St. PAUL, Minnesota – Don Granato didn’t need to investigate why the Buffalo Sabers had an uncharacteristic Monday performance against the Florida Panthers earlier this month.
Granato saw all the signs of an exhausted team. The Swordsmen weren’t cutting bar-to-bar passes to save time and space on the ice at KeyBank Center. Turnovers led to scoring opportunities in reverse. Granato’s lineup was full of tremendous skill and elite pace, but they played slowly as they trailed 3-0.
Practice was the root of the problem. Coaches across the NHL always balance work on the ice between games and rest during the 82-game regular season. Granato had been skiing the day before and didn’t like the result.
A 45-minute snowboarding session may not seem like much, but Sabers are never leisurely. Fast paced from start to finish, the smallest team in the NHL has many players who enjoy the opportunity to hone their skills before and after training.
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An adjustment was needed. There were three weeks left until the All-Star break and the Sabers were in the middle of a grueling stretch in the schedule. Their game on Saturday, which starts at 9 p.m. EST against the Wild, will be the 15th in the 28 days since Jan. 1.
Not including short morning skates at the Games, the Sabers have only practiced twice since Jan. 9. Granato’s decision to prioritize rest got his team playing their best hockey at a time when many around the league were physically and mentally exhausted.
The Sabers (26-19-3) won their fifth straight game — their second winning streak of at least five this season — and continued their stellar play away from Buffalo.
The Sabers won five straight games—including a 3-0 start to this four-game wild ride with wins over the top two teams in the Western Conference—despite not getting a workout during that span.
“I didn’t think our guys were fresh,” Granato said, referring to the losses earlier this month. “So, there was a quick change and we’re saying we’ve got to adapt to this because we need to be fresh. We’re a much better team, we’re a different team when we’re new. Some games were adding that, we just looked and said post-game, why not? We look like ourselves. We were exhausted and exhausted, and I could tell we didn’t have the emotional energy. To us, it was clear and obvious after a few reps that we needed to make sure we were holding back in some areas to allow our men to be fresh and cutting practices was a factor.” .
Such a few drills on the ice between games wasn’t unheard of in years, but the league has evolved. Teams apply sports science to measure each player’s work and recovery rate. Players nowadays do not need to be on the ice between matches to maintain a high physical condition. The Sabers played 48 games with two more games before the All-Star break and bye week.
The Sabers will only play four games in the 20 days after the break. There will be plenty of time to practice when the group is at rest. At this point in the season, most players in the NHL are in pain or soreness.
Granato and his staff alternated training time with group and one-on-one video sessions. He and his crew select specific sequences in games to help players better understand what they’ve done in a game or when there’s an opportunity to make a bigger impact.
Sabers forward Casey Mittelstadt joked that he and his teammates are often surprised at the accuracy Granato can find in a game. Granato takes note of those moments or plays and orders clips from his video coordinator, Justin White, who cuts the video to present to an individual player or group.
“Honestly, some boys laugh at it sometimes, and I don’t think he’d get mad if he heard me say that,” Mittelstadt said of Granato’s ability to analyze what plays to make. “He’s doing a great job. He’s always finding new ways and new things. I think that’s what makes him such a good coach, he’s ready to evolve and he’s willing to change. He sees things in different ways. I think he’s huge for us. It’s clear we’re a young group. Everyone is learning.” Quickly “.
The Sabers have been one of the most productive teams in the NHL in 5-on-5 situations since their recent winning streak began on Ryan Miller Night. Over the five-game period, they were second in goals scored every 60 minutes, fourth in shot attempt difference, and seventh in shot quality share, according to Evolving-Hockey. Going into Friday, Buffalo’s 20 scored the most by any team since Jan. 19, and Taige Thompson’s nine points led the league.
Limiting training time is also a sign of the confidence Granato has in his group. Despite their relative inexperience in the NHL, they proved to him that they knew how to prepare. Self-accountability within the group promoted development.
Rasmus Dahlin, for one, didn’t like his performance in Chicago when the Sabers blew a two-goal lead and lost in overtime to the Blackhawks in game two of a back-to-back game on Jan. 17. Let’s go skiing the next day, so Dahlin approached Granato during the flight back to Buffalo and asked to meet up to watch the videos.
Using the knowledge gained from the meeting, Dahlen responded with one of his best overall performances of the season. He had two assists, including an amazing pass to Dylan Cousins on the game-winner, and eight shot attempts in 25:12 of ice time against the Islanders.
Owen Bauer, the first pick in the 2021 draft, has continued to develop his game through video study. The 20-year-old has scored a goal in each of his past three matches. According to Power, many of his modifications could not be tested in a training environment.
“I think for me, just being able to see different things, different directions in my game and other people’s game, and just trying to see that and kind of change quickly,” he said. “So, a lot of times, there’s a lot of things that you can’t even work on in practice. It’s really just in the game, so I think the video is huge to just see those things and to see different trends or habits that you’re doing that you might want to change or Keep doing them.”
The Sabers couldn’t use that approach last season when Granato was still working with the group to develop an on-ice identity in 5-on-5. There was a lot of work to be done between matches. But they have since built a strong enough base in those situations that the energy can be used elsewhere. Buffalo’s 112 goals in the 5-on-5 was more than all but three of the teams that entered play on Friday.
However, less practice time likely played a role in the Sabers’ power play struggles, as they have been 4-for-31 since Jan. 9. Morning sleds are useful for running through special team workouts. And when time is limited, chatter continues in the dressing room.
After a recent skate, Jeff Skinner wandered into the dressing room to talk to Dahlen and Thompson about executing a certain play they had on the ice. It’s a small price to pay, though.
The Sabers (26-19-3) entered Friday leading the NHL with 3.79 goals per game, and they were one point behind the Pittsburgh Penguins in second place.
“Obviously I’d rather play a game than practice, but you don’t notice the lack of those touches in practice,” said defender Matthias Samuelsson. “I think you feel more confident when you hit the puck once or twice a week for a full hour. Lots of rest days, lots of days where you don’t do much and just try to stay fresh on every game so you can play at your top.
“I also think we learned how to play maybe a simpler game, a more direct game. With so many games, everyone gets hurt and blows up or whatever. You were probably not there mentally after a long week, so I guess if you can be predictable and play simple And letting your teams read to you, it helps.”
Dahlin’s stellar season didn’t earn him an All-Star nod when Austin Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs pulled out of the action on Friday due to an injury. Matthews was replaced on the Atlantic Division’s 3-on-3 team by Alexander Barkov of the Florida Panthers, who host action this weekend February 2-4.
Dahlin, 22, is on track for 94 points, and since 2000 only one defenseman has reached 90 points in a season: Roman Jose, who finished with 96 points with the Nashville Predators.
The Rochester Sabers’ prospect Lukas Rusk has been selected Friday to represent his club and the North Division in the American Hockey League All-Star Game, which will be held February 5-6 in Laval, Quebec.
Rusk, a final sixth-round pick in 2019, has 10 goals and 27 points in 37 games for the Americus this season. He is replacing his teammate, Brandon Biro, who is not available for All-Star play.