By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The Buffalo Sabres are exactly halfway through the 2018-19 season. They played Game 41 on Thursday night, a well-earned 4-3 win over the Florida Panthers in the KeyBank Center. For all their ups and downs since Opening Night, the Sabres are 22-13-6 for exactly 50 points.
You can do the math. Buffalo is 50 percent of the way to a 100-point season, with 50 percent of that season left to play.
And who would have thought that was possible back at the beginning of October, with the team coming off a last-place finish (62 points)?
Coach Phil Housley, when asked what he would have thought about a 50-point first half at the at the start of the season, responded, “Based on last year, I’d be pretty happy,”
Nothing about the rest of the season is assured, of course. The Sabres could have fallen into ninth place – out of a playoff spot – with a regulation loss and some wins by certain teams in other games on Thursday. But overall, it’s been a productive three months for one of the surprise teams in the league.
“There are a lot of good things,” Jeff Skinner said about the first half. “Every team is looking for consistency, to have a good game and play your style every night. That’s the challenge. I thought we’ve gotten contributions from everyone, and that’s made us successful, and we want to try to continue to do that.”
Top of the line
One of the best things about the Sabres during the past three months has been the play of their top forwards. The first line was missing a vital cog in center Jack Eichel, who will miss at least one more game with an upper-body injury. But Skinner and Sam Reinhart didn’t miss a beat in scoring a combined three goals Thursday.
Skinner had a couple of great individual efforts for his two goals – No. 27 and No. 28 for the season. That translates to 56 for a full season, which would tie Danny Gare for second on the Sabres’ all-time one-season list (1979-80). Skinner only needs nine goals to tie his personal best of 37 goals, set with Carolina in 2016-17.
Skinner was left off the initial choices for the NHL All-Star Game, which is coming up near the end of the month, despite ranking with the league leaders in goals. That’s more of a reflection of the fact that every team has to have a representative in San Jose. Still, Skinner might sneak in the back door if he wins a fan vote for the last man chosen for the conference.
“I’m trying as much as I can,” goalie Linus Ullmark said about campaign efforts to get Skinner to the West Coast for the game. “We’re all trying.”
Then there’s Reinhart, who has been piling up the assists in the first half but who hadn’t had a goal since December 4. He got one on a deflection of a shot from the point from Lawrence Pilot. The right winger brought his season point total to 40; an 80-point season probably was well above anyone’s projections.
The Sabres hadn’t gotten much scoring from anyone lately, having failed to push past two goals in five of their last six games. Having those two players supply some offense makes a huge difference.
“It’s important – everybody has to contribute,” Housley said. “Everyone played strong tonight. Skinner gets two, Rino got one – that’s going to help. We’ll need them the rest of the way.”
A welcome sight
Tage Thompson had the other goal, ending a drought that extended back to Nov. 29. He was an important part of the Ryan O’Reilly trade with St. Louis, and the team has been looking for signs of progress.
“Tage has been getting better,” Housley said. “Tonight he finally got rewarded. His game has been good for the last eight to 10 games.”
And the night’s offense came with Ullmark in the net, as it often has done in the first half of the season. Carter Hutton has played quite well this season, but his 13-12-3 record is a reflection of the fact that he hasn’t gotten much offensive support. Think of a pitcher whose record suffers because of a lack of runs, and you’ll get the idea.
“I wish we could have it more often,” Ullmark said about the offensive burst. “Huts is playing really well. It’s not his fault. We had some puck luck (Thursday) and we’ll keep grinding.”
Add it up and you have a relatively rare win against the Panthers, who are 17-16-6 after 39 games. Florida did win the first two meetings between the teams, and was 6-2-2 in its last 10 against Buffalo. The Sabres got off to a fast start and carried that to the victory, in spite of a few nervous moments late in the game.
“We came into the game with a chip on our shoulder,” Thompson said.
The eighth-place team (last playoff spot) in the East had 97 points last season, while No. 8 in the West had 95. If that’s any sort of guide, the Sabres will need about 45 to 47 points in the second half to reach the postseason. That may become the overriding narrative to the games the rest of the way.
We’ll start to find out how that goes Saturday night in Boston.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB.)