Screen Shots: Buffalo Sabres, Colorado Avalanche and Pittsburgh Penguins

Screen Shots: Buffalo Sabres, Colorado Avalanche and Pittsburgh Penguins

Adam Proteau analyzes the Buffalo Sabres barely missing the playoffs, the Central Division leaders and the Pittsburgh Penguins’ blown chance on Tuesday.

Jack Hughes scored an empty-netter to seal a 6-2 Sabres loss and elimination from playoff contention, but Buffalo’s season has been different from the past.

Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to Screen Shots, an ongoing feature in which we analyze a few different hockey topics in short bursts. On to it, we go:

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It’s sad times today for Buffalo Sabres fans after they lost to New Jersey Tuesday and were officially eliminated from Stanley Cup playoff competition. 

It’s now a dozen years without playoff hockey for the Sabres, and that’s got to hurt. Inexplicably, Buffalo has the worst home record (16-20-4) in the Atlantic this year. While their offense is currently fourth-best in the league at an average of 3.55 goals-for per game, their defense was unacceptable, currently ranking 27th overall with an average of 3.65 goals-against per game.

That defense is going to improve next year, with 20-year-old budding star Owen Power and 22-year-old No. 1 D-man Rasmus Dahlin being older, more experienced, and smarter.

But the key area for Buffalo GM Kevyn Adams to target is the goaltending position. Rookie Devon Levi, 21, has had a couple of subpar performances, but in four of his six games this season, he’s posted a save percentage of .912 or better and an SP of .929 or better in three games. 

The Sabres have three goalies under contract for the 2023-24 campaign – Levi, Eric Comrie and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, but with veteran Craig Anderson’s time with the team ending, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if Adams adds an experienced goalie to serve as Levi’s understudy.

With more consistent goaltending, the Sabres should be legit contenders for a wild-card berth next year, even more so than this season. They currently have 20 players signed and $19.4 million in projected cap space to spend, which makes them big potential players in the free agent and trade market. 

There no longer needs to be a widespread change for the team. With another above-average forward and skilled defenseman – Erik Karlsson, anyone? – Buffalo will be better than they were this year. As disappointing as it is for Sabres fans right now, the future does look bright for them.

The Colorado Avalanche lost in overtime last night, but the standings point they earned in the loss put them atop the Central Division. They’re one point ahead of Dallas and three points ahead of Minnesota. The Avs and Stars have two games remaining before the playoffs, while the Wild have a single game left – that means the worst the Avalanche can finish is second in the Central, and that’s still a spot in which they’ll be favored to win a first-round playoff series.

The way things shake out, the Avs are going to play either the Wild, the Seattle Kraken or the Los Angeles Kings. Colorado had a 2-1-0 record against Minnesota, a 1-1-1 record against Seattle and a 1-1-1 mark against L.A. But they will be the prohibitive favorites against any of those three teams in the first round, mainly because they’re 14-2-1 in their past 17 games and 8-1-1 in their past 10. Nobody wants to face them in the first round. This is why the remaining regular-season games for the Avs, Kings and Kraken matter so much.

Finally, we should’ve known the Pittsburgh Penguins were going to suffer a huge letdown Tuesday night against the sad-sack Chicago Blackhawks. How does a team that dominated the Red Wings Saturday look so feeble last night against the Hawks when the ramifications were so clear? Easy – the Pens do it because they haven’t been consistent. 

Since they won four straight games in late February/early March, the Penguins haven’t won more than two consecutive games. And even then, that was the only time Pittsburgh won more than two games prior to that four-game win streak was in early to mid-December when they won seven straight.

They just haven’t been good enough from game to game, and that’s why their loss to the Hawks is such an appropriate comment on their season. Out of the three teams that were looking to secure a wild-card spot – Pittsburgh, Florida and the New York Islanders – the Pens had the easiest path. But they’ve squandered that now, and they no longer control their own destiny. 

To make the playoffs, the Penguins now need the eighth-place Ises to lose in regulation time to the Montreal Canadiens Wednesday, and Pittsburgh must beat the Columbus Blue Jackets Thursday.

If they do wind up earning the final wild-card berth, the Pens have a first-round date with the powerhouse Boston Bruins. Pittsburgh’s 17-18-5 road record this season does not bode well for them against anyone they would’ve faced in the post-season, but against the Bruins – who have a league-best 34-4-3 record at home – the Penguins are likely to be roadkill. 

It’s all adding up to a major disappointment for Pittsburgh, and they can’t blame anyone other than themselves for the position they’re in. 

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