The Blackhawks open their home slate on Saturday against the Buffalo Sabres, owners of the league's worst record in 2013-14. Chicago logged a pair of 2-1 wins over Buffalo last season, with Patrick Kane (2G), Patrick Sharp (2A) and Andrew Shaw (2A) leading the team offensively. Longtime Sabre Drew Stafford led his team with two goals in two games. The Blackhawks are 36-30-19-2 all-time in home openers and have won their last three.
Buffalo's roster is the second-youngest in the league at the start of the season, averaging 26.3 years and featuring seven players under 23. Among the Sabres' fresh faces is 2014 second-overall pick Sam Reinhart, who is the third 18-year-old to skate in Buffalo's season opener over the past three years (Mikhail Grigorenko in 2012-13, Rasmus Ristolainen in 2013-14). While the team is expected to struggle this season due to its overwhelming youth, General Manager Tim Murray did add a few veteran pieces to his roster, including defensemen Andrej Meszaros and Josh Gorges, depth centers Torrey Mitchell and Cody McCormick and new captain Brian Gionta.
The Sabres dropped their home opener 3-1 to Columbus, despite the best efforts of goaltender Jhonas Enroth, who made 37 saves on 40 shots to keep Buffalo in the contest. The 26-year-old Sweden native, now in his sixth season with the club, took over the starting position after the trade of Ryan Miller in late February; he ended the campaign with a 4-17-5 record, 2.82 goals-against average and .911 save percentage, while appearing in a career-high 28 games. Enroth made one start against Chicago last season, stopping 29 of 31 shots on March 9 in Buffalo.
The Blackhawks felt fortunate to escape Dallas with a win after being outplayed for the first two periods of Thursday's game against the Stars, with Head Coach Joel Quenneville saying, "We have to call the cops." But when the opportunity presented itself, it was the steady hands of Patrick Kane that delivered the team's first two points of the season. First, he collected an assist on Patrick Sharp's game-tying power-play goal in the third period; then, in the shootout, Kane flicked a high backhand shot past Kari Lehtonen's shoulder for the only score in the shootout. The classic finish moved Kane into a tie for first among active NHLers (S. Crosby, M. Koivu and F. Nielsen) with 15 game-deciding shootout goals; he has converted 31 of 78 career attempts.
Both Quenneville and Buffalo bench boss Ted Nolan will have likely imparted the same message to their squads ahead of Saturday's tilt: Stay out of the penalty box. Chicago struggled to build momentum against the Stars, largely due to seven minor penalties, including a double-minor to Niklas Hjalmarsson for high-sticking. A solid penalty kill limited Dallas to one goal on eight total shots, but the Blackhawks will need to limit their trips to the box if they want to play to their advantage and stay at even-strength against the Sabres. Buffalo was in the same boat in their loss, serving five minor penalties, four of them in the first period, and allowing the winning goal by Columbus on their fifth power play late in the game.
On paper, the Blackhawks shouldn't have a tough time beating the Sabres, but the pedigree and talent of Buffalo's young players -- Reinhart, Ristolainen, Zemgus Girgensons and Nikita Zadorov among them -- can't be overlooked. Still, Saturday's home opener presents a great opportunity for Chicago to iron out a few kinks that could have sunk them in Dallas, including taking too many penalties and inconsistent puck clearances. If the Blackhawks can play a steady 200-foot game and limit mistakes in their own zone, they'll put themselves in the best possible position to claim another two points.