Sabres renew rivalry with Canadiens in season opener

Jack Eichel.jpg

Jack Eichel and the Sabres have a tough schedule featuring 19 back-to-backs in 2016-17. Getty Images 

With the NHL releasing its full schedule for 2016-17 Tuesday, the Buffalo Sabres learned that their first game will feature the Canadiens who visit First Niagara Center on October 13. Always a great rivalry between border rivals, it’ll be a chance for the improving Sabres led by Jack Eichel to test Carey Price, who should be ready for the start.

There’s plenty of action for Buffalo fans to get excited about. In Year 2 of the rebuild, the Sabres look to improve on a seventh place finish in the Atlantic Division. They ended last season well winding up with 81 points in 82 games. A roster built around leading scorer Ryan O’Reilly, Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Rasmus Ristolainen and Evander Kane could get some new pieces. The Sabres have $53 million committed to 15 players leaving approximately $20 million in cap space to add a significant player.

The first order of business will be locking up the emerging Ristolainen to a new contract. He posted nine goals and 32 assists for 41 points in 82 contests. The Swedish defenseman is due for a nice raise. Jake McCabe is also restricted. Both are good pieces for the blue line which lacks a true number one. Would the Sabres have interest in acquiring Kevin Shattenkirk from the Blues? Or do they plan to make a push at Steven Stamkos?

Buffalo must also get Jimmy Vesey signed after coughing up a third round pick for his rights to Nashville. According to his agent Peter Fish, there’s no timetable on getting a deal done. Vesey can still test unrestricted free agency by August 15.

“His plan all along was to see it through,” Fish told the Associated Press. “And everything that he’s been through with the whole thing in Nashville would be kind of silly not to try to play it out as best as possible.”

If Buffalo general manager Tim Murray can get it done, the 23-year old Vesey who played four years at Harvard University would join a talented roster that also features Hudson Fasching, Zemgus Girgensons and Evan Rodrigues. Top prospects Justin Bailey and Eric Cornel are probably a year away.

As for the rest of a busy schedule which features 19 back-to-backs, the Sabres have their work cut out. After their home opener against Montreal, Buffalo hits the road for four straight including a Western Canadian trip between 10/16-20 with stops at the Oilers, Flames and Canucks. The good part is none are back-to-back. Plus they then get the next four days off before visiting the rival Flyers. The Sabres conclude October with home dates against the Wild and Panthers followed by a tough visit at Winnipeg on All Hallow’s Eve in a back-to-back.

The November schedule isn’t bad with only one back-to-back featuring a home-and-home series against the Devils on 11/11-12. Buffalo will host them first and then visit Newark the following night. A big highlight early in the month is when the new look Maple Leafs visit First Niagara Center Nov. 3. The first meeting of the season pits American phenoms Eichel against projected Leafs first overall pick Auston Matthews. That will be a hot ticket. If network TV had any brains, they’d cover it. It’s on a Thursday night at 7 PM. Probably just a Sportsnet game.

During the month, Buffalo and Ottawa will square off three times with the Sabres at Ottawa on Hockey Night In Canada Nov .5. The Sens will visit Buffalo four days later after visiting the rival Bruins 11/7. The final match is Nov. 29 in Ottawa to conclude the month. Another treat for Western New Yorkers is when the defending champion Penguins visit on Saturday, Nov. 19. Sidney Crosby and the Pens will battle Eichel and the Sabres.

To start December, it’s a Battle Of New York between Manhattan and Western New York when the Rangers come to town 12/1. In December, the Sabres play three back-to-backs. The first coming at Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals Dec. 5 followed by the Oilers visiting the Sabres Dec. 6 for the second and final match-up between Connor McDavid and Eichel. Buffalo will play Boston three times on 12/3 and 12/29 at home followed by a New Year’s Eve visit in Beantown. Astonishingly, that’s the final meeting of the season unless they meet in the playoffs. They’ll also see the Caps and Islanders twice along with the Hurricanes. Another back-to-back features the Islanders challenging the Sabres on 12/16 followed by Buffalo traveling to Carolina for a Saturday night game.

The new calendar year 2017 gives them two days off before they visit MSG for a second meeting against the Rangers. Nine of 14 games are on the road including a visit to Chicago Jan. 5. After the Jets and Flyers visit three days apart, the Sabres have a tough 24 hours away at the Bolts and Canes 1/12-13. They come home for the Stars, who are coached by Lindy Ruff. The following night, it’s another back-to-back with a short trip to Toronto. Following two days off, the third consecutive set on Jan. 20-21 features the Red Wings at home followed by a visit at Montreal. Part of a three-game road trip with stops at Nashville and Dallas. Ten days later, the Sabres visit the Canadiens again on Jan. 31 to conclude the month.

February is tough with four back-to-backs. It starts okay with the Rangers and Sabres meeting a final time on Feb. 2 followed by the Sens in town two days later for Hockey Night In Canada. The first set is 2/6-7 with the Sabres visiting the Devils and then returning home to host Stanley Cup runner-up San Jose. They’ll also see Anaheim two days later. Then comes another juicy Sabres/Leafs match on Feb. 11. They’ll come home to host the Canucks for a back-to-back. On Valentine’s Day, it’s the Sabres and Senators from Ottawa. Love will be in the air.

Between 2/16-19, Buffalo has a three-game home stand against the Avalanche, Blues and then Patrick Kane comes home with the Blackhawks in the third back-to-back of the month. In a scheduling oddity, the Sabres will see the Avalanche again Feb. 25 in Colorado followed by the fourth set at Arizona. They’ll also see the Predators on Feb. 28 back home to end the month.

Then comes March Madness. Even though it’s only 14 games, there are five back-to-backs comprising 10 of the 14. The first set is Mar. 4-5 when they host the Lightning and then visit the Pens. The second set is a classic home-and-home against Columbus 3/10-11 on a Friday and Saturday with the Jackets visiting on the weekend. Then, they must do a three games in four days Californian trip between Mar. 14-17 at San Jose with the Kings and Ducks on consecutive nights. A four-game road swing concludes at Detroit 3/20 followed by a home date the next night against the Pens. Yikes. The Leafs visit Mar. 25. March goes out like a lamb lion with the fifth back-to-back home for Florida and at Columbus 3/27-28.

There are five remaining games in April. Predictably, it includes the last two back-to-backs. Number 18 comes 4/2-3 with the Islanders and Leafs visiting Western New York. Who knows? Those could be big games if Buffalo is in playoff contention. Their final home game is against another team that could be on the bubble in rival Montreal Apr. 5. The last two games are on the final weekend with a visit at the Panthers followed by the Lightning Apr. 8-9. The Florida game is at 7 PM while the Tampa regular season finale is a 5 PM start.

Breaking down the Sabres schedule further:

-19 back-to-backs

-30 divisional match-ups

vs Canadiens 4 times 10/13 1/21 1/31 4/5

vs Maple Leafs 5 times 11/3 1/17 2/11 3/25 4/3

vs Senators 5 times 11/5 11/9 11/29 2/4 2/14

vs Red Wings 4 times 11/23 12/27 1/20 3/20

vs Bruins 4 times 11/7 12/3 12/29 12/31

vs Panthers 4 times 10/29 12/20 3/27 4/8

vs Lightning 4 times 11/17 1/12 3/4 4/9

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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