By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
“Who are these guys?”
The question came to me in the middle of the first period. The suddenly invincible Buffalo Sabres already had scored three goals in less than six minutes to almost run the Philadelphia Flyers out of the building. The Sabres skated into the opposing zone a couple of minutes later, and completed a perfectly unexpected pass to the trailing man on the rush. They didn’t score on the play, but they sure looked like they knew what they were doing.
Note: That last part is an observation that has not been heard around these parts in quite a while.
The Sabres went on to finish the first period with a 4-0 lead. The final 40 minutes weren’t quite academic, but they eventually recorded a 5-2 win over the Flyers for their seventh straight win. It is the team’s first seven-game win streak since Oct. 2006. That was before the midterm elections in George W. Bush’s second term.
Just for comparison’s sake, Buffalo had seven wins for its entire season on Dec. 10, 2017. And they entered Thanksgiving last year on a seven-game losing streak.
“It’s awesome,” Evan Rodrigues said about the turnaround. “The team is feeling confident. The work ethic and commitment are there. That’s why we’re successful.”
Pump up the volume
The sellout crowd – second of the season, first since the opener – wasn’t used to so much joy surrounding a hockey game, but it caught on quickly. The fans were ready well before the game, giving the Sabres a good-sized cheer when they took the ice for warmups.
“We were pumped up, and they were pumped up,” Jake McCabe said. “We fed right off them. It was awesome.”
Then the fans yelled when Buffalo came out for the start of the game, roared for each goal, and voiced approval for good defensive play. Jeff Skinner, Tage Thompson, Rodriguez and Johan Larsson had the goals, raising the decibel count along the way. The Sabres had been forced to rally for many of the wins, but this was a case of domination right from the opening faceoff.
“Our guys were really focused and on our toes,” coach Phil Housley said. “We shot the pucks off the rush, the power play scored a big goal. It was the start we were looking for, especially back home (after a three-game road trip) with a big crowd.”
From there, the Sabres could sit back a little bit. The Flyers finally found a little life, scoring two goals during the second period to make it a contest. Philadelphia had a few chances the rest of the way to close the margin, but the Sabres cleaned up their game enough to keep the fans relatively relaxed. Sam Reinhart ended the scoring with an empty-netter.
At the quarter pole
As everyone headed home after the game, the Sabres had plenty to be thankful about. Here are the obligatory highlights through the first quarter (plus a game) of the season.
The goaltending is better. Buffalo turned over both regular goalies this season, as Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson became Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark. It’s a little tough to compare the two sets of netminders, since defense plays a role in the numbers. But Hutton’s save percentage – the best indicator in such things – is .917. Ullmark’s figure is even better at .922. Lehner was .908, Johnson turned in an .891 number. (Figured used before Wednesday’s game.)
Hutton has had good numbers throughout his career, but never seemed to be in the right place at the right time for some reason. He was given a shot at a regular job and has capitalized on it. Hutton even has won two shootouts, which represents a welcome change from 2017-18’s problems in that department.
The team is faster. Last season, teams like Toronto and Winnipeg were clearly too fast for the Sabres. Buffalo spent games waving at opposing players as they skated by for scoring opportunities. An NHL scout says Jack Eichel and Evander Kane were about the only forwards who were capable of keeping up with that sort of attack, and Kane of course had some other issues.
You’d have to think Rasmus Dahlin has helped a bit in that department too. He’s a good skater who can supply some quality time on defense. That must have lessened the burden on everyone else a bit.
The roster changes have helped. It’s a quicker group overall, more in tune with the way the game is played now. You wouldn’t rank them with the fastest teams in the league, but there is an improvement.
Welcome, Mr. Skinner: Eichel and Skinner needed a little time to play on the same line, but when they clicked when they did get together. Skinner scored his 15th goal of the season , one of the best totals in the league.
There’s talk around town about throwing a few zillion dollars at Skinner to keep him around. You don’t want to do that for someone who has had a great first quarter of the season, but who has never been above 63 points in a season. Still, the price of keeping him here has been rising steadily since mid-October, and it will be fascinating to see how the Sabres and Skinner engage in this particular dance of negotiation.
That’s for the future, though. The Sabres and their fans are busy enjoying the present. Both groups are hoping for more fun on Friday when the Canadiens come in for a rare 4 p.m. start.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB).