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Blackhawks Buzz: Matinee matchup with much-improved Sabres

by Emerald Gao / Chicago Blackhawks


1. SABRE METRICS

Less than a season removed from putting up historically futile offensive numbers, the Buffalo Sabres have made drastic improvements as a team under new head coach Dan Bylsma, playing with more structure in the neutral zone and defending more aggressively at their blue line, which has led to markedly better possession numbers. The Blackhawks swept last season's series, winning 6-2 in their home opener and securing a late 4-3 win in early April; Jonathan Toews (2G, 2A) and Andrew Shaw (1G, 3A) led the team over those two contests. Buffalo enters Saturday's matinee with three wins in their last four games, including a 3-0 blanking of Anaheim on Thursday, while Chicago finished a four-game homestand with a 4-0 win over Edmonton; they allowed just two goals in those four games, thanks to several outstanding efforts by Corey Crawford, who now leads the league with five shutouts.

2. O'REILLY FACTOR

Buffalo General Manager Tim Murray made a splash at the 2015 draft by making a big trade with Colorado to acquire center Ryan O'Reilly and then sign him to a long-term contract extension. The 24-year-old has made an immediate difference for the Sabres this season, currently anchoring the top line alongside rookie Sam Reinhart and fellow Avs transplant Jamie McGinn. Not only does O'Reilly lead the team with 28 points (11G, 17A) in 33 games this season, he paces league forwards with 21:50 of ice time per game and ranks third with a 59.0 faceoff win percentage (min. 250 faceoffs). His 13 points on the power play are a big reason Buffalo has cracked the top five in that category this season, after ranking dead last in the NHL in 2014-15. Although O'Reilly has gone two games without a point, Buffalo's offense still starts with his line and their forecheck, so the Blackhawks will need to keep him out of scoring areas and be smart and quick on zone exits on Saturday.

3. LEFT WING LOCKED

With each game, Teuvo Teravainen has looked increasingly comfortable playing left wing on Chicago's top line alongside Toews and Marian Hossa. He had his best outing in the NHL on Thursday, scoring twice and adding an assist to power the Blackhawks over Edmonton, and now has seven points (4G, 3A) in his last seven games. The 21-year-old has seen his minutes jump not just at even strength, but also on the power play, where he's mostly operated off the right boards, sometimes rotating into a point position where he can spray passes around and set up scoring chances. The top trio combined for nine points against the Oilers, and Head Coach Joel Quenneville was enthusiastic about the offensive outburst, remarking after the game: "It’s nice to see them be a threat off the rush and have the puck in the zone as well....I think they’re starting to get the chances and it’s nice to see them go in for once."

4. RISTO REWARD

Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen may not be a household name in the NHL yet, but he's developing into a dominant player for the Sabres in his second full season with the club. The 21-year-old Finn is already skating first-pairing minutes, leading the team with 24:34 of average ice time, and he's already set a career mark with 24 points (7G, 17A) in 33 games, good for a share of fifth among league defensemen and a total that includes his first career hat trick on Dec. 10 in Calgary. While some young blueliners struggle with discipline, Ristolainen has not: He's one of three players in the NHL who has not taken a single penalty while skating more than 400 even-strength minutes this season (Boston's Loui Eriksson and Washington's Marcus Johanssen are the other two). Keeping him off the scoresheet on Saturday means getting into shooting lanes and pressuring him with strong checking when he has the puck, which is often.

5. LIKE EICH

One major focal point for Saturday's matchup is the Blackhawks' first glimpse at Jack Eichel, the second-overall pick in last summer's draft. The 19-year-old has 15 points in his first 33 games to go along with a team-high 102 shots on goal, and he snapped a five-game pointless streak with an assist on Thursday against Anaheim. Offensive production aside, the rookie has had a noticeable impact at both ends of the ice. One of the strongest skaters in his draft class, Eichel uses his powerful stride to move effortlessly through all three zones, and he doesn't hesitate to use his 6-foot-2, 200-pound frame to muscle past players while driving to the net. The Blackhawks can't be caught standing still when Eichel has the puck, and defenders must be aware of his ability to thread passes through small spaces.

THE FINAL WORD

While Buffalo is still a few seasons away from being a title contender, the team is already in much better shape than they were last season, led by Eichel, Reinhart and Ristolainen, plus major trade acquisitions in O'Reilly and Evander Kane. The Sabres will get a boost on Saturday with the return of Tyler Ennis, who has missed the last 12 games with an upper-body injury, and last season's leading scorer should add some punch to Buffalo's second line alongside Eichel and Kane. Chicago will be without Marcus Kruger for the next four months due to wrist surgery, leading to the first recall of the season for 22-year-old Phillip Danault. No matter who Chicago starts in net on Saturday, a strong 60-minute effort will go a long way to keeping their recent run going. If the Blackhawks can continue to roll their depth, use speed to break down Buffalo's defensive structure and get production from at least the top six, they'll be in a good position to gain two more points in Buffalo, where they haven't lost since 2009.

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