By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Sometimes a good start in the NHL is just a good start, quickly forgotten about once the baseball playoffs are over and the NFL schedule begins to turn serious.
Sometimes, though, it can carry a little extra meaning. And that could be the case with the Buffalo Sabres right now.
The Sabres improved to 4-0-1 on the very, very young season with a 3-2 shootout win over the Florida Panthers on Friday night. Certainly we have learned that a good-sized winning streak may not be worth a whole lot in the grand scheme of things. You might remember a certain team won 10 in a row last season, and still didn’t come too close to reaching the playoffs.
Still, there is something to be said for the power of positive reinforcement, and that’s what should be going on in the Sabres’ locker room right now.
This was a team that figured to be a little shell-shocked entering this season after its historic collapse earlier in 2019. A new coaching staff greeted the team for training camp, a team that had gone through the usual personnel moves. It’s easy to talk about the value of a fresh start and all that, but no one knows what might happen when the puck is dropped for real.
So here we are, five games in, and all systems are go. The games haven’t been artistic at times, with plenty of mistakes on display to give the coaches something to teach between games. But maybe everyone might be listening a little closer after points in five straight games than after five straight defeats.
The Bills are 4-1 as well, as they have taken advantage of a somewhat weak schedule to give themselves a chance at the postseason. The difference between a 16-game schedule and an 82-game season is obvious, but you’d have to nod at the way things have gone so far for both teams. No one is talking championship, but progress – especially around here – is nice to notice for a change.
As for the game …
For a while it looked as if the Sabres and Panthers were going to have a fruitless night scoring goals. Scoring opportunities weren’t that hard to come by thanks to some breakdowns, but the players would either misfire or the goalies would somehow keep the puck out of the net. Sergei Bobrovsky of the Panthers (30 saves) and Linus Ullmark of the Sabres (41 saves) were both very sharp.
“There were unbelievable chances on both sides,” coach Ralph Krueger said. “The goaltending on both sides was outstanding.”
The double shutout finally was broken by Johan Larsson, the center on what we used to call the team’s Fourth Line but – since Krueger doesn’t number his lines – should be called The Energy Line or something similar. Larsson filled up a lane on the left wing, and converted a fine pass from Kyle Okposo. Buffalo’s center almost doubled up his goal total in the final few seconds of the second period, but missed a tap-in shortly before the buzzer.
Still, there was no letdown at the start of the third period. Okposo had another primary assist on a similar play – he found Marco Scandella cheating from the point to get an open shot and a goal. If Phil Housley gets to see the play at some point soon, no doubt he’ll be smiling. Zemgus Girgensons is the other member of the Energy Line, which clearly was the team’s most effective combination on this night. Even the bench was letting out big cheers when the trio was rewarded for its effort with goals.
“I think we’re working,” Okposo said about his line’s success so far. “All three of us hunt pucks. If you get on the forecheck, you go hard and the others support you. When you have three guys committing to pressure, something happens. I played with them last year, and we have a little bit of chemistry.”
Even so, we learned last season that the Sabres almost never do things the easy way. Sure enough, the Panthers rebounded and took charge of the game for large portions of the third period. Evgenii Dadonov used his speed to burst through the Buffalo defense to pick up Florida’s first goal. The Sabres kept them off the scoreboard for more than 13 minutes … only to see Mike Hoffman tied it up with about 10 seconds left in regulation.
“I should have had that,” Ullmark said. “With 10 seconds left, everyone is going to try to block it. It’s my job to stop the puck.”
“They changed the momentum,” Okposo said. “We’ve got to find a way to finish it in regulation. We had a drop in the third period.”
Ullmark and Bobrovsky both somehow kept the puck out of the net in overtime, which brought matters to a shootout. Casey Mittelstadt’s goal wrapped that up, and the fans went home happy – something they’ve done a lot this week.
“We’ve tried to establish ourselves at home,” Krueger said. “We want to make it tough for other teams to come in here and win.”
Dallas will try its luck in that area on Monday afternoon, when the Sabres conclude their homestand before heading West for three games.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)
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