Sabres miss playoffs again, Eichel injury, penalty kill among culprits

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The Buffalo Sabres failed to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for an NHL record-tying 10th straight season.

Buffalo (11-26-7) was eliminated from contention when it lost 3-2 to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday. The Sabres can finish no higher than fifth in the eight-team MassMutual East Division. The top four teams qualify for the playoffs.

The Sabres postseason drought is tied with the Florida Panthers (2001-11) and Edmonton Oilers (2007-16). 

Here is a look at what happened in the 2020-21 season for the Sabres and why things could be better next season:

The skinny

Potential UFAs: Drake Caggiula, F; Steven Fogarty, F; Tobias Rieder, F; Riley Sheahan, F; Matt Irwin, D; Jake McCabe, D; Carter Hutton, G; Linus Ullmark, G  

Potential RFAs: Rasmus Asplund, F; Casey Mittelstadt, F; Sam Reinhart, F; Rasmus Dahlin, D; Henri Jokiharju, D

Potential 2021 Draft picks: 10

What went wrong

Eichel, Ullmark injuries: Jack Eichel scored two goals in 21 games, the fewest to start his six-season NHL career, before he was ruled out for the remainder of the season with a neck injury. The center had scored at least 24 goals in each of his first five NHL seasons and Buffalo’s offense struggled without him, ranking 29th in the NHL (2.36 goals per game). Ullmark emerged as the starting goalie until a lower-body injury sustained April 13 has him week to week and could be the end of his season. The Sabres have two wins in 26 games (2-20-4) from goalies other than Ullmark.

Lengthy losing skid: The Sabres were 4-4-2 in their first 10 games before not playing for two weeks because of NHL COVID-19 protocol. When they returned, they lost three straight and shortly after went 0-15-3 from Feb. 25-March 29, an NHL shootout-era record (since 2005-06) of 18 games without a win. They were 6-23-5 before the end of the slide, all but eliminating their playoff hopes.

Penalty-killing struggles: They’re 21st in the NHL on the penalty kill (77.9 percent) after ranking 30th last season (74.6 percent). They’ve allowed at least one power-play goal in 20 of their 44 games this season, which is partly why they have five wins in 19 one-goal games (5-7-7).

Reasons for optimism

New coach: Perhaps the Sabres needed a fresh voice to turn things around. Don Granato replaced Ralph Krueger as coach March 17, and they’ve responded with points in eight of their past 11 games (5-3-3). The offense has been better, the defense much improved and Buffalo has been competitive.

Full season with Eichel: The captain is expected to be ready for the start of next season and should provide an immediate boost. When fully healthy, Eichel is one of the best scorers in the game. He has scored 355 points (139 goals, 216 assists) in 375 regular-season games for Buffalo, including 41 on the power play.

Ullmark could be the answer: Ullmark can become an unrestricted free agent after the season but wasn’t dealt before the NHL Trade Deadline on April 12 and the Sabres have said they intend to re-sign him. He’s been their best player this season, going 9-6-3 with a 2.63 goals-against average and .917 save percentage in 20 games. 

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