By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.
It’s almost as if Jack Eichel and the Buffalo Sabres are clicking their ruby slippers, er, skates together when they take to the ice at the KeyBank Center.
The latest example came on Tuesday night. The Sabres picked up their fifth straight win on home ice, defeating the San Jose Sharks, 4-3 in overtime, before 15,876. You don’t have to be a Wizard to figure out that winning percentage.
“It’s nice to get off to a good start at home,” Jeff Skinner said. “But we still have a long way to go, with things that we have to work on.”
Still, the five home wins to open the season sent the history majors scurrying to the record books. Buffalo hasn’t had such success on its own ice since 1984-85. Yet there’s a big difference between that team and this edition. In the fall of 1984, the Sabres were only 5-4-0 after their fifth straight home win. This time, they improved to 8-1-1.
This sort of statistic can be a very good omen. Let’s look at some ancient history – the 1972-73 season. The Sabres were just terrible this season before that, but they came out and established that they would be tough at home. In fact, they didn’t lose their first home game until January 3 against the New York Islanders. By that time the team was 10 games above .500, and looking like a team that would compete for a playoff spot – which it did. If you win most of your home games and show up most of the time on the road, you have a chance to make some regular-season noise. That’s what the Sabres have done, at least through 10 games.
And speaking of someone with a home-ice advantage, Eichel is playing like someone ready to do advertisements for the Chamber of Commerce for the advantages of staying in Western New York at all times. He has one goal and no assists on the road this season, but he quadrupled that point total on Tuesday night alone. It’s hard to improve on two goals and two assists when your team scores four goals for the night.
“I think in the two games on the West Coast, I was trying to force things a little too much,” Eichel said. “I’m at my best when I move my feet, putting the other team on their heels. (Victor Olofsson and Sam Reinhart) put pressure on their D whether we had the puck or not. Our zone time was down the last couple of games, and tonight we were able to find it. It’s good to be able to contribute. We’ve had so many contributions from so many guys so far. It speaks to the work the guys have put in so far.”
Skinner had a good view of the play of Eichel, who has 13 points at home this season.
“Obviously he’s a dominant player,” he said. “He can take over games. That’s why who he is – he can make big plays in big moments.”
This was a slightly strange night in that sometimes the flow of play wasn’t represented on the scoreboard. In the first period, for example, the Sabres had a clear edge in the game but still gave up the only two goals of the opening 20 minutes. That can be discouraging, but not this time.
“The night underlines the point that points are hard to come by,” Sabres coach Ralph Krueger said. “Down 0-2, it would have been easy to pack it up. This group didn’t want that to happen.”
Eichel got one back with a power-play score in the second period, and Reinhart followed in the final minute of the period with a fine tip of heavy shot from Rasmus Ristolainen. And Skinner put one home in the first minute of the third period to give the Sabres their first lead, it looked as if the Sabres would have clear sailing.
Sharks bite back
San Jose had other ideas. The Sharks had a good edge in shots in the final 20 minutes, and Erik Karlsson showed why he’s won some NHL hardware with a nifty pinch from the right point.
It was on to overtime, where the Sabres came up with a winning strategy: They didn’t let the Sharks have the puck – a handful of seconds at most during the three minutes and 13 seconds of extra time. It was a little like watching a game of keepaway, but it worked when Eichel jammed the puck home in a goalmouth scrum.
“It’s tough for them when you don’t give up the puck,” Eichel said. “We did a great job of possessing it and not giving it up at all. Make them defend is the best way to prevent them from making plays.”
Just when the Sabres have shown that their home-ice play didn’t rust away during a road trip to California, they have to get back on the plane again. Buffalo will be in New York to play the Rangers on Thursday and in Detroit on Friday. And no matter where the game is played, Buffalo wanted to keep doing what it’s been doing.
“Ralph has brought us a lot of confidence and a system,” Ristolainen said. “That’s what we have played. We see it’s working. We work hard both ways.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)