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Buffalo Sabres: Still on the outside looking in

Evander Kane, Jack Eichel, Tyler Ennis celebrate OT goal against San Jose Sharks Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports
Evander Kane, Jack Eichel, Tyler Ennis celebrate OT goal against San Jose Sharks
Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Sabres can be tantalizing and terrible, and they were both Tuesday in a wild 5-4 overtime victory over the San Jose Sharks in KeyBank Center. Buffalo stormed back from a 4-1 deficit in the third period when Ryan O’Reilly, Evander Kane and Kyle Okposo scored in a 3½-minute stretch to extend the game. Kane scored in overtime off a perfect feed from Jack Eichel before barreling into the boards.

It is a great sign that the Sabres pulled off a remarkable comeback against a team that were in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2016.  It was the first comeback when trailing by three goals in the final 12 minutes for the first time since Nov. 6, 2006, against Boston. They never quit and showed the character and competitiveness of a team going in the right direction. Now they need to build off that effort and start stacking wins. Too often over the past two seasons, they looked ready to sprint up the standings before falling on their faces.

Buffalo showed signs of a breakthrough last week when it dominated Ottawa in a 4-0 victory. Right when you thought the Sabres would forge ahead, they tripped over their own feet in New Jersey. They were stumbling around Tuesday, too, before collecting themselves and beating one of the NHL's best teams. Oddly, the Sabres are 24-6-2 with four ties, including 17-1-1 at home, all-time against the Sharks.

Currently, the Sabres are on pace for 83 points, two more than they had last season. Was it reasonable to assume that the Sabres could trust Okposo and Dmitry Kulikov to lift a young, developing team into the postseason?

Jack Eichel’s injury before the opener didn’t help matters, of course, but people were kidding themselves if they believed his return would solve their problems. Buffalo was two games under .500 without him this season. They’re three games over .500 with him in the lineup. One man can only do so much.

Some believe that the problem with the Sabres tanking for the first or second pick overall in 2015 was that too much emphasis was placed on a single player being a savior. The Sabres could have traded the pick to Pittsburgh for Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby, and they still would have been miles away from becoming a playoff team.

Eichel has 12 goals and 25 points in 32 games, including two assists Tuesday, putting him on pace for 32 goals and 64 points over an entire season. He’s the Sabres’ best offensive player. But he also failed to score in 24 of 32 games and does not have a point in more than half of his contests. At 20, he’s a young player searching for consistency.

It’s impossible to say when everything will come together. The Sabres haven’t had a five-game winning streak since 2012. It’s hard to fathom in professional sports today. Look at the Miami Heat. They were 11-30 at season’s midpoint before rattling off 11 straight victories.

The Sabres are a year or two away from contending for the playoffs, assuming Tim Murray makes the right personnel decisions. In the meantime, you can look for indications they’re getting close to the postseason. You’ll know the Sabres have a playoff team when …

* Their best players perform at a big-time level. O’Reilly has 12 goals while collecting $11 million this season. He’s the first to say he needs to be more productive, and he’s right. Matt Moulson, who was on the fourth line and also scored Tuesday, has 11.

Rasmus Ristolainen hasn’t scored in 22 games. Sharks defenseman Brett Burns would lead Buffalo in scoring on assists alone. He had two assists Tuesday, giving him 57 points in 54 games. The Sabres haven’t had any player average a point per game since Derek Roy in 2007-08.

* Players stop making excuses while trying to sound like they’re not making excuses. If it’s not injuries, it’s the officials or puck luck or some other external force working against them. It’s the mark of a fragile team that rationalizes failure rather than overcoming adversity … like they did Tuesday.

Robin Lehner had the honors after a 2-1 loss Monday in which the Devils scored two power-play goals. “We didn’t get the calls today,” Lehner said, “not that that was an excuse because I think we played a poor game.”

* Players stop discreetly whining about the coach. Believe me, players have ways of getting their message across behind the scenes. Sometimes, they have a point. Usually, when they start moaning about the coach or style of play, it’s an attempt to disguise their collective shortcomings.

