By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The Buffalo Sabres must have figured that this would be a week when they might be able to change the direction of the team a little bit. They were playing four straight home games, all against teams that were not currently in playoff spots in the East Division. In addition, they had No. 1 goalie Linus Ullmark back in the lineup. It was a question of whether they could bury the enduring pessimism that comes with a 17-game losing streak that was attached to that situation.
For once this season, you’d have to say it’s a rare case of mission accomplished.
The Sabres ended the homestand with a 3-2 overtime win over the New York Rangers. Buffalo finished the week with two wins and two overtime losses for six points in four games. Considering the team was 6-23-4 entering the week, that’s improvement.
“The last five or six games have been really good games,” Victor Olofsson said. “We got a point in our last four. Definitely guys have more confidence with the puck. We’re making more plays. That helps.”
“Even through the losing streak, the boys were sticking together and working hard,” Casey Mittelstadt said. “The last few games, we’re been playing a lot better. You can feel it on the bench. The mood in the locker room has been great.”
Little to choose from
All things considered, this was a very even hockey game – one that deserved to be decided by one shot in a shootout. There was plenty of pace to the action, a decent amount of scoring opportunities, and good goaltending all around. The Rangers had a 30-29 edge in shots, and both teams had two power plays.
Even so, the Sabres figured out a way to come out on top. Eighteen straight losses will offer strong evidence that bad things are right around the corner. This time, they weren’t.
“It’s nice to play a team back to back,” coach Don Granato said about the rematch with the Rangers. “You can target things, you can challenge yourself to be better in certain areas. We were disappointed last night in certain areas. We didn’t hit the other day for whatever reason. The guys took that to heart. They elevated and fought through a lot. We battled right through it, stayed on it, and were rewarded it.”
Appropriately, neither team had more than a one-goal lead, and the Sabres had to come back twice. Artemi Panarin scored first for New York on a play that at first glance looked like a metaphor for the season. Jacob Bryson and Ullmark became entangled in the goal crease, leaving the net open for Panarin’s shot from the boards on right wing. Yes, there have been times when the Sabres haven’t been able to get out of each other’s way.
But any bad thoughts about that lasted a second less than three minutes. Rasmus Dahlin’s pass sent Mittelstadt and Taylor Hall off on a two-on-one break. The Rangers’ defender played the pass, and Mittelstadt launched the puck to score the tying goal.
“(Rasmus) makes those plays all the time,” Mittelstadt said. “He makes it look easy, but people at home don’t know how hard it is. Hall made a nice play and I put it in the net.”
The score stayed that way for almost 25 minutes, when a brief defensive breakdown proved a little costly. Buffalo left Panarin alone on the left side, and he did not make a mistake. Make sure he’s on your personal list of players you need to see as often as possible.
Theirs for the taking
Once the game reached the third period, the flow of the contest still hadn’t changed. So it wasn’t a great surprise that there was a score for quite a while. What’s more, it was the Sabres who got that goal for the second straight game. It wasn’t as dramatic as the one late in the game on Thursday, but it was still helpful. Sam Reinhart helped create a turnover in the New York zone, and Kyle Okposo sort of shoveled the puck to a waiting Olofsson high in the slot. The winger fired the puck past Igor Shesterkin, who might have been screened a bit.
“I was ready for a while,” the winger said about his goal with 3:41 left. “I don’t know if he lost it, but he probably saw me waiting for a few seconds. Once I got it, I shot it.”
That 2-2 score held up for the rest of regulation and through a rather pedestrian, conservative overtime. We went to a shootout from there, and Ullmark has shown that he can play with anyone in that situation. He was perfect on three shots, Tage Thompson beat Shesterkin, and the Sabres were winners … again.
“I think he’s one of the best goalies in the world (in shootouts),” Olofsson said. “He’s so patient. It’s hard to go around him. You saw that today. It’s really hard to figure him out. We feel really confident.”
“The nicest feeling in all of that is that the players like playing for their teammates,” Granato said. “They work for the team. They have clarity in what they are supposed to be doing. That’s the feeling that you see. All the signs point toward it. It’s a great feeling as a coach – the enjoyment of watching the guys merges with the moment. They were excited to go out for their next shift.”
Now the Sabres face their next test on the slow road to respectability – a home-and-home series with the Devils, starting in New Jersey on Tuesday.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)