The Sabres return to the ice tonight against the Islanders who are having a very good season so far and sit at 19-13-4 with 42 points.
There was a feeling of optimism among the fans after the team returned from that semi-successful road trip in early December when we took St. Louis and Chicago to overtime and came home and beat Ottawa. Instead, we followed that up by losing 4 of the next 5 games and now sit at 9-20-7. We have only scored 78 goals this season, easily the lowest in the league, and I think it’s safe to say that any shred of optimism has faded.
The most exciting hockey played at KeyBank center this season might actually have happened last night at the World Junior Championship. Casey Mittelstadt put on a show against Denmark. He was warm in the first, hot in the second and on fire in the third. He had two goals and was all over the ice creating plays and handling the puck. He got named the player of the game, for the USA. But Denmark also got a player of the game, which is puzzling to me. Another thing that was puzzling to me was why they raised the American and Canadian flags and played their anthems after their respective wins. I have never seen that kind of ceremony after a regular group game; usually that ceremony is only for the finals. The IIHF is changing it up and giving out participation trophies, but I guess all these players are millenials so they are probably just following the trends of our society.
The other player to watch for Sabres fans is future (hopefully soon) goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen of Finland. The Fins lost to Canada 4-2 earlier yesterday but Luukkonen looked good in the net with sweet black and orange pads and got unlucky on Canada’s first goal. He was playing in front of a weak defense (something we’ve grown accustomed to this year) and although Luukkonen kept them in the game, they couldn’t mount any kind of attack in the third and at that point, they were finished, see what I did there? Luukkonen is young and playing in the second division in Finland but he looked good positionally and played big in the net. I am very much looking forward to him developing and getting over here and taking over the number 1 job.
As for our current situation, it is tough to say, but I think that it makes the most sense long term to leave Ullmark down in Ra Cha to try and win a Calder Cup with that group of prospects. I understand Botterill’s strategy; it’s the same one he used in Pittsburgh to develop a winning culture in his young players and I think it’s a smart strategy. We need to build from within and develop our own homegrown talent. We saw last night that we have a bright future star with Mittelstadt who is only a freshman at Minnesota, but looked like he should be up in the big leagues now. Our defense is so bad, I don’t think we would be winning if 1998 Domink Hasek was in there. When you don’t score and give up 3+ a night, you aren’t winning games. This team needs a complete overhaul but I think Botterill will stick with his strategy through the end of this season. I foresee Evander Kane getting traded for prospects. I think the only players who should be untouchable are Risto, Eichel and O’Reilly. People might say O’Reilly should not be untouchable, but I think he is our future captain and like Eichel, is just having a down year on a really bad team. I still lay this mess on Tim Murray’s doorstep and I think Botterill is cleaning up his mistakes. It sucks, but that’s the truth. The only silver lining is the great season the Amerks are having and the hopefully continuing great play of our prospects in the WJC. If you get a chance, watch Mittelstadt and get in on the hype- he’s good.
Sabres vs. Islanders- 7:00 PM, MSG