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Atlantic Division notebook

Sabres continue to struggle; Senators strive to shore up defense

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / NHL.com Staff Writer

The hopes of the Buffalo Sabres were dashed just before the season started, when center Jack Eichel went down with a high-ankle sprain, and again in their first game, when forward Evander Kane went down with three cracked ribs. And the Sabres, in a season that began with the promise of better things, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, went down too. 

It has been a struggle of a season in Buffalo, with the Sabres unable to create offensively even with blossoming talent, like center Sam Reinhart, and imported scorers like forward Kyle Okposo. That was what led Kane to utter the following last week: "It must be a joke right now: If you score two goals against the Buffalo Sabres, you're going to win the game. And we've got to end that."

He's not wrong. The New York Rangers are leading the NHL with 81 goals, and another New York team is bringing up the rear. The Sabres have scored 36 goals, good for an average of 1.89 goals per game. Until a 4-2 win against the Calgary Flames on Monday, the Sabres had not scored more than two goals in any of their first 10 games in November.

So maybe there are better things coming for the Sabres after they ended a six-game losing streak with a 2-1 shootout win against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday, though Buffalo scored once through overtime. Coach Dan Bylsma called it "a win we desperately needed." 

There was, perhaps, a kernel of hope in that victory, when the Sabres allowed one goal, which came on a Penguins power play. Perhaps that is how they are going to have to survive until they get some of their talent back into the fold, until they truly look like the team promised to the city of Buffalo. It was a feeling that perhaps grew after the win Monday, when the Sabres allowed the Flames to score two goals but won.

Video: PIT@BUF: O'Reilly goes top-shelf in shootout

That was not what this season was supposed to be. During the summer, expectations were higher in Buffalo, with hope on the horizon and maybe even the possibility forward Jimmy Vesey could sign with the Sabres and play alongside his friend Eichel. 

But that didn't happen, with Vesey opting for the Rangers, and then the struggles began, proving just how costly a rash of injuries to good players can be, combined with underperformance and bad luck from those who remain. Eichel remains out and has been joined on injured reserve by forwards Nicolas Deslauriers (knee) and Tyler Ennis (groin). Center Ryan O'Reilly (oblique) has been injured, and so have defensemen Zach Bogosian (knee) and Dmitry Kulikov (back). 

Buffalo has waited a long time for the Sabres to get better, for the Stanley Cup Playoffs to return to a city that loves its hockey. The Sabres have sat out the playoffs for the past five seasons and have not won a round since 2007, when they made it to the Eastern Conference Final for the second time in as many years. 

This was supposed to be a season the Sabres contended again, perhaps made the postseason. But as the games go on and the shots do not go in, that concept seems further and further away. 

 

Senators stressing defense

It's as if the Ottawa Senators are courting drama. The Senators (10-7-1) have been feasting off close games this season. In their nine games that have ended with one goal separating the two sides -- including overtime and shootouts -- the Senators are 7-1-1, including 3-0 in the shootout. 

In games when the teams have been separated by more than one goal? Ottawa has won three of nine. 

That's why the Senators are managing to hang on to points despite sitting just north of the Sabres in goals per game with 2.06. They have been bolstered by the goaltending of Craig Anderson, who has allowed 2.27 goals per game with a save percentage of .928, all while his wife, Nicholle, is facing cancer.

Video: FLA@OTT: Anderson dives to stop Thornton in close

With the trouble Ottawa has had scoring, playing a tighter defensive game will be more important, coach Guy Boucher said after a 4-1 loss to the Florida Panthers on Saturday. 

But the good news is learning how to win tight games comes back to help the Senators as the season goes on, especially if they can continue to keep within shouting distance of a spot in the postseason as the calendar turns to December. 

 

Stat pack

The Atlantic Division is all about goaltending right now. Of the top four goaltenders in terms of save percentage, minimum 10 games, three are from the Atlantic. Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens leads at .950, followed by Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins in third at .946 and Jimmy Howard of the Detroit Red Wings in fourth at .940. If goalies with at least seven games are included, Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning joins the top five in the top spot at .953. Devan Dubnyk of the Minnesota Wild (.949) is the sole non-Atlantic goalie in the group. … Shea Weber of the Canadiens and Matt Moulson of the Sabres are tied for the League lead with six power-play goals. 

 

Games to watch

St. Louis Blues at Boston Bruins (Nov. 22, 7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, NESN, FS-MW, NHL.TV) -- Center David Backes faces the only team he had ever played for until this season, the team he captained, and the team he helped take to the Western Conference Final last spring. 

Ottawa Senators at Montreal Canadiens (Nov. 22, 7:30 p.m. ET; RDS2, SNE, TSN5, NHL.TV) -- This might not have been the pick for two of the best teams in the Atlantic Division at the start of the season, but each have racked up the points so far this year. 

Calgary Flames at Boston Bruins (Nov. 25, 7:30 p.m. ET; NESN, SNW, NHL.TV) -- Defenseman Dougie Hamilton still stirs emotions in Boston, so no matter how many seasons he has been gone, it's still an event when he returns to TD Garden. 

Toronto Maple Leafs at Edmonton Oilers (Nov. 29, 9 p.m. ET; NBCSN (JIP), SNW, TSN4) -- The first time centers Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid played against each other in the NHL, the game went to overtime. They'll have another crack at it on Nov. 29 for the final time in the regular season. 

Detroit Red Wings at New York Islanders (Dec. 4, 6 p.m. ET; MSG+, FS-D, NHL.TV) -- Center Frans Nielsen spent the first 10 years of his career with the Islanders. This marks his first game against his old teammates.

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