Bylsma didn’t fail to pick up Logan Couture in the first period when the Sharks winger picked up a rebound for a 2-1 lead. Eichel did. Bylsma wasn’t grossly out of position when Melker Karlsson walked untouched into the slot. That would be Jake McCabe. Bylsma didn’t fumble a pass to Okposo for a partial breakaway in the third period. O’Reilly did.

* Payroll matches production, particularly along the blue line. Too many defensemen are making too much money and not helping their team enough. Four of their five highest-paid D-men have failed to provide value even when they’re healthy: Kulikov, Zack Bogosian, Josh Gorges and Cody Franson.

* Players are in the right places. Fans get hung up on lines. Every time Reinhart scores, his legion of apologists blast me for suggesting he’s a bottom-six forward on a contender. Their gripe: “He’s their second-leading scorer.” Reinhart is the second-leading scorer on a mediocre team.

And that’s the point.

The Buffalo Sabres are not Cup contenders and will need to build off the success of this season. Reinhart is a solid player, but he’s not a top-six forward on an NHL heavyweight. It’s not a crime. If he played on the third line, it would indicate the Sabres added talent and placed him into a slot more suited for him. The same goes for Marcus Foligno.

Remember when the Sabres were contenders? Derek Roy and Thomas Vanek were on the third line, causing matchup problems. Both had a tougher time when thrust onto the No. 1 line because they were forced to play against skilled defensive forwards and shutdown defense pairings. That was a decade ago. 

That long ago???

Video: Hockey Player beats Official with a hockey stick and banned for Life

From the December 1, 2016 article by Jared Clinton of The Hockey News

After arguing a penalty call, a Russian amateur player swung his stick at the head of a referee and threatened to kill him in the locker room. The player has been banned for life and the team has been disbanded by the local hockey association.

A veteran player in a Russian amateur league has played his final game, and the last action of his career was a violent stick-swinging incident that saw him strike a referee in the head.

In a shocking video that surfaced earlier this week, a game between two Russian sides got ugly after an interference penalty was called during a contest in the Buryatia Hockey Championship, a league located in Siberia. The team in blue, referred to as “Armeec,” or Soldier, protested the call almost immediately, with the player called for the minor penalty initially refusing to take his seat in the penalty box.

As the conversation at the front of the penalty box progresses, No. 6 from Soldier, identified by Championat as Sergei Petrov, began to argue the call.

Referee Nikita Tikhonov explained the incident to Championat on Thursday, saying that it started as soon as the interference call was made. From there, Petrov approached Tikhonov, pushed the referee and asked the reason for the penalty. Tikhonov then handed Petrov a penalty for contact with an official. Petrov wouldn’t sit in the penalty box despite being told to do so, and, upset with the call, he struck Tikhonov:

“The blow was aimed at the neck and head, I (blocked it with my) hand,” Tikhonov said, according to Championat. “The stick broke on my arm. The second referee who tried to stop the blow, he broke his finger.”

Tikhonov said Petrov then threatened to kill him later in the locker room.

Unsurprisingly, the Buryatia Hockey Federation has come down hard on both Petrov and his club.

According to Championat, the league has handed Petrov a lifetime ban from the federation, forbidding him to play for any other team, and the club itself has been broken up. Several other players have been suspended — five, according to Championat — for their actions leading up to Petrov’s outburst, with the remaining players allowed to sign on elsewhere if they choose to continue playing this season.

Tikhonov told Championat that Petrov has reached out following the incident and he apologized for the incident.

Breaking: Connor McDavid youngest captain in NHL history

Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

The Edmonton Oilers named 19-year-old Connor McDavid as captain on Wednesday reported by

McDavid is the 15th captain in the Oilers' NHL history and the youngest in the history of the NHL (19 years, 266 days). He also captained Erie of the Ontario Hockey League and Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey 2016.

Edmonton selected McDavid with the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft. He had 48 points (16 goals, 32 assists) in 45 games as a rookie and was a finalist for the Calder Trophy last season despite missing more than two months with a broken collarbone.

At 19 years and 266 days, McDavid surpasses Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog (19 years, 286 days) as the youngest captain in NHL history. Landeskog, who became captain in 2012, was 11 days younger than Sidney Crosby when the Pittsburgh Penguins named him captain on May 31, 2007.

Forwards Milan Lucic, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins were named alternates. The Oilers did not have a captain last season.