“What the fuck are you doing here?”
That’s a question that can generate a nervous reaction in anyone, but when it comes from Rob Ray, one of the baddest dudes in the history of the NHL and the host of the Buffalo pregame show, there’s an added risk of “oops I crapped my pants.” It was his entirely lighthearted reaction to learning I was covering the Buffalo morning skate in Washington as a person who writes about the Blues, but visions of him pummeling a gate crasher were dancing in my head. It was a great way to guarantee I was on my best behavior.
In fact, it may be fair to say that the theme of my trip to observe life on the road for the Buffalo Sabres was confusion. Buffalo is a team that’s struggling to secure an identity for itself, and the young players that compose so much of its lineup play a big role in that.
The Buffalo coach is Dan Bylsma, a veteran of nearly 500 NHL games who also coached the Pittsburgh Penguins to the 2009 Stanley Cup. Bylsma embodies the attitude he desires to see in his team, as he spent the morning skate casually dropping to a knee and creating screens in front of slap shots in nothing more than a track suit and ball cap. Indeed, the Buffalo media in attendance apparently take regular bets on whether or not the coach will lose teeth at a morning skate. It should not be a shock that Rob Ray was at the heart of these conversations.
After the skate, as has become my habit, I wanted to talk to a player on the Sabres roster who had experience in St. Louis and could speak to his career path that led through the city. Unfortunately, for the Sabres, that sum total belongs entirely to goaltender Anders Nilsson and his three games played for a total of 87 minutes.
Instead, I talked to Sabres winger William Carrier, a former second round pick whose name Blues fans likely best remember as the other guy in the infamous Ryan Miller trade. He, too, was a little confused when it came to discussions of hockey in St. Louis and being a guiding light for his teammates on the road.
“I wasn’t really in town,” he said, upon being asked whether his teammates asked about the city before their November game there. “I think there are guys who have been there 10, 11 years. They’ve got their own little spots. I’ve only been there for like a week, so it’s almost like a vacation more than anything else.”
While William Carrier is perhaps not going to be confused for the director of the St. Louis tourism bureau, he did speak to some of the excitement he enjoyed as a brief member of the Blues organization.
“I was there for [development] camp...it’s just a week, a couple skates. I went to a few Cards games too.” William Carrier, a St. Louis legend: skated a couple of times, went to a baseball game, got traded. Truly, the quintessential Blues experience. Carrier did, however, notch his first career assist in this game on a goal by Kyle Okposo, thus preventing the day from being a total loss.
The inexperience of the Sabres was particularly notable on their blue line, as four regulars – Taylor Fedun, Josh Gorges, Zach Bogosian and Dmitry Kulikov – were missing the game with injuries. Cody Franson’s 483 games played nearly equaled the 511 combined games of the other five defensemen in the lineup, including the NHL debut for Erik Bergdoerfer.
It was also the second NHL game for Brendan Guhle, who was actually recalled from the Prince George Cougars of the WHL under emergency conditions. Such a recall is extremely rare in the middle of the season, and Guhle was forced to be returned once the Sabres had a player return to health.
The injuries forced Buffalo to rely heavily on Rasmus Ristolainen, a Finnish defenseman who was drafted eighth overall in 2013 who would certainly make my first ballot of Hall of Fame hockey names. Ristolainen played a whopping 28 minutes and change through regulation, an amount rarely seen in a regular season game in early December. Sabres fans would tell you that Ristolainen is their answer to Alex Pietrangelo, and his sound positioning, transition game and crushing early hit on the Capitals’ Jay Beagle did very little to dispel that notion.
Perhaps the Sabres most notable offensive weapon is Jack Eichel, drafted second overall behind Connor McDavid in 2015. While Eichel is a truly gifted offensive player and a centerpiece pivot for years to come, he’s been frustrated by a high ankle sprain that has limited him to a mere 13 games so far this season. This game in Washington was only his fourth of the year, and it nearly proved disastrous.
Eichel was only able to generate one shot and no points in 18:31 of ice time, and went down early in the game after getting tangled up with a Washington defenseman. He seemed to be only very delicately able to place weight on his injured leg, but finished the game and agitatedly informed reporters in the post-game scrum that he was fine. Indeed, he played the next night against McDavid and the Oilers in Buffalo, and has yet to miss any subsequent time.
Eventually, the defensive inexperience of the Sabres caught up with them, and after going into a shell with a lead in the third, the vaunted Washington PP generated puck movement that allowed Marcus Johansson to tie the game. Johansson would go on to win it for the Capitals in overtime, proving yet again that confusion and growing pains can create a struggle in the climb to the top of the NHL.