By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
By Buffalo Sabres’ standards this year, Thursday’s 3-1 win over the Arizona Coyotes was free of drama.
No extra work was needed in overtime or shootouts. No late comebacks were required. Heck, a few fans might have even left early, knowing that the Coyotes weren’t going to score again if the game extended until Friday afternoon.
Considering that the Sabres had one win by more than one goal since November 4 entering the game, the lack of suspense was welcome.
“I thought we played a solid 60 minutes,” coach Phil Housley said. “Up and down the line, everyone contributed.”
“It was good to extend everyone and not overuse anybody,” Jack Eichel added. “It was a good team effort. It’s two more points. Maybe it wasn’t the prettiest game, but we found a way to win. That’s what is important.”
Coming out fast
The good news greatly outweighed the bad news for the Sabres on the night. Start with the start. On Tuesday, Buffalo let a weak Los Angeles team hang around for a while, giving the Kings confidence that they had a chance to win. There was none of that on Thursday.
The Sabres’ so-called second line set the tone right from the start. Casey Mittelstadt, Conor Sheary and Kyle Okposo teamed up for an early goal (Mittelstadt, at 48 seconds) and were forechecking furiously for much of the night.
“We were in the zone on every shift, making plays and controlling the puck,” Mittelstadt said. “It was a good night, something we can build on.”
“They were unbelievable,” Evan Rodrigues said about the line. “They were all over them.”
At one point, the Mittelstadt line kept the puck in the Arizona zone for at least a minute. The crowd of 16,872 noticed and gave the team a nice hand for all of that hard work. Mittelstadt noticed it … for a while.
“Right as the fans started cheering, I hit a wall,” he said. “I didn’t really hear anything after that. I went to the bench.”
Eichel doubled the lead about six minutes later with a superb pass to – who else? – Jeff Skinner that turned a two-on-one break into a one-on-nobody. The season has shown that if nothing else, Skinner knows what to do with the puck in scoring situations. He’s gotten the answer right 22 different times already.
Arizona rebounded a bit after that. The Coyotes got a goal to close within one, and the game stayed that way for quite a while – into the third period.
Finishing the job
The Sabres had a key moment at that point when Lawrence Pilut picked up a penalty, but Buffalo killed that one off without much problem. About seven minutes later, Rodrigues broke into the Arizona zone, and it was quickly apparent that no one was going to be able to catch him without a butterfly net. Rodrigues converted for his second of the season.
That means two of the three Sabre goals didn’t come from Eichel’s line. That sort of balance often has led to Buffalo wins this season.
“You want to score, you want to contribute,” Rodrigues said. “I had a chance in the second period, but it went off a skate. If not for that, it was going in.”
One of the few things to go wrong for the Sabres came in the final minutes when the Coyotes had pulled their goaltender. Goalie Carter Hutton had the puck with time to do something with it. He’s a good enough puckhandler that trying to score was a viable option. Hutton’s shot was knocked down, though, so the chance to see one of the rarest sights in the sport – a goal by a goalie – didn’t happen.
“A few times I’ve had a couple of icings. That’s the best I’ve done,” Hutton said about past attempts to score in such situations. When you get a two-goal lead, you have it in mind. But I think I forced it a little bit.”
Housley added with a smile, “He’s got to raise the puck a little more.”
The win was the Sabres’ 11th of the season at home. If you need another encouraging sign about what’s gone on at the KeyBank Center this season, consider that Buffalo won 11 games at home during the entire 2017-18 season. So they are almost four months ahead of schedule.
There will be no home-ice advantage this weekend, though. Buffalo has two tough games coming up in Washington and Boston before returning here Tuesday night to play Florida.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)