This four-part series will look at how the Buffalo Sabres will stack up against their Northeast Division foes in the shortened season. Follow me on Twitter to keep up with NHL and Sabres news all season long: @SwordPlay18.
Last year the Ottawa Senators came out of nowhere, surprising pretty much everyone who knows anything about hockey by making the playoffs last season. What was even more surprising was their push for the Northeast Division that truly didn’t end until the last few games of the season. Whether that push was more the ineptitude of the Boston Bruins down the stretch remains to be seen, but, regardless, the Sens made the hockey world pay attention.
The Buffalo Sabres certainly had their fair share of struggles against the Sens last year.
Now, in the shortened season, many have speculated whether or not the Sens will be able to replicate their success from last year. They haven’t made too many major changes and they are relatively young, so it stands to reason that they’ll only be better, but they could also play the way everyone thought they would last year, a prospect that becomes more probable when factoring in an aging Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson.
So how do the Sabres matchup?
The Sens obviously rely a lot on the talent of Spezza, and have heavily since the last lockout. Spezza’s 84 points and 50 assists were his most since 2007-08 and his 34 goals tied his career high.
Aiding Spezza in his strong showing was the play of Milan Michalek, whose 35 goals were easily a career high and the Sens finally began to see some sort of return out of the centerpiece of the Dany Heatley trade a few years ago. This was also supplemented by the bounce-back year from the long-time captain Daniel Alfredsson.
The Senators also enjoyed a career year from Nick Foligno and a solid first 82-game effort from Colin Greening to give them a respectable amount of secondary scoring. Kyle Turris showed some flashes when he came over from the Phoenix Coyotes and is expected to keep his trajectory on the rise.
However, Foligno was traded to Columbus for defenseman Marc Methot and young blue chip prospect Mika Zibanejad has struggled with inconsistency and concussions in Binghamton of the AHL this season. Basically, they will need another big year out of Greening, Chris Neil and rookie Jacob Silfverberg to take the pressure off of Spezza, Michalek and Alfredsson.
It’s not as simple as shutting down Spezza and Michalek, but the Sabres matchup well against the Sens, at least on paper. They can match their speed and now can match the size they play with Neil and Zack Smith. The Sens have the high-end talent that the Sabres do, but they don’t have the top six the Sabres do. If the Sabres play their game offensively, they should be able to dictate the offensive play.
So, Erik Karlsson won the Norris Trophy. He’s pretty good. But realistically he is a fourth forward for the Senators and probably spent more time rushing the puck than most of Ottawa’s forwards.
He’s joined by fellow offensive minded blue liner Sergei Gonchar, who, at 38, is certainly on the home stretch of his career. Methot brings a defense-first mentality to the blue line along with the veteran Chris Phillips.
Jared Cowen, who played in all 82 games last season, is out for the year after undergoing hip surgery, leaving a significant whole in the back end for the Sens.
Essentially, defensively the Sens are not the strongest. They have strong offensive talent on the blue line, but they tend to struggle with the defensive part sometimes. Karlsson winning the Norris shows how much the voters value points and are willing to overlook shaky defense from time to time.
The Sabres have more depth than the Sens, but do not have the top end talent on the blue line. Eventually, Tyler Myers will likely be the best defenseman in this matchup, but right now, defensive lapses or not, that torch is Karlsson’s.
The Sens run with what is basically a trio of goaltenders: Craig Anderson, Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop.
Lehner and Bishop are young and talented, with Bishop being acquired from the St. Louis Blues last season for a second rounder. With these two blue chippers in the system, Anderson is more of a place keeper in the net for the few seasons, but an expensive one, as he makes over $3.1 million a year for the next three seasons.
If everything goes as expected, the Sabres will likely play at least two of these guys this year, with it being a possibility they play all three. With that type of rotation, the steady play of Ryan Miller and Jhonas Enroth should easily give the Sabres the leg up in net.
The Sabres and Sens should have some great games this season, and the series should be a lot closer than it looks on paper. It always is between these two teams.
Of the eight points available, look for the teams to either split them or come close with one grabbing five. The Sabres should have the slight edge so the series will go 2-1-1 for the Sabres.