If the Buffalo Sabres were to approach their current run of early season success with some cautious optimism, it wouldn’t be without reason. After all, the Sabres – matter of fact, many of these very same Sabres – know a thing or two about what early season success really means. Just ask them about last season.
As you’ll recall, there was a time last season when Buffalo sat atop the NHL. On the heels of a solid October, the Sabres ran roughshod through their November schedule. Beginning with an overtime victory over the Montreal Canadiens, which was followed by a shootout win against the Vancouver Canucks, the Sabres proceeded to go on a 10-game winning streak that seemingly defied all logic. Not because if was Buffalo doing the winning, mind you, but because the Sabres had managed to keep the streak alive by the narrowest of margins: seven of the 10 victories came by way of extra time and all but one was won by a single goal.
But the excitement surrounding the streak – and the streak itself – belied reality in Buffalo. Sure, the Sabres were atop the NHL when they woke up on Nov. 28, 2018, but the truth was that Buffalo was a middling team riding an unsustainable numbers and a logic-defying run to unrealistic expectations. And if it wasn’t clear at the time that the winning streak was something of an illusion, it most certainly became clear when the same Sabres who came out of that streak with a 17-6-2 record won only 16 of their final 57 contests.
So, again, to say the Sabres might be waking up Tuesday, glancing at their 5-0-1 record, plus-12 goal differential and place atop the Atlantic Division and tempering expectations isn’t all that far-fetched. But there’s also reason to be far more hopeful about what this season’s early performance suggests about what we might see out of Buffalo from here on out.
During last season’s winning streak, one of the biggest concerns for the Sabres was that what we were seeing in the box score wasn’t necessarily reflected in the underlying numbers. Yes, Buffalo was winning on the scoreboard where it matters, but nothing about the way they were winning those games suggested the Sabres could realistically keep piling up the victories. In fact, through October last season, nearly every notable advanced statistic had Buffalo in the bottom half of the NHL. Their Corsi percentage (49.4), shots percentage (49.2), expected goals percentage (50.1), scoring chance percentage (47.4) and high-danger chance percentage (48.2) at 5-on-5 all ranked in the 16th or lower in the league. And that persisted through the winning streak. The Sabres’ numbers had actually all declined to various degrees by the time they had their 10-game run snapped.
What was happening both before and during the run, however, was that Buffalo’s 5-on-5 PDO, a measure of combined shooting and save percentage, was among the highest in the league. By the streak’s end, only eight teams had a higher PDO than the Sabres’ 101.2 mark and that allowed Buffalo to outpace what their underlying numbers said about their ability to actually control the run of play. But once the PDO began to fall back to earth – and fall back to earth it did, as Buffalo finished with a 98.7 PDO, the league’s third-lowest mark – so, too, did the Sabres.
But that brings us to this season. Over the course of the summer, Buffalo went through a slight roster overhaul. Brought aboard were defensemen Colin Miller and Henri Jokiharju, versatile forwards Jimmy Vesey and Marcus Johansson and, maybe most importantly, there was a change made behind the bench. Out is coach Phil Housley, who won only 58 of 164 games across two seasons in Buffalo, and in is Ralph Krueger, who made his return to an NHL bench after a foray into the world of European club soccer. And the early results have been promising.
True, a cursory glance at NaturalStatTrick suggests some of the same good puck-luck fortune is benefitting Buffalo in the early going. Through six games, an admittedly tiny sample, the Sabres rank 13th in the NHL with a 9.8 shooting percentage at 5-on-5 and a five-a-side SP of .956, second in the league. The result is a 105.4 PDO, the third-highest mark in the NHL. But Buffalo also appears to be playing a much more possession-heavy – and defensively limiting – game.
Again, while this comes the sizeable caveat that we’re less than three weeks into the new campaign, take a moment to consider the difference in the Sabres’ underlying numbers this season compared to where they were when coming out of the 10-game winning streak last season, specifically when it comes to suppression. Compared to Buffalo’s per 60 minute rates at 5-on-5 as of Nov. 27 last season, this season’s Sabres are allowing 5.3 fewer shot attempts against, 3.9 fewer shots against, 5.3 fewer scoring chances against and 6.3 fewer high-danger chances. The result is increases in the respective percentages ranging from 2.5 to nearly 16 percent. With that comes an increase to expected goals percentage of 3.4 percent. (Actual goals for percentage, for what it’s worth, is up 17.3 percent entering Tuesday.)
The challenge for the Sabres, of course, is maintaining these rates for the long haul. As noted a few times, and it can’t be stressed enough, it’s still incredibly early and we shouldn’t go making any declarations one way or another after anything less than 20 games. That said, if Buffalo can maintain this level of underlying performance, continue to drive play while suppressing the opposition attack, it could very well be the difference between the Sabres running their playoff drought to nine seasons or stopping it in its tracks and getting their first taste of the post-season since the 2010-11 campaign. And for the sake of Sabres fans everywhere, here’s hoping that this time the early season success isn’t a mirage.
(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)
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