The Buffalo Sabres entered the New Year with renewed hope of ending their 12-year postseason drought after victories over Washington and Minnesota, but while the club continues to be near the top of the NHL in offense, their defense and goaltending may be what keeps them from realistic contention for an Eastern Conference playoff spot.
The Sabres 4-1 loss to the Florida Panthers on Monday afternoon was their fourth loss in the last five games, and fourth in a row at Key Bank Center, keeping them five points behind the New York Islanders for the second wildcard spot in the East.
Buffalo has relied heavily on their offense (160 goals – 3rd in the NHL), scoring five or more goals in wins this month over the Capitals, Wild and Nashville Predators, but in their five January losses, the Sabres have netted collectively only seven times.
While team defense (146 goals allowed – 21st in the NHL) is an issue that may improve over time, the Sabres biggest questions continue to be between the pipes, where they currently have veteran Craig Anderson, Eric Comrie, and youngster Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen vying for ice time.
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Head coach Don Granato managed the 41-year-old Anderson’s usage after initially playing him more when Comrie was injured in mid-November, but most of the workload was shifted to the 23-year-old Luukkonen, who was supposed to spend most of the year getting experience with Rochester in the American Hockey League.
Luukkonen’s win-loss record since being recalled has been excellent (10-5-1), but he has allowed three or more goals on all but two of his starts.
The Sabres have been playing a roster shell game since Comrie returned from an AHL conditioning stint last week. After losing defenseman Casey Fitzgerald on waivers attempting to clear a spot on the 23-man roster, GM Kevyn Adams has been forced to demote and promote Luukkonen and other waiver-exempt players like former first-rounder Jack Quinn and center Peyton Krebs to make room.
Buffalo passed on an opportunity to potentially improve their goaltending situation by not claiming former Calder Trophy finalist Alex Nedeljkovic off of waivers on Monday and appears to be focused on finding out whether Luukkonen can handle the starting duties before possibly looking for other options over the summer.
Adams has a pair of goaltending prospects in the NCAA in 2019 draftee Erik Portillo (Michigan) and Devon Levi (Northeastern). Portillo is in his senior season with the Wolverines and may choose to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, which may make the 22-year-old a trade chip before the deadline on March 3 or before the Sabres rights expire in June.
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