Sharks at Sabres Preview: To close out a road trip

The tank continues in Western New York.

The San Jose Sharks (8-15-4, seventh Pacific) face the Buffalo Sabres (10-13-1, eighth Atlantic) on Sunday for the second half of a back-to-back that will close out the road trip. Following a defeat against the Ottawa Senators on Saturday, the Sharks look to end the road trip on a high note.

Despite Tomas Hertl’s two first-period goals, the Sharks went down neatly on Saturday night. The team put up 37 shots to Ottawa’s 39, but goaltender Anton Forsberg shut them out in the second and third periods. Buffalo also dropped their most recent contest, six to four against the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday evening. Despite the struggles, forward Tage Thompson has been on a tear so far this season, recording 32 points in just 24 games.

Since finishing the 2021-22 season 24th in the league with a 32-39-11 record (75 points), the Buffalo Sabres have made some notable changes to their roster. Notably, they picked up the contract of retired goaltender Ben Bishop on June 10, in exchange for future considerations. While this doesn’t affect the team on the ice, it makes it very apparent that the Sabres have salary cap space to spare — not something often done by teams in “win now” mode.

The summer continued with general manager Kevyn Adams adding players on short-term contracts including goaltenders Craig Anderson and Eric Comrie, forward Vinnie Hinostroza, and defenders Ilya Lubushkin and Jacob Bryson. They also extended forward Tage Thompson for seven years in August and forward Victor Olofsson for two years in July. In addition to adding seven entry-level contracts, this Buffalo team is fairly young. With an average age of 26.2, they’re two years younger than the league average according to Hockey Reference.

Recently, the team has seen a couple of notable injuries. Goaltender Craig Anderson was placed on injured reserve on Nov. 18 and defender Ilya Lubushkin has missed the team’s last two games. According to Lance Lysowski, Hinostroza has been out dealing with a minor injury, and Bryson may be activated for the game this evening.

Both teams are far from competitive in their respective divisions, while also having players who are absolutely on a roll. At this point, all we can hope for is a competitive game.

How will the penalty kill respond to a rough showing?

The penalty kill is still first in the league, but Saturday’s game was rough by anyone’s standard. When a team goes on the penalty kill five times, it’s fair to assume that at least one would be unsuccessful, but allowing Ottawa to convert three times is definitely not good. Unfortunately for San Jose, the penalty kill has been one of the few bright spots of the season so far, so when special teams aren’t doing well, it stands out.

One bad night is not really an issue, but almost every coach ever will tell you that what’s most important is how you respond. Buffalo’s power play unit is seventh in the league, and as this road trip has gone on, the opponent’s power play squads have been getting better. The Sharks have proven that they can keep top-notch power plays from finding the back of the net, but in order to remain on top they’ll have to be sharper than last night.

An easy way to improve the odds compared to Saturday’s game is to take fewer penalties. While that’s easier said than done, the Sharks have proven it’s doable. San Jose averages just 7:55 of penalty minutes a game, good enough for sixth lowest in the league. In Saturday’s matchup in Ottawa, the team took 17 penalty minutes including a five-minute major for fighting. Of course, the penalty kill still has to work, but the job becomes easier when there’s less time spent shorthanded.

How will the goaltending fare?

With both teams down a netminder out due to injury, goaltending is going to play a big part in this game. It can be assumed that Aaron Dell will start the game due to the back-to-back, and despite losing the game, his lone appearance this season was pretty good. Dell faced 31 shots against Toronto and allowed just two goals. This performance fits right in with his AHL stats for this season, and he may have the incentive to play even better against a former team.

With Eric Comrie out, Buffalo has called up Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen from the Rochester Americans of the AHL. Luukkonen started the Sabres’ last game against the Colorado Avalanche where he faced 33 shots and allowed five goals. In four games this season Luukkonen has a save percentage of .855 and a goals against average of 4.22. The Sabres’ more likely option to start in net Sunday evening, Craig Anderson, has played in 10 games this season, with a 2.87 GAA and .916 save percentage. Anderson is in his second season with Buffalo and his 20th season in the NHL. The Sabres are likely to have their number one guy in the net for this game, but if Dell stays consistent, these two are more than capable of keeping their respective teams in the game.

Is it (finally) Oskar Lindblom’s time to shine?

Oskar Lindblom still hasn’t scored a goal. This isn’t necessarily surprising, as he isn’t known for being a big goal scorer. His season-high in goals scored is just 17, during the 2018-19 season when he played in 81 games for the Philadelphia Flyers. Despite all this, it would be great to see him get back on the score sheet and tally another point. His last point was on Nov. 11 against Dallas when he recorded the primary assist on Evgeny Svechnikov’s first-period goal.

Just because he hasn’t been racking up points doesn’t mean he isn’t contributing. As far as scoring goes, Lindblom has been very quiet, but he’s also been quietly possessing the puck well. The recent line grouping of Jonah Gadjovich, Steven Lorentz and Lindblom has a Corsi for percentage of 60, taking the majority share of unblocked shots and attempts when on the ice. Although they don’t spend much time on the ice together, they make that time count.

Lindblom on his own has a CF% of 46.6, putting him right in the middle of the team’s rankings. This might not seem like a big deal, but this puts him above important guys like Logan Couture and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Lindblom may only be averaging 10:04 minutes per game, but he’s making those minutes count in terms of puck possession. According to MoneyPuck, he also only has four giveaways, two of which were defensive zone giveaways. All this to say, he’s putting in the work, but not much to show for it. When’s his time to get a goal?

Bold Prediction: Aaron Dell’s revenge tour continues, and this stop is successful as he bests his former team. The Sharks win the game in overtime by a score of 3-2 with Couture scoring the OT winner.