Dan Bylsma has said numerous times that he wants his Buffalo Sabres team to be “hard to play against.” That phrase encompasses several of the key ingredients you see in successful teams: physicality, speed and puck possession, to name a few.
While the team remains a work in progress, one statistic certainly seems to be an indicator that Buffalo has indeed been a difficult team to play – or, at the very least, to find the net against.
Through six games, the Sabres have allowed 25.3 shot attempts per game, the second-fewest in the League. Buffalo has allowed less than 25 shot attempts four times in those six games.
“In some ways a lot of the last number of games we’re playing good teams and not giving up a lot of opportunities to score. That’s hard to play against,” Bylsma said after practice Thursday at HARBORCENTER. “I think for a lot of that game last night we were that … when you give up 20 shots or 21 shots in regulation, anything close to 20 and under is real good from your team.”
The Sabres outshot the Maple Leafs 35-24 in their 2-1 shootout victory on Wednesday at First Niagara Center. In the previous game, a 2-1 loss to Tampa Bay on Saturday, they outshot the Lightning 32-22.
Bylsma credits the limited opportunities by the opposition to the defensive play of his forwards at the F3 position, which is the forward who enters the offensive zone last and is typically responsible for being the first forward to backcheck into the defensive zone.
“I think one thing we’ve done really, really well – it’s a key to our game – is having a good F3, both offensively and defensively and tracking back and allowing our D to have a good gap and you saw that a number of times last night where they’re forcing the puck out of their hands before the red lines,” Bylsma said.
“The first two or three games we weren’t good at it, gave up the odd-man rush against Ottawa … I think we’ve been much better in that regard and you see that in the number of opportunities we’re limiting to the opposition.”
Cutting down on opponents’ chances has gone a long way in creating more opportunities for the Sabres, too.
Buffalo only scored once in regulation in each of its last two games, but those results don’t do justice to the amount of chances that the Sabres have generated.
Buffalo’s forwards know that the less time they spend in the defensive end, the more chances they’ll be able to create for themselves.
“I think keeping it out of your own end, getting it into their zone as quick as possible, I think that’s a main philosophy we’ve been trying to preach,” Matt Moulson said. “Get pucks up quickly, get them in the other end, and we’ve done a decent job at that. Hopefully we keep getting better.”
LIEUWEN STAYING SHARP IN PRACTICE
Since being recalled from the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League on Oct. 10, Nathan Lieuwen still hasn’t seen the ice in an NHL game. It’s a much different experience from the first time that the Sabres goaltender was promoted to the NHL, back in March of 2014.
Lieuwen was called up to serve as Jhonas Enroth’s backup for a Sunday game against the Montreal Canadiens that year, or at least he thought. Enroth was injured in that game, and Lieuwen was thrust immediately into his NHL debut.
He stopped all 10 of the shots he faced that day and played in six more games before a concussion ended his season in April. The symptoms of that concussion lingered throughout last season and kept him out of the NHL until Robin Lehner’s high-ankle sprain created an opportunity for him to serve as Chad Johnson’s backup.
Now, he’s waiting patiently and staying sharp in anticipation for his return to the ice.
“It’s been great,” he said, smiling. “Any time I’m here, I’m thrilled. This is the goal. This where you want to be and it’s been really good to get acclimatized as far as practicing and being here – being in this situation and exercising a bit of patience, waiting for that opportunity and making sure you’re always ready because you never know when it will come.”
Whether that opportunity comes this weekend – when the Sabres play the Canadiens and the New Jersey Devils on back-to-back days at First Niagara Center – remains to be seen.
In the meantime, Lieuwen is happy to be in Buffalo. He’s enjoyed the relationship he has established with Johnson, who has impressed him with his calm demeanor in net. Furthermore, he’s continued to develop in practice situations set up by Sabres goalie coach Andrew Allen.
“It’s been fantastic, they’ve got a great group of minds up here,” he said. “I think they know what they’re doing and the practice situations for me have been really good, a lot of game-like stuff. Andrew himself, he’s been fantastic, he’s been fun to work with. We can discuss different things and, for me, that’s what I like in a goalie coach.”
Lieuwen had to earn his place on the Sabres’ depth chart in Training Camp. Both he and Andrey Makarov received time in net during the preseason, but Lieuwen took advantage by allowing only one goal in 40 minutes of play and impressed Bylsma enough to earn the call up once Lehner sustained his injury.
Even if he wasn’t coming off of an injury-riddled season, the 24-year-old netminder would have been happy with his performance in camp.
“Even if I had been just coming along like I normally would be and not coming off of injury, I think it was good,” he said. “So considering the situation, I thought it was fantastic. I was sharp. I was ready for every little opportunity in two periods in the exhibition games I thought I was sharp and ready and on my game. I think that’s just carried over now to the practices here.”