Sabres at Sharks Preview: Can’t help Dahlin in love

The Sabres are good? That can’t be right.

Don’t look now, but the San Jose Sharks (3-4-0, 7th Pacific) are about to host the top team in the NHL (as of Friday afternoon) in the Buffalo Sabres (6-1-1, 1st Atlantic) tonight.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s not the Sabres’ first trip to the top of the hockey heap just as they get ready to play our Sharks. On November 27 of 2018, the Sharks played the Sabres in Buffalo, at which time the Sabres sat atop the NHL with 36 points in 25 games and were riding a nine-game winning streak. Their 3-2 overtime victory over San Jose was their tenth win in a row, and their last: they lost their next five, 41 of the season’s remaining 57, earning 40 points in the process, and fell all the way down to 27th in the league, playing the foil to the well-worn story of that season’s Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.

This time, though, there seem to be signs that Buffalo’s success is for real, if only a little. The team’s ten-game winning streak last season had all the hallmarks of lucky bounces and unreliable success. All ten of the Sabres’ wins were by one goal, seven of them were in extra time, and three were shootouts. Buffalo was riding a 1.035 PDO (the sum of shooting and save percentage, usually expected to regress to one over a large enough sample and thus a quick and dirty, if not always super accurate, measure of luck), tops in the league over that span, and a shot attempt share of 48.40 percent: not abysmal, but not ten-wins-in-a-row-because-they’ve-finally-figured-it-all-out good.

This time, their PDO is a much more reasonable 1.051 and their shot attempt share is a much more impressive 48.24 percent.

Wait a minute.

At 5-on-5 those numbers look a bit better better (an adjusted PDO of 1.048 and shot attempt share of 51.01), but not best-in-the-league better.

The seemingly persistent narrative that this Sabres team is Actually Good compared to last season’s flash in the pan is easy to understand at first glance. The team brought in a new head coach in Ralph Krueger, they rebuilt some more of their blue line over the off-season with a series of shrewd moves to acquire some underrated and effective blue-liners (most notably Colin Miller and Henri Jokiharju), and they aren’t winning all of their games by one goal, in fact, in their six wins so far, they’ve outscored opponents 25-9.

Those opponents haven’t exactly been the cream of the league, though. Buffalo’s wins have come against the Pittsburgh Penguins (struggling with defensive depth, but still formidable), the New Jersey Devils (so moribund their assistant general manager is standing behind the bench to boost morale (and maybe trick Taylor Hall into signing something they can photocopy)), the Columbus Blue Jackets (who lost so many players in the off-season they made a tribute video that’s just the word LOYALTY flashing on a black background set to the sound of snarling dogs and shattering glass and replaced the team logo on the floor of the dressing room with Matt Duchene’s face so that John Tortorella could step on it every day), the Montreal Canadiens (okay, they might actually be pretty good), the Florida Panthers (whose off-season Sergei Bobrovsky operation has not gone according to plan, to the tune of 24 goals against in six games), the Dallas Stars (who have one win in nine games and may be eliminated from the postseason by November), and the Los Angeles Kings (yes, those Los Angeles Kings).

In fact, the Penguins and Anaheim Ducks are the only two teams currently in playoff positions that the Sabres are scheduled to face until November 1, when they visit the Washington Capitals.

In a way, Buffalo’s early season schedule is the opposite of San Jose’s. Through the month of October, the Sharks will only play two teams currently not in playoff spots: the Chicago Blackhawks last week and the Ottawa Senators on the road on the 27th. The Sharks are making the most of their early season troubles, though, and a win over Buffalo tonight would clean up a lot of their abhorrent start, establishing a clean 4-4-0, .500 record in the process. Their most recent outing, a 5-2 win over the Carolina Hurricanes at home, should give them a boost of momentum heading into tonight’s tilt.

That game featured everything we, as fans, have been hoping to see from San Jose: a confident, puck-moving power play, prodigious offense (headlined by the franchise’s first first-period hat trick courtesy of Evander Kane), stable goaltending by a real, alive, adult, NHL goaltender, and a reluctance to engage in extracurricular activity and rack up penalty minutes.

What’s more, rumors abound about a potential return for San Jose blue liner Radim Simek, which could make the Sharks’ defensive pairs look a little like this:

Brent Burns — Radim Simek
Brenden Dillon — Erik Karlsson
Marc-Edouard Vlasic — Mario Ferraro

That looks really nice. That’s a piece of art. And it would go a long way towards stifling the Sabres’ prolific forward group. The visitors’ top-six of Jack Eichel centering Victor Olofsson and Samson Reinhart, and Marcus Johansson centering Jeff Skinner and Vladimir Sobotka is very dangerous. In fact, I’m not sure the other five guys even need to be there, with Eichel doing this kind of crap every now and again:

You can see Josh Manson entirely lose his tenuous grip on sanity in real time in this clip. Very legal and very cool.

