Tonight was the finale to what has been an interesting season for the Wings. The team has long since played themselves out of contention for a playoff spot but found themselves in a game that still had stakes given their recent hot streak brought to a close by the Penguins on Thursday. The Buffalo Sabres, the Wings opposition tonight has been anything but hot of late. The teams were tied coming into tonight’s contest at 74 points apiece with Detroit holding the tie breaker. Depending on the outcome of today’s games the Wings had the potential to end up anywhere from 4th to 6th in the pre-lottery draft positions.
The Wings roster for the game was the same as Thursday against the Penguins with nobody returning from injury (hiatus?). The Wings once again were set to rely on the Larkin, Mantha, Bertuzzi line to carry them offensively along with Athanasiou and company on the second line. On the back end, Kronwall was the only journeyman in the lineup depending on what you consider Witkowski as Hronek, Hicketts, Bowey, Chelios, and McIlrath remained in the lineup. Jimmy Howard earned the nod between the pipes to close out the season with Kaden Fulcher backing up.
For Buffalo a player to watch as always was Jack Eichel. Other players of note in this one were Jeff Skinner looking to make one last impression before likely hitting free agency in the summer, and Jason Pominville who had an emotional game the other night knowing his time in Buffalo was probably coming to a close. In net for the Sabres was Linus Ullmark.
Would the Wings be able to close the season on a winning note?
Buffalo got an early chance on a redirect in front of Howard but he was quick to kick a pad out and steer it away. Detroit went the other way and Bertuzzi tested Ullmark on a quick shot after taking the pass across the Buffalo zone. Ullmark got his pad on it to keep it out.
After a Chelios turnover from behind the net after he had trouble handling the puck, the Sabres found Eichel coming off the bench for a shot in the slot that Howard steered wide with his blocker. Moments later Eichel had the puck on his stick as he crossed behind the net. With Chelios pursuing Eichel found a wide open Reinhart in front with McIlrath seemingly being the one who lost him in coverage. Reinhart outwaited Howard before tucking the puck in the far side, 1-0 Sabres.
The Wings had multiple chances to clear the puck before the goal and paid the price for failing to do so. The Sabres continued to maintain possession in the Detroit zone in the minutes following the goal outshooting the Wings 6-1 through the first 5:00. The next chance came when the Sabres took off on a 3 on 2 rush. Eichel had the puck at the top of the zone and found Olofsson to Howard’s left. Olofsson held the puck for a few moments as no Wings defender was in the same zip code. He tried to snap one short side on Howard but caught the post. The Wings were well behind the pace early in this game.
The Larkin line was able to get the first sustained pressure for the Wings but no good chances resulted. After Buffalo again tilted the ice towards the Wings end, Chelios took a hooking penalty sending the Sabres to the first powerplay of the game. After some good play on the kill early in the advantage the Sabres set up in the offensive zone and worked the puck to Ristolainen at the point. He slid a pass over to Dahlin who took the puck and stepped towards the goal from the top of the right circle. Using a well placed screen Dahlin put a wrist shot up high to the far side and beat Howard who could never see the shot, 2-0 Sabres.
DAHLIN!— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) April 6, 2019
It's 2-0 with 8:09 on the clock in the first! pic.twitter.com/wBVettIUNg
After the goal, Athanasiou tried to quickly strike back for the Wings as he made a power move across the top of the crease but had the puck knocked away just before he could get around Ullmark. Not long after that Hirose drew a penalty on the half wall in the Sabres zone when Skinner took his feet out. Only 40 seconds into that penalty, Buffalo took another penalty when Athanasiou was slashed as he tried to load up a shot from the high slot. The Wings tried to turn the game around on the 5 on 3 advantage. Hronek was setup for several blasts as he closed the top of the zone moving in from the point. The Wings failed to capitalise on the 2-man advantage. But shortly after the first penalty expired, Athanasiou had the puck at the left point. He wound up and put a slap pass toward Mantha in the slot area. A Buffalo defender deflected it but the puck still found its way to Mantha who momentarily corralled the puck before shooting to the top corner and beating Ullmark, 2-1.
A few minutes after the goal Howard came up with a big glove save after a Frk turnover on a back pass deep in the Wings zone. Just before the shot the Wings got away with one on a slash that broke a Sabres player’s stick which almost always draws a call. The Wings made a push late in the opening period with the Larkin line again getting some lengthy zone time, this time attempting a couple passes through the crease area but none landing on the stick of a Wings player.
Buffalo took a 17-11 shot advantage to the break to go along with their 2-1 score advantage. The Wings needed more offense from the other three lines with the Larkin not only driving the bus to this point but nobody else even got on. Chelios and McIlrath may have shown some their inexperience as a pairing at the NHL level looking out of place at times.
The first few minutes of the period lacked much action as beyond a couple of outside shots by Buffalo neither team generated much of anything. That was until Buffalo made a nice play on consecutive cross slot passes that Howard had to make a strong save on. Just after that Athanasiou was hunched over heading to the bench seemingly hurt on a play. But Athanasiou did return to play afterwards.
