Buffalo Sabres: How They Match Up Against the Atlantic Division

Matt Clouden@@mattcloudenCorrespondent ISeptember 27, 2013

Buffalo Sabres: How They Match Up Against the Atlantic Division

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    The new-look Atlantic Division will pit the Buffalo Sabres against some old foes and new rivals. 

    The Sabres have missed the playoffs for the past two seasons, and expectations are not much higher this season. 

    There is a silver lining, however. 

    The youth movement is in full swing, and head coach Ron Rolston is overseeing one of the youngest teams in the NHL. The Sabres' prospect pool is one of the best in the league, and players like Zemgus Girgensons and Johan Larsson will be able to make their marks on the NHL level soon enough.

    Here's how the Sabres match up against each one of their divisional opponents for the 2013-14 season. 

Boston Bruins

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    As has been the case in recent history, despite the Sabres' struggles against most of the NHL, they fared much better against the Boston Bruins

    In the last three seasons, the Sabres have gone 9-6-2 against the Bruins, including 3-2-0 in 2012-13. 

    The Sabres' speed has been a major factor in their success, but some opportunistically soft goaltending from the Bruins has also led to a few wins. 

    Key Matchup: Cody Hodgson, Thomas Vanek and their RW versus Zdeno Chara

    The Sabres have had success against the Bruins by somehow making Zdeno Chara look less like the all-world defenseman that he is at times. 

    The speed of the Sabres tends to work in their favor against the slower Chara, who typically compensates by using his 6'9" frame, but they have also pressured him into making non-characteristic mistakes in the defensive and neutral zones, too. 

    The Chicago Blackhawks did an excellent job of isolating Chara in last season's Stanley Cup Final, with him ending up with a minus-five overall in their six games, including forcing him to a minus-six in the last three games. 

    Vanek and Hodgson, and whichever RW they are paired with, will have the honor of skating against Chara most shifts this season. If they are able to have an even battle against the hulking defender, the Sabres will have a much better chance of continuing their success against the Bruins.

    X-Factor: Marcus Foligno

    Big-bodied, skilled wingers tend to be extremely important against the Bruins (see: Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Brandon Saad in last year's Stanley Cup Final). 

    Foligno has had scoring success in the preseason, and if he also can bring his physical play against Boston, he may be a big reason for a few Sabres wins. 

    Projected Record:  1-2-1, 3 points

Detroit Red Wings

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    One of the Sabres' new division foes, the Red Wings enter the season fresh off of a devastating loss in their last (at least for now) Western Conference Final series at the hands of the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks. 

    The Red Wings were getting a bit long in the tooth as it was, but their signings of Stephen Weiss and Daniel Alfredsson certainly adds to that theme. Beyond that, their defense still has not gotten over the loss of Nicklas Lidstrom, but the play of Jimmy Howard has certainly made up for that. 

    Key Matchup: Buffalo offense versus Jimmy Howard

    The Sabres' offensive zone play was downright awful for the most part last year, and it was a major reason they struggled to score goals. 

    The inability to establish any forecheck inherently benefits a netminder, and Jimmy Howard doesn't need any help. Howard had another excellent season for the Wings last year, and his name will surely be thrown around as an early favorite for the Vezina Trophy. 

    The Sabres will need to pressure and forecheck the Red Wing defense—their weakness—in order to set up quality scoring chances on Howard. Ample quality chances was one of the only ways Howard was beat last year. 

    X-Factor: Tyler Myers

    Myers will see a lot of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg for four games, so his performance against them will dictate a lot in those matchups. 

    Myers struggled last season, so a significant turnaround will be necessary, but his ability to take up a lot of ice will be huge in neutralizing Detroit's first line. 

    Projected Record: 2-2-0, 4 points

Florida Panthers

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    The Florida Panthers regressed from a strong playoff showing two seasons ago to the worst record in the NHL last season. 

    Now armed with Aleksander Barkov and a full season of last year's Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau, the Panthers are moving forward with a youth movement of their own as well. 

    Key Matchup: Panthers' youth versus the Sabres' youth

    Given the fact that these two teams have not had much success lately, they are both loaded with young talent. 

    The Panthers have a bunch of promising centermen in Huberdeau, Barkov, Shawn Matthias and Nick Bjugstad, along with a potential franchise defenseman in Erik Gudbranson and a promising netminder in Jacob Markstrom. 

    The Sabres will have as many contributing youngsters, if not more, than the Panthers. Mikhail Grigorenko, Zemgus Girgensons, Joel Armia, Johan Larsson, Mark Pysyk, Rasmus Ristolainen, Brayden McNabb and Matt Hackett are just a few of the names that can be expected to make a significant impact, positive or negative, for the Sabres this season. 

    This matchup may sway on which group outplays the other. 

    X-Factor: Johan Larsson

    Larsson has earned the nickname "the Bull" in his career because of his physical play and defensive prowess. Larsson has not cemented a place on the NHL roster yet, but his high level of play in the preseason should give him an excellent chance.

    If he earns his stripes, he could come in handy when the Sabres go up against the young and talented Barkov and Huberdeau. If Larsson is able to dominate them, the Sabres should be successful against the Panthers.

    Projected Record: 3-1-0, 6 points

Montreal Canadiens

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    While the Canadiens ended up winning the Northeast Division last season, had it been a full season, they may have found themselves in a much different position. 

