TRAVERSE CITY, MICHIGAN – Goals have been hard to come by for the Buffalo Sabres so far in the 2014 NHL Prospects Tournament.
Through two games, the Sabres have scored only two goals and are now 0-1-1 after a 2-1 overtime loss to the New York Rangers on Saturday at Centre Ice Arena.
The names you’d expect to see on the scoring sheet have had their opportunities, but haven’t yet been able to bury the puck.
“I’m not going to lie, I’m pretty frustrated,” forward Justin Bailey said. “I think I had a few grade-A chances these past few games that I haven’t executed. I know it sounds a little cliché, but I am getting chances and I think once one goes, in the floodgates will open up.”
Bailey was robbed early in the third period by the glove of Rangers goaltender Mackenzie Skapski. He also had a chance to score on a 2-on-1 in the first game of the tournament, but was also foiled by a great piece of goaltending.
Joseph Blandisi, a camp invitee who played in Ottawa and Barrie last season, scored the Sabres’ only goal. That gave Buffalo a 1-0 lead with 5:54 remaining in the first period.
“I thought one of our strengths coming into this tournament was going to be scoring goals. We have a lot of guys who are producers in that area,” Sabres tournament coach Chadd Cassidy said. “It’s obviously been an issue for us. We had a lot of good chances again tonight.”
The Rangers tied the game five seconds into the first period when a long shot off the faceoff at center ice by defenseman Sam Noreau skipped up and beat goaltender Francois Brassard.
Regulation didn’t solve anything so the game went overtime, where Rangers wing Chris McCarthy found Adam Tambellini on a 2-on-1 for the winning tally. With Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe caught up-ice, it was up to forward Brendan Lemieux to defend against the oncoming attack.
Lemieux was in good position, but the puck found its way over to Tambellini on the left side, who buried the puck into the back of the net.
“I did all I can, pushing over and he found a hole. It was a nice shot,” Brassard said.
To generate more offense, Cassidy would like to see his club play heavier around the net and create more traffic to make the opposing goaltenders’ job even more difficult.
“Unless you’re going to play heavy down in that area, you’re not going to score a lot of goals,” Cassidy said.
A STRONG DEBUT
The Sabres coaching staff opted to go with Brassard in net over Andrey Makarov, who is expected to compete for the starting job in Rochester this year.
Brassard was a sixth-round pick of the Ottawa Senators in 2012 and played last season with Quebec of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
He wound up with 33 saves against the Rangers and his strong play may have earned him another start in the tournament, whether on Monday against the Dallas Stars or on Tuesday in a cross-divisional matchup.
While the bouncer early in the second period may have been one he’d like to have back, he impressed his teammates with his performance.
“Other than that, he was lights out,” McCabe said. “He gave us a chance to win the game and that’s all you can ask from your goaltender.”
A ‘FUNKY’ NEW FORMAT
With rule changes coming at both the NHL and AHL levels, some new rules were adopted for the Traverse City tournament. Among them, the overtime format has been tweaked to reflect the new rule in the AHL.
In the now seven-minute overtime period, teams skate 4-on-4 until the first while following three minutes of play. The remaining amount of time will be played 3-on-3 and if that doesn’t solve anything, a three-round shootout will commence.
It was during the 3-on-3 portion of overtime that the Rangers won the game.
“The 3-on-3’s kind of funky and I got caught below the puck and an odd-man rush went the other way,” McCabe said.
Just before the puck went back up ice to set up the game-winner, McCabe and Sam Reinhart were in on a good scoring chance in the Rangers end. A little it before that, Reinhart and Bailey almost converted as well.
Bailey also had a great chance in the overtime period and started the 3-on-3 portion with Reinhart and tournament captain Rasmus Ristolainen.
“It’s definitely unique. That doesn’t happen very much. Usually it’s 4-on-4 and then a shootout. You live for those moments,” Bailey said. “I think there’s a lot of room. Me and Sam Reinhart had a good chance there that just didn’t happen. You have to really pay attention.”
Cassidy will have to adjust to the new rule when he’s behind the bench of the Amerks all season. He said after the game that it will take some time to get used to and will be something else he’ll need to have his players prepared for.
“Experience is the only thing I dislike. You don’t play a lot of 3-on-3s so it’s hard to figure out exactly how to play that and guys don’t have a lot of practice playing it,” he said.
“Everybody’s trying to score. It’s something that probably, once the season breaks out, you’ve got to work on it a little more, but it’s a work in progress. We’ll see how it goes.”
WANTED: A STRONG FINISH
The Sabres will practice Sunday afternoon in preparation of their 3 p.m. game on Monday against the Dallas Stars. It’s the last game of round-robin play and the outcome will determine their final seed – and opponent – for Tuesday.
While they won’t be able to reach the championship game for the third-straight tournament, they’ll look to leave Traverse City on a positive note.
“We’re trying to get better every game, ready for the season,” McCabe said. “Guys are getting in game shape now. It’s a great tournament. It’s a great compete level, great skill out there from all the teams. There are great prospects here. We think we have one of the better prospects [groups] so we’re going to put something together and hopefully put a couple wins together.”