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Sharks at Sabres Preview: Hate the sin, love the Skinner

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Buffalo’s nine game winning streak is not as scary as it sounds. But it does sound very scary.

Oct 18, 2018; San Jose, CA, USA; San Jose Sharks right wing Barclay Goodrow (23) collides with Buffalo Sabres center Jeff Skinner (53) in the second period at SAP Center at San Jose. Mandatory Credit: John Hefti John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

The San Jose Sharks’ (12-8-4, 2nd Pacific) road trip takes an Eastern swing this afternoon with a visit to the home of the Buffalo Sabres (16-6-2, 2nd Atlantic). At this point, anything will serve to wash out the taste of that disaster in Vegas, but the Sabres may not be what the Sharks are looking for just now.

Winners of nine straight, the Sabres are among the best teams in the NHL, sitting third in the league after a brief foray into the number one spot. Seriously the Sabres! If the Sharks weren’t the next team to play them, I’d say this whole thing is just peaches, but that’s not the world we’ve built, and here we are staring down the proverbial barrel together.

The last time these two squads met was early in this young season, full of promise and hope, in San Jose. That night was a glorious one for Sharks fans, highlighted by a Logan Couture hat trick in a 5-1 victory. San Jose’s power play won the day, scoring three goals on the man advantage, including two on a four-minute high sticking minor courtesy of Kyle Okposo. Zach Bogosian fought Joakim Ryan, Joakim Ryan was fought by Zach Bogosian, fun was had by all, except for maybe Joakim Ryan.

Much has been made of the Buffalo curse over the years and decades, and the Sharks’ seeming inability to turn games into points in that particular region of the frigid North, despite the seeming mediocrity of the Sabres squads at the time. Recently, however, that trend looks to have turned. San Jose’s record in Buffalo from the day they alighted on this Earth through the end of the 2014-15 season is a staggering 1-15-0-1. That’s one win in 17 contests over the course of 24 years. It’s understandable, then, that the idea of a curse sprung up near the end of that span, but in three meetings since, the Sharks are 2-0-1 in what is now called the KeyBank Center, so that particular goat may have moved to greener pastures.

Hopefully, then, the Sharks don’t fall victim to the Sabres the old-fashioned way, which could prove to be no small task. Buffalo’s nine straight wins make up the second longest streak in franchise history, after they put together ten to start the 2006-07 season. There are signals, however, that the totalitarian dominance of the Sabres may be coming to an end. Of Buffalo’s nine wins in this dizzy streak, eight have been won by one goal, six have been decided in extra time, and three have gone to the shoot out. As data have shown, success in one goal games is rarely replicable across larger sample sizes, and the Sabres’ 5-on-5 shot attempt share of 47.01 percent bodes poorly for their sustainability.

Nov 23, 2018; Buffalo, NY, USA; Montreal Canadiens goaltender Antti Niemi (37) watches as Buffalo Sabres left wing Jeff Skinner (53) goes after a loose puck in overtime at KeyBank Center. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Related to the above is the Sabres’ goal differential of +10, which sits in pretty stark contrast to the teams around them in the league standings. That figure is the only one of the top four teams under +20, and is the lowest in the top six, tied with the Boston Bruins at seven. Still, best not to rest on our laurels, as the Sabres’ top line is seriously dangerous. American wunderkind Jack Eichel sits in a tie for third in the NHL in assists with 23 and ninth in points with 28, flanked by Jeff Skinner and Jason Pominville, though Samson Reinhart took turns atop the line up on Saturday.

Speaking of Saturday, the Sabres took a seven-round shootout to put down the Red Wings in Detroit, capped by a goal by the aforementioned Samson Reinhart (yes, the whole name, yes, every time). Skinner scored his league-leading 18th goal (until some kid named Patrik Laine scored five in St. Louis later that night), and the Sabres scraped out yet another close two points against a division rival.

As far as I recall, that was the only game that took place on Saturday night, in a strange quirk of NHL scheduling. The Sharks certainly did not play the Vegas Golden Nights in Sin City that night, and definitely did not fall in a humiliating 6-0 shut out. Were that to have happened, questions would have had to have been raised about the wisdom of starting Aaron Dell on back-to-back nights after shutting out the St. Louis Blues on Friday night, questions that would seem empty considering such fatigue seemed to have no effect on Marc-Andre Fleury who, in this absurd hypothetical, would have posted his second shut out in as many nights after blanking the Calgary Flames that same Friday.

Good thing then, that the Sharks did not lose their third straight on the road in Vegas, and the third of their last five, exacerbating concerns about consistency from game to game. Good thing the Sharks did not allow four goals on 11 shots in the first period, and good thing that head coach Peter DeBoer was not ejected 16:34 into the second period after arguing with officials over the wisdom of Evander Kane’s 28 penalty minutes and game misconduct.

That would have been humiliating.

How healthy is Logan Couture?

Couture had a bad night on Saturday, leaving the game at the 4:40 mark of the first period before returning for the middle frame. Couture leads all forwards in defensive zone starts, leads the team in 5-on-5 points, and plays in all situations. Any time the Sharks spend with him at less than 100 percent is time when they’ll be leaving points on the table. We have to hope that whatever ailed him during that first frame that never really happened is behind him.

Is Jeff Skinner for real?

The difference between the Sabres of old and the new look, very scary Sabres of the present day may well be new acquisition Jeff Skinner. Skinner’s 18 goals through 24 games this year match his full season, 77-game total from the 2014-15 season and, while his current pace of 62 goals over an 82-game season is not likely to stay so high, he has finally provided a serious scoring threat on Eichel’s wing, a serious deficit since the latter’s second overall selection during the Connor McDavid, er, 2015 draft. What’s more, Skinner is playing in a contract year, which may be providing extra motivation for him to produce, and is definitely providing extra drama to the Sabres’ proceedings this February.

Which Sharks team is this again?

Are these the Sharks that got shut out by the Golden Knights, or the team that shut out the Blues? Are these the Sharks that crushed the Vancouver Canucks or the ones that got dominated by the Toronto Maple Leafs? Are these the Sharks of Martin Jones or Aaron Dell? Of Erik Karlsson or Melker Karlsson? It seems to be anyone’s guess whether the Sharks will dominate or be dominated on any given night, and recently, it’s rarely anywhere in between. If the Sharks play up or down to the level of their competition, which has been a criticism of them in recent years, this Sabres team should get the best out of them.

I hope.

Bold prediction: Buffalo again fights this game to overtime, then to a shootout, but this time they can’t finish the job. Melker Karlsson finishes this one in the tenth round of the shoot out, just to complicate everything for all of us.

The Sharks continue their tour of the great North-East tomorrow night, visiting the Leafs at 4:30 PST. The Sabres strike out to Tampa Bay to meet the Lightning on Thursday, also at 4:30 PST.