The Blackhawks will play their first game in Buffalo since Oct. 11, 2010, on Sunday, a span of more than three seasons without an appearance at the First Niagara Center. Chicago enters the contest with a four-game winning streak against the Sabres, including a 2-1 victory at the United Center on Oct. 12, 2013. Buffalo native Patrick Kane has six points (3G, 3A) in seven matchups against his hometown team, while defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have six career assists apiece in eight games.
With Marian Hossa on the shelf due to injury, the Blackhawks were forced to shuffle their lines, but it didn’t seem to slow down Jonathan Toews’ line in the slightest, despite having two new linemates. All the teaming of Toews, Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw did in Thursday’s 6-1 win over Columbus was combine for four goals and an assist, with Toews and Shaw netting two goals apiece. The moves also allowed Head Coach Joel Quenneville to spread out some of his other scoring: Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane were reunited on the second line, and the team also got production from role players such as Bryan Bickell, Marcus Kruger and Kris Versteeg.
When the Blackhawks and Sabres last played on Oct. 12, Buffalo’s roster still included the likes of All-Stars Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek, as well as the pesky Steve Ott and penalty-killer Cody McCormick. All of them have since moved on, part of the full-blown rebuilding effort in Buffalo. The Sabres sit dead-last in the league at 19-36-8, but have some skilled young scorers, including Cody Hodgson and Zemgus Girgensons, and will have 11 first- or second-round draft picks over the next three drafts. The immediate future may be hazy in Buffalo, but an influx of young talent is coming over the next few seasons.
Now that all-world goaltender Ryan Miller is in St. Louis, 25-year-old Jhonas Enroth is now the Sabres’ de-facto starter, and has held his own since Miller was traded on Feb. 28. Enroth has gone 2-1-0 in his three starts since the deal, allowing just six total goals while making 115 saves, good for a .950 save percentage. Enroth’s most recent victory, a 3-1 win in Tampa Bay, saw the netminder make 43 of 44 stops; he is now 3-0-3 all-time in games where he’s faced 40 or more shots.
Sunday will likely mark the Blackhawks debut of defenseman David Rundblad, who was acquired from Phoenix on March 4. VP/GM Stan Bowman spoke highly of the 23-year-old Swede’s offensive playmaking ability, and added that Chicago had been interested in acquiring the young blueliner for some time. Scouting reports have noted Rundblad’s improved defensive game as well, and at 6-foot-2, he now ranks among the team’s bigger defensemen, and could use that body effectively at both ends of the ice.
On paper, Buffalo has traded away many of their best weapons, but their record belies that fact; the Sabres have won four of six decisions coming out of the Olympic break, beating top-flight teams including Boston and San Jose. It will be important for the Blackhawks to not look past Sunday’s game, and having three days before their next game — a road contest in Denver against the Avalanche — should work to their advantage. If the Blackhawks play like they did the last time these two teams met — when they won 34 of 59 faceoffs, recorded 22 takeaways and took 40 shots on net — they should have a very good shot at taking two points back with them to Chicago.