the save percentages say. Scott Darling gets the cage at the other end, and there are rumblings of Michal Rozsival getting back onto the ice today, which of course he would.
With the Wild now finally caught up in games played and the gap now widened to 7 points last night, there’s almost zero chance the Hawks catch them for the division, because that’s just what Bruce Boudreau teams do. Being essentially locked in to their current seed with at least home ice in the first round affords the Hawks the opportunity to get their process correct without having to be overly concerned about the results. Last night was a good step, and if they continue it this evening, the results should follow. Let’s go Hawks.