Bowey made an ugly turnover to Skinner right in front of Howard after he fanned on a pass. Skinner rifled a shot low to the blocker side and hit the post. Buffalo would get another chance a minute later when they recovered a dump with Wilson quickly sending a pass to Nelson at the point. Nelson put a slap shot toward the net that Sheary deflected in the slot beating Howard, 3-1 Sabres.
The Wings let themselves get beat on a hustle play by Wilson to recover the dump and had to once again dig themselves from a multi-goal deficit. Athanasiou tried to quickly hit back at the Sabres when he found Helm with a pass just to the left of the crease that Helm couldn’t find the net on with the one timer. After some pressure by the Sabres, Pominville was nearly able to catch Howard racing back to his post after a shot wide came back toward the goal off the boards. Not long later the Wings again turned the puck over when Hronek tried to send a pass around the boards to Kronwall who had little time to create a play. Skinner grabbed the loose puck near the half wall and put a good move on Kronwall to get to the front of the net. He put a shot low to the far side beating Howard, 4-1 Sabres.
Jeff Skinner, no issue. pic.twitter.com/wLnRw5H5Bv— Yahoo Sports NHL (@YahooSportsNHL) April 7, 2019
It was Hronek that sent the pass around the boards but Kronwall has to get that puck up the boards or at least away from danger even having as little time as he did. But the Wings needed anybody to position themselves better to at least get in Skinner’s way.
If that wasn’t enough just moments after the goal Bowey was guilty of an awful turnover right to the front of the net where Pominville tried to beat Howard but the keeper was able to make two saves on him before Pominville knocked it into the crease area where Girgensons out-muscled any Wing nearby and tapped the puck into the open net with Howard having chased Pominville across the front of the net, 5-1 Sabres.
That goal was enough to get Howard the hook more as a show of mercy rather than because of his play. Fulcher entered the net for his first NHL action in relief. With only 5:30 to play in the period the Wings had only managed one shot in the period so far to the Sabres three goals; if you were wondering if it was as bad as the score indicated. The Wings finally got a chance when on a scramble in front of Ullmark the loose puck went to Athanasiou who made a deke before sending a pass across the crease toward Helm but he was tied up and unable to get a stick on the pass that would have given him a chance on an open net.
The Wings picked up a powerplay late in the period when Ristolainen got a penalty for interference on Kuffner. But on the man advantage that spanned across the periods the Wings were never able to generate any dangerous chances.
The period was an outright disaster for the Wings as they probably deserved the lopsided score after 40 minutes. The Sabres outshot the Wings 10-5 in the period for an overall 27-16 advantage. One thing to look for in the 3rd period was to see how Fulcher handled a taste of NHL action, albeit in a game that was out of reach.
Just before the drop of the puck for the final period of the season, the FSD broadcast ran a clip of Kronwall speaking directly to the camera as part of the fan appreciation promo. You could literally feel your heart break in half when Kronner stated “we’re not where you want us to be and we don’t want to be here either” followed by a very long pause before saying the future is bright, etc.
A few minutes into the period Fulcher tried to collect a puck that was sent through the crease. The puck slipped behind him but Chelios was able to knock the puck away before it made it to the goal line. One note on Fulcher, his profile says he is 6’3” but he looks like a smaller goaltender.
The teams played the first half the period as you would expect two teams to play in a game that was all but sealed with both teams heading to their respective off-seasons afterwards. Around the halfway mark McIlrath got into some shoving in front of Fulcher but ultimately no gloves were dropped. Fulcher was tested a few times and was having a bit of trouble with rebounds but was keeping the puck out. That was until Skinner got a hold of the puck at the right dot and used Hicketts as a screen putting a shot through the defender’s legs that then squeezed under Fulcher’s arm, 6-1 Sabres.
Just after the goal, Puempel was called for a trip on Pominville to send the Sabres to the powerplay. On that powerplay the Sabres went to work quickly, ultimately setting up Montour on the left point for a one timer that Fulcher wasn’t able to get across in time for as the shot beat him low to the short side, 7-1 Sabres.
......mercy. As the game ticked down the action became limited as both just wanted to see time expire on their seasons. There wasn’t anything really noteworthy for the remainder of the game as they continued to dump it back and forth and the occasional half-effort shot.
Well...even if you were embracing team tank for that game hoping to protect the 4th lottery position, that was a tough one to watch to end the season. The Sabres served as Travis to the Wings Old Yeller season (they put them down). A taste of bad medicine for Wings fans to end the season after what was a fun hot streak for awhile. They did get a chance to see some of the younger players in their system as a result of the many injuries down the stretch that would have otherwise never worn the Winged Wheel this season.
The next event to circle on your calendars is April 9 for the draft lottery where the Wings will have a 9.5% chance at the top pick and a 28.8% chance at any of the top 3. Until next season, LGRW!