Buffalo Sabres: Does This String of Wins Signal the End of the Tank?

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So this was unexpected.

Coming off of two straight wins against the Montreal Canadiens, the Buffalo Sabres have now won five of their last six contests and have climbed from the basement of the NHL to 27th.

In those five wins, the Sabres defeated the Canadiens, currently in a four-way tie for first in the Eastern Conference, twice, the San Jose Sharks, the Washington Capitals and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

All five are solid wins against solid opponents. Ignoring an uninspired performance against the Winnipeg Jets, one might surmise that the Sabres are likely out of the basement for good. 

Well, maybe not. 

The Sabres’ Fenwick-for percentage is still solidly last in the NHL at 37.49 percent on the season. The Colorado Avalanche, the 29th-place team, sit at 45.43 percent. To put that disparity in perspective, the Avs are less than 11 percentage points away from being in second place in the NHL. If not for a truly dominant Chicago Blackhawks squad, they would likely be closer to first than the Sabres. 

And if you think the last six games have improved upon that Fenwick-for percentage by much you would be very wrong. 

In this six-game stretch, the Sabres’ best Fenwick-for is 43.75 percent, and that was in the loss to Winnipeg. In their last five wins, the Sabres have had a Fenwick-for percentage under 40 percent, and the highest total came during the 6-2 win against Toronto at 41.96 percent. 

Yes, you read that correctly. In a six-goal game, the Sabres were still only able to hit about 42 percent on the Fenwick-for chart.

And many who are not accustomed to or a fan of advanced stats may laugh and say these numbers don’t matter and that it’s just the performance on the ice that means anything at the end of the day. But these numbers do say something. 

What they tell Sabres fans is the Sabres are still woefully bad in terms of puck possession and that they are giving up a hilariously high number of scoring chances every game. 

So how have they been able to come up on top then? Stellar netminding from Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth.

Enroth has played in five of the six games due to a lower-body injury Neuvirth suffered Nov. 18 against San Jose, and he has played spectacularly. In his five appearances, Enroth stopped 157 of 165 shots for a save percentage of .951. It doesn’t need explaining that that number is well over the league average and almost 20 points better than Pekka Rinne’s .933.  

Needless to say, that level of netminding is unsustainable in long stretches. If Enroth were to have played at Rinne’s league-best level (Jets backup Michael Hutchinson has only played in eight games this season) during that stretch, he would have allowed three more goals, enough to arguably lose the Sabres two of those games.

To take it a step further and use Enroth’s career average save percentage of .913, the Sabres probably would’ve lost all those games, as they would have allowed about seven more goals. 

This is obviously not to take away from the performances Enroth has had—it’s just to say that it is next to impossible for him to maintain this level of play for much longer, let alone the entire season. And if the Sabres are going to be outshot close to a 2-1 margin every game, he needs to play like this for them to have a shot. 

But on a more positive note, the Sabres look to have something special in both Tyler Ennis and Zemgus Girgensons. In this stretch, Ennis has two goals and seven points, and Girgensons has three goals and five points. Both have stood out and showed they will be a big part of turning this Buffalo team around in the future.

So with everything that’s been discussed above, where does that leave the Sabres?

All the signs point to a pretty significant regression from the current production in the wins column, especially with some pretty tough contests against some excellent possession teams coming up.

Tampa Bay and Los Angeles are good and getting better as the season goes. Florida is in the middle of the pack possession-wise, but the Panthers always seem to give the Sabres fits with their speed and size down the middle. Calgary is the only poor possession team coming up in the next five games, but the Flames are still almost 10 percent better than the Sabres on the season.

These next five games will go a long way to showing where the Sabres actually are this season. The hope for the playoffs is dim at best; so will they be a middling team, or will they find themselves back where they started the season?

Sabres fans will soon find out.

 

Advanced stats courtesy of war-on-ice.com.

Follow me on Twitter for NHL and Sabres news all season: @SwordPlay18.  

Read more Buffalo Sabres news on BleacherReport.com

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