By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Back on opening night on January 14 – two weeks and two days ago – it was easy to guess that it would take a while for the Buffalo Sabres to settle in a bit after a long layoff followed by a short training camp.
Now nine games into the season, it’s easy to jump to a few conclusions about this year’s team.
Saturday afternoon’s 4-3 shootout win over New Jersey win puts Buffalo at 4-3-2 through nine games. The Sabres have earned points in the standings in their last five games (3-0-2), and they are in the middle of the pack in their division. They are looking up at such teams as Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, but that probably was to be expected.
There has been plenty of good news in the first nine games. Up front, Victor Olofsson – who seemed to be a little forgotten entering the season – leads the team in goals. That sort of play is going to keep him in our collective memory. Sam Reinhart has started well, Taylor Hall has been fine, Tobias Rieder and Eric Staal have looked like good additions. At the other end of the ice, Linus Ullmark has overcome a shortened training camp and a personal tragedy to look like a No. 1 goalie for the past few games.
On the minus side, Jeff Skinner and his zero goals remains something of a puzzle, even if he did perk up a bit on Saturday. Tage Thompson went from training camp sensation to healthy scratch rather quickly. Rasmus Dahlin is a minus-7, worst on the team, and still looks like a work in progress – which, like any young defender, he is. Perhaps another solid regular defenseman would be a nice addition.
It’s a mixed bag, like it always is. Still, the players have settled into certain roles, and that stability has helped. Sure, the odd injury can change the exact lineup from game to game, but coach Ralph Krueger has identified who should be where, and it has paid some dividends.
Another close one
Saturday afternoon’s game was a good example of all of that. It wasn’t exactly a game that will be used as an instructional video, but it was rather hard-fought and needed 65 minutes plus to determine a winner. It feels like there’s going to be a lot of that this season, partly based on the fact that Buffalo has played five straight one-goal games.
“More than anything, it’s learning to embrace tight games,” Krueger said about what the Sabres are learning this season. “This division is going to be like that for 56 games. It’s a challenge every single night. New Jersey is a much improved team from last season. Definitely, the character in the room, the calmness – we’re much, much calmer. The language is good. I’ve told you that we’ve had adversity early. We understanding that it will be like this every day.”
The game took a while to heat up. The biggest highlight of the first period was when the Sabres were two men down for a full two minutes thanks to a twin penalty call. New Jersey held the puck in the zone for almost the entire two minutes, but never got a shot on goal in that span. Full credit goes to the disciplined work of Curtis Lazar, Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe for forcing the Devils to endless work the puck around the perimeter in a future effort to find a scoring opportunity.
“It was perfectly positioned,” Krueger said. “If you look at how Lazar, Risto and McCabe took shots away and read movement. That was a textbook three-on-five. They had good movement, they were on the edge of opportunity, but we only gave up one scoring chance. We haven’t had one of those in my time here. Linus was well positioned. He didn’t overcommit. For all the hockey coaches that are out there, that’s one you want to show your coach.”
The game started to pick up in the second period. Staal scored his third of the season, as he filled the middle like a basketball trailer on a fast break. He says he feels better with each game.
“Definitely the confidence is continuing to grow and getting better every game,” the veteran said. “I think the body has felt good. Today was one of the best games as far as I’ve felt. A guy like Taylor Hall draws attention to him. You just have to get in the right spots and help out as much as you can. We cashed in with one, and could have had a couple of others. Whoever I’m out there with, I’ll try to do my best and contribute.”
New Jersey rebounded to take a 2-1 lead by early in the third period. Rieder put Buffalo back in a tie with 17:42 left in regulation. Then with 9:04 left, Olofsson put the Sabres up, 3-2, when he took advantage of a big Ristolainen screen to score from the right side as New Jersey’s Scott Wedgewood almost disappeared from view.
“That’s basically it,” Olofsson said about using the screen. “He’s so big, and is right in front of the goalkeeper. We don’t want him to see the puck when I’m shooting.”
That’s the way it stayed through rest of the third period and into overtime. Ullmark stopped all three Devils’ attempts in the shootout, so that Eichel’s sole converted shot was enough for the win. You need to win some games when you aren’t quite at your best, and this one qualified.
“Not every game can be perfect,” Rieder said. “Absolutely there will be games where you don’t play to your ability. When you get points in those games, it’s great.”
The same two teams square off again Sunday afternoon at 1 at the KeyBank Center.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)