The Sabres probably aren’t the division-leading juggernaut they appear to be in the standings, but they’re likely quite a bit better than the paper tiger that downed the Sharks 11 months ago. Martin Jones will have to be the Martin Jones he was on Wednesday, when he stopped 36 of 38 Hurricanes shots on net, if the Sharks want to hit .500 for the first time this baby season.

Is the Buffalo curse real in San Jose, too?

Everyone knows that curses aren’t real, that they are foolish trifles used to scare children and control the weak-minded so that they don’t stumble into the Hall of the Elders and see that the book of the Gods was actually just an old issue of Cat Fancy the whole time, and that over a large enough timeline, there will be coincidences and trends that cannot be explained with anything but a shrug.

But what about this curse, though?

In the 41 games that the Sharks have played against the Sabres in the former’s history, San Jose is 12-21-4-4. Those 12 wins are the least any team has recorded against the Sabres in that span, save teams that no longer exist and the Vegas Golden Knights (who have only played Buffalo four times, but won three of them), and is fewer than every other team that was added to the league after the Sharks. The Sabres, who have yet to win a Stanley Cup in their 50-year history, have been a good team for much of that time, but they’ve also been, on occasion, a historically bad one: their 2014-15 52-point season stands as the second-worst in the salary cap era.

At home, San Jose’s record is better, since the Sharks have won three (3) of their 21 games played in Buffalo, a stat that will probably (definitely) be referenced again come Tuesday morning. The Sharks’ nine wins in 20 games in San Jose, while still not world-beating, could help to exorcise some of those pesky saber-wielding ghost bison that follow this club around.

What is a “Carter Hutton”?

Something I’ve noticed with no data to support it: whenever I use one of these questions in a preview to talk about an opposing goaltender, the team starts the other one. In this case, that is a pointed strategy, as Sabres starter, former Worcester Shark, and very scary actual muppet (do not click that link while drinking anything) Carter Hutton is the hottest keeper in the league. With zero goals allowed in his last two games (pretty good), Hutton is riding a 120-minute shutout streak, and his .953 save percentage, 1.39 goals against average, and 6.72 goals saved above expected all lead the league among keepers with more than one start.

The aforementioned caveats about the Sabres’ cushy schedule definitely apply here, though, and one of Hutton’s two shutouts came against the Stars, who are not known for their offensive prowess of late, but his performance in L.A. on Thursday was impressive. The Kings put 47 shots on net, and also did plenty of whatever this is, allowing Hutton to set a franchise record for shots stopped in a shutout, no small feat for a 50-year old franchise that hosted pretty good goalie Dominik Hasek’s glory years.

Some of this may be due to the influence of new head coach Ralph Krueger, who appears to be instilling a defensive structure into his young charges so far. The Sabres’ adjusted 5-on-5 53.92 shot attempts against per 60 is seventh best in the league, and their 2.04 goals against per 60 is 12th. That’s a step from last season’s 56.24 and 2.29, respectively and, while some of that can be attributed to new personnel and a year of experience for former first-overall pick Rasmus Dahlin, a new bench boss is probably a factor.

After the unenviable performance of James Reimer on Wednesday, there may have to be some more creativity to get the biscuit past this particular backstop.

Is the Sabres’ man-advantage unit as dangerous as it seems?

Buffalo’s power play is clicking at a ridiculous 35.5 percent rate this young season, third-best in the NHL, and there are a few reasons this could be the case. Some of this is due to rookie sniper Olofsson, whose seven power play goals leads the league, and who has penciled his name into the history books already as the first player to score all seven of his first career goals against short-handed squads.

Also, Krueger seems less likely to buy in to the heretofore unquestioned Buffalo doctrine of running all power play offense through Rasmus Ristolainen. The team’s second-best Rasmus has consumed less power play time than in years’ past, and the results have been promising. Instead of running two defenseman on the unit, Krueger has opted to remove Ristolainen more often than not and replace him with Olofsson. Last season, power play minutes without Rasmus the Lesser recorded 11.3 more shot attempts and 1.71 more goals per 60 minutes played.

All of that in mind, 35.5 percent is pretty bonkers, right? Buffalo’s 94.71 shot attempts per 60 minutes on the power play is 13th in the league, and they’re outperforming their expected goals for by about ten percent (6.3 expected, 6.63 scored). The unit is very good, but it won’t convert at 35.5 percent forever, and tonight would be an especially good night for it to regress a bit. Or a lot.

Bold prediction: During the first intermission, Ristolainen tires of the ambitions of the upstart Dahlin, and completes his months long dark ritual deep in the bowels of the SAP Center. As the game wears on, Dahlin’s youth and vigor are drained away from him and into Risto, leaving the former exhausted, desiccated, and lifeless on the ice. Barclay Goodrow enters the zone late in the third, easily evading the number 26 jersey atop a pile of lifeless dust on the blue line, and snipes a wrist shot past Hutton, breaking the 3-3 tie for the win, and continuing his torrid start to the season.