We’ve seen this from the Buffalo Sabres before.
Last season was supposed to be the moment when the young Sabres finally broke through. At the midway point in 2019, Buffalo was 18-9-4.
Then the Sabres lost 36 of their final 51 games and returned to the complexing mediocrity that has befallen of the hockey team in Upstate New York for the better part of eight years.
This start to the season is no different, other than the fact that the Sabres are winning more. Buffalo entered Tuesday’s home game against the San Jose Sharks on a 7-1-1 start, tops in the Eastern Conference.
But the Sabres have benefited from a lack of competition. Five of their seven wins have come from teams in the bottom half of their respective conferences (New Jersey, Florida, Dallas, Los Angeles and San Jose). Their most notable victory is the season-opening tilt at Pittsburgh, and even that didn’t seem impressive.
If you’re looking for a reason to believe in the Sabres, it might be the year the talent turns a corner. Jack Eichel has 10 points through nine games after a career-high 82 points a season ago. Last year’s No. 1 pick Rasmus Dahlin is off to a fast start with nine points (one goal, eight assists) in nine games. People forget he’s still 19 years old.
There’s also the emergence of 24-year-old rookie Victor Olofsson with six goals in nine games. We haven’t even mentioned Jeff Skinner, Buffalo’s 40-goal scorer from last season who already has five this year.
But it is the goaltending that has carried Buffalo; the split between 34-year-old Carter Hutton and 26-year-old Linus Ullmark has been stellar. Hutton (5-0-0, 1.39 goals-against average and .953 save percentage) was the third star of the week in the League for his two shutouts against Dallas and Los Angeles. Ullmark (2-1-1, 3.18 GAA, .913 save percentage) hasn’t been as great, but Buffalo has squeezed five points in four starts out of him.
Hutton has been a serviceable netminder for most of his career; his best season came in 2018 with the St. Louis Blues with career bests in save percentage (.931) and GAA (2.09) en route to a 26-17-7 record. If he can sustain even close to those numbers, Buffalo will be battling for a playoff spot this year.
The schedule does get tougher in the coming weeks; a back-to-back at the Rangers and Red Wings on Oct. 24-25, a home game against Arizona on Oct. 28 before a road date at Washington on Nov. 1. Then it’s the Islanders, a home-and-home against Tampa Bay, and then a home date with the Carolina Hurricanes.
If the Sabres can steal 10 points in that stretch, we might need to start taking them more seriously. The talent is there and new coach Ralph Krueger has gotten them off to a fast start.
But just like last year for Buffalo, it’s about sustaining it. We’ll check again in February to see if that rings true.
Capitals at Oilers: Edmonton continues to win, but much like Buffalo, the Oilers haven’t faced top-notch competition yet. That will change Thursday when the Capitals come to town, as early Norris favorite John Carlson looks to stay hot. CAPITALS
Blues at Bruins: The Blues return to the place where they hoisted Lord Stanley four months ago. I’d presume the Bruins are going to be a tad motivated for this one. Also, there may only be one or two players I’d take over David Pastrnak right now. BRUINS
Ducks at Golden Knights: An early-season contest for two of the Pacific’s top teams. Anaheim is playing well and this could be a trap game for Vegas, but the Golden Knights should be motivated pending how their Friday afternoon game with Colorado goes. GOLDEN KNIGHTS
Last week: 3-0