By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
There was a little too much drama going on at the KeyBank Center on Thursday night for the Buffalo Sabres’ tastes.
During the game, the Sabres found themselves constantly digging out of holes that they had dug for themselves with poor defensive play. It ultimately resulted in an overtime loss to the Hurricanes. And then after the game, some oddly words answers to the media’s questions led to a Friday filled with apologies and explanations.
What was needed on Saturday afternoon, then, was not just a victory. Any win that kept the people with the heart resuscitators in the KeyBank Center unoccupied was sought as well.
The Sabres delivered with a 3-1 victory before a sellout crowd over the Detroit Red Wings. The team improved to 2-1-1 as it reached the midpoint of this seven-game homestand .
“I thought we did a good job in our defensive zone,” Kyle Okposo said. “We gave up a few too many rush chances, but we it was a better defensive effort overall.”
“The guys responded really well,” coach Phil Housley said. “The guys did a much better job in front of our net. When they did get to the interior, guys tied them up. We’d box them and give Linus a good line of sight at the puck. That’s a team that makes a lot of little plays around the net. So it was a big improvement from the last game.”
For a period or so, it looked as if the Sabres’ quest for calm had gone a little too far. They only put up four shots in a scoreless first period, although it seemed like Buffalo’s best scoring chances simply went wide as opposed to the way Detroit put its opportunities on goal. Still, it felt like one of those games that the first goal would be an important one. And the Sabres got it. Conor Sheary cut across the middle and used a Red Wings defenseman as a screen to put something up on the scoreboard.
Buffalo’s power play provided a storyline for the rest of the second period. Casey Mittelstadt took a long, hard pass from Jack Eichel, and scored from the right side. The Sabres have had stretches where their attack with the extra man hasn’t been good, but it’s been playing better so far this month.
“I think it’s a mix of everything,” Mittelstadt said. “We’ve moving the puck really well. We’re taking shots when we can, getting the puck back. Before my goal, they had a chance to get it out three or four times, but we had guys there (to stop it).”
By the way, the public-address announcer said after the rookie’s goal, “Mittelstadt from Eichel and Dahlin.” If you want to describe the Sabres’ future in a sentence fragment, that’s a good starting point.
Detroit’s Dylan Larkin got one of those back on a nifty wraparound goal, but Okposo struck with only 31 seconds left in the period. It felt like a huge goal at the time, and it was.
“It’s nice to get a two-goal lead going into the third,” he said. “It enables you to play a little bit. You just hammer your structure in the third period. You’re not taking any chances. You’re just trying to lock the game down, and we were able to do that.”
Killing their hopes
That’s not to say there weren’t some nervous moments in the third period, because there were. That was particular true as the Sabres had to kill off a couple of penalties in the final eight minutes. It wasn’t a stress-free finish, but the edges of seats generally weren’t needed.
“The penalty-killers did a great job in the third,” Housley said. “Guys were laying out on the ice. That’s winning hockey.”
It also made for an easier game for goalie Linus Ullmark, who went from fighting gridlock around his crease Thursday to having clear views of the scenery on Saturday.
“The biggest part was that (the defense) took away the far side,” Ullmark said. “I was able to stick to the short-side look. It’s a lot easier to play if you only have to worry about one side.”
One incidental fact from this one – the win over the Red Wings means the Sabres moved a step closer to ending a rather dubious if obscure streak. Buffalo has not finished with more points in the standings than Detroit since 1990. Both teams finished with 113 in 2007. We’d have to do some research to see if that’s a league record, but you’d think it might be close. The Sabres moved 12 points ahead of the Red Wings with the win.
But Buffalo has more immediate problems directly ahead of it. The Sabres play yet another afternoon game on Sunday against Winnipeg, which last year in this building put on a performance worthy of an Academy Award in skating the Sabres into the ground. The same effort and then some will be needed to prevent the Jets from an encore performance this time.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB.)