By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The first 60 minutes of the game between the Buffalo Sabres and Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday afternoon don’t need much rehashing. Neither team generated much offense, the two combined goals by the two teams weren’t particularly interesting, and there were long stretches where there was nothing going on.
Put it this way – the public address announcer’s only words in the second period were, “Last minute of play in this period.” It’s a good thing he’s paid by the game and not the word.
The overtime, which led to Buffalo’s much-needed 2-1 victory before 17,650 in the KeyBank Center, was much more involving. That’s what deserves the focus.
Start with the faceoff. Curtis Lazar was assigned that duty for the Sabres after going 8-5 during regulation time. He won the draw, and then skated off the ice in favor of Jack Eichel. Mission accomplished.
“It’s nerve-wracking – it’s the only way to put it,” Lazar said about the situation. “If I get tapped on the shoulder in a situation like that, I’m going to give it my all. It’s a small thing, but it pays off – especially in overtime. There’s such an emphasis on possession.”
“What’s a job by Lazar to win that faceoff,” goalie Carter Hutton said. “That’s a tough role. That’s one of the little things that winning teams do.”
Lazar exited the spotlight like a sax player after his big solo, and Eichel – the Sabres’ headliner – replaced him on the ice. Eventually the star center took the puck and slowly advanced up the ice, keeping an eye out for opportunity.
Overtime has evolved from the free-for-all that it used to be when the rule was first put into effect some years ago. While puck possession has become much more important than it used to be (a development was well overdue), it turns absolutely crucial in three-on-three hockey. A change of possession can lead to an odd-man break, which can lead to an open shot, which can lead to a goal – all in a relative instant.
The center skated into the Columbus zone along the boards, and moved laterally across the ice. That created a little confusion in the Blue Jackets’ defense. For a moment, it looked as if defender Seth Jones blocked the view of goalie Matiss Kivlenieks. That’s when Eichel took the shot, and it found the net for his 31st goal of the season.
“I thought we pushed them back a little bit, and a lane opened up,” Eichel said. “We tried to use their guys a little bit, and it worked out.”
“He makes it look so effortless,” said teammate Evan Rodrigues, who scored the game’s first goal. “On that goal, he waits, waits, waits. He’s so lethal, he can beat a goalie on a shot from the circle. I think that’s the biggest key for him. He’s getting rewarded for the work he’s put in. It’s awesome to see.”
From there, the Sabres bench emptied and the players were off to salute the man of the hour. No, it wasn’t Eichel, although no one was downplaying his contribution. But the top priority was to salute goalie Hutton.
You might have heard about Hutton’s problems this season. Never again will he have to read the sentence, “His last win came on October 22, 2019 against San Jose.” Hutton is on a winning streak.
Even though Hutton is mature enough to realize that a goalie is a little helpful when it comes to wins and losses – sort of like a baseball pitcher who doesn’t receive any offensive support – he’s human enough to know that getting credit for a victory can still feel good.
“It’s obviously great to get the win,” Hutton said. “There’s obviously a lot more going on that what most people know, with the information. But I try to stick with it. I’ve been playing a long time. It wasn’t like I just fell off of a cliff. There are a lot of things that go into it, like sticking with it and being a good teammate. At times, it didn’t have to do with me. It was about Linus playing so well. I’m here as a teammate to support him. Whatever role I’m in, I stick with it and work hard.”
“Carter getting the win is really secondary to the way he’s prepared for this situation,” coach Ralph Krueger said. “I told you there was a lot of extra work going on. Nobody gave up on Carter, and Carter didn’t give up on Carter. We’re not surprised. We’re so pleased to see him have performances like this.”
With the win, the Sabres ended a three-game losing streak. Maybe it’s time to get this particular team a little credit. At a few different points of the season, Buffalo seemed to be starting to go into a death spiral, headed for the abyss. Like a crafty pilot, the Sabres have pulled out of the spin quite often. In the past few years, that couldn’t be said.
In a week that featured some ugly losses and some fans jumping off the bandwagon (not without some justification), this was a welcome win.
“We needed the point more than they did,” Lazar said. “We had to go get it. There are no other options – we have to win about every night. That was a good start.”
“More important was the process – how they executed,” Krueger said. “We had a feeling our game was back. We felt we lost it after the break. It was good to see the culmination of the process. It was a mature team believing in the way we needed to play. It’s a good psychological boost for us.”
We’ll see how the Sabres respond to some good news. They’ll play Colorado on Tuesday as the homestand continues.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)