    After storming out of the lockout gate, the Canadiens finished very slowly, finishing only a point above the Bruins in the division. Despite their late-season stumble, the Canadiens saw P.K. Subban win the Norris Trophy and rookie Alex Galchenyuk surge toward the end of the season. 

    Key Matchup: Montreal power play versus Buffalo penalty kill

    The Habs had the fifth-ranked PP last season, while the Sabres had the 26th-ranked PK. The Sabres lost too many games last year due to their inconsistency on the penalty kill, and given the fact that Montreal had one of the best power plays, they must tighten up against them. 

    Players like Steve Ott, Tyler Myers and Marcus Foligno will play a big part in this matchup. 

    An improvement on the Sabres' 29th-ranked faceoff percentage (46 percent) will make a big difference in this area as well. 

    X-Factor: Zemgus Girgensons

    Girgensons is a high-energy guy with a lot of skill as well. Montreal does not have many guys that can match up with him on a night-to-night basis, especially if he is playing as fast as he has shown this preseason. 

    Girgensons is not going to be called upon to score 40 goals, but if he can pot a few goals and bang some of the smaller Montreal forwards around in the defensive and neutral zones, he will put the Sabres in a great spot to win. 

    Projected Record: 1-2-1, 3 points

Ottawa Senators

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    The Sabres may want to take a look at the Ottawa Senators of two years ago for some inspiration this season. Those Sens were young and inexperienced, and many believed they would finish last in the Eastern Conference. Those same Sens also made the playoffs. 

    Now, the Senators have a shiny new toy in Bobby Ryan and a healthy Erik Karlsson and Jason Spezza to lead them this year. 

    Key Matchup: Erik Karlsson versus Christian Ehrhoff

    While Karlsson may be the better player, both he and Ehrhoff play a similar game and hold similar roles on their teams. 

    Both are offense-first players, and both run their respective team's power play, but only Karlsson has won a Norris for doing it. 

    Despite that, both the Sens and Sabres have holes on defense that can be exploited by adding another body on the rush or in the high slot. With that in mind, whichever player can do it more effectively will likely put their team in the better position in this matchup.

    X-Factor: Ryan Miller

    The Sens led the NHL in shots per game last year, while the Sabres ranked last in the league in shots against per game. 

    That means Miller will likely be very busy when the Sabres play Ottawa.

    If Miller can rediscover the magic of the last Olympic year, this statistical hurdle will not translate in the points column at the end of the night. 

    Projected Record: 1-1-2, 4 points

Tampa Bay Lightning

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    The Tampa Bay Lightning join the Panthers as the other former Southeast Division member joining the Atlantic Division. 

    The Lightning struggled last season as well, earning themselves the opportunity to take Jonathan Drouin in the 2013 draft. Drouin should add a spark to a lineup that already includes the likes of Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. 

    Key Matchup: Sabres' second line versus Tampa Bay defense

    The Sabres' second line, which is likely going to include some combination of Ville Leino, Steve Ott, Mikhail Grigorenko, Drew Stafford, Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno, will be set up for success against a Tampa Bay defensive corps that lacks in depth. 

    Beyond Victor Hedman and Matt Carle, the Bolts blue line does not strike fear into the hearts of their opponents. The Sabres' second line will have the luxury of going up against someone not named Hedman for most of the game, which should open up the offensive zone for them. 

    Second-line points may be the key to success for the Sabres against the Lightning.

    X-Factor: Mikhail Grigorenko

    Grigorenko has played well in the preseason and may have cemented a top-six role for the start of the season. 

    Given Tyler Ennis' movement between center to wing this preseason, Grigorenko has the ability to center a second line that could be very important to the Sabres against the Lightning. 

    If Grigorenko can harness the scoring touch he has found in the preseason with some fellow top-six guys like Ennis, Foligno, Stafford, Ott or Leino—and not John Scott—he likely will be able to put his name on the scoresheet a few more times. 

    Projected Record: 2-0-2, 6 points

Toronto Maple Leafs

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    The preseason brawl between the Sabres and the Toronto Maple Leafs last week has made November 15 one of the most talked-about dates of the early NHL season. 

    The melee that ensued as a result of the altercation between John Scott and Phil Kessel has been the talk of the NHL preseason thus far, and it has reignited the somewhat stale rivalry between the two teams. 

    Key Matchup: Sabres' big bodies versus the Leafs' big bodies

    While many may be sick of hearing about the brawl, the huge positive of it has been the injection of life into the Sabres-Leafs rivalry.

    Heavy hockey, the type we have seen in the Sabres-Bruins rivalry as of late, will make a return in this series as well. Yes, there have been plenty of fights between the two clubs along the way, but the games have not been nearly as physical as they were in the past. 

    That's going to change.

    Whichever team wins the physical battle will likely put themselves in a great position to win each game. And while the November 15 matchup promises to be one of those heavy games, the rematch the next night in Toronto will likely be heavier. 

    Whoever can win the most battles will likely come away victorious. 

    X-Factor: Cody Hodgson

    With all the physicality that is likely to be present in these games, Hodgson needs to up the ante on defense to ensure that the first line is clicking. 

    The first line needs to carry its weight in order to make up for the focus on defense and physicality on the other lines. If Hodgson is able to play better defensively and can at least stay on the same level offensively, he may come close to averaging a point per game this season, especially against the Leafs.

    Projected Record: 2-1-1, 5 points

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