By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
This was not just another midwinter hockey game at the KeyBank Center on Tuesday night.
The Buffalo Sabres had lost six of their last eight games, including a somewhat embarrassing loss to Chicago on Friday night. Before this game, coach Phil Housley pulled the equivalent of the baseball trick of pulling the batting order out of a hat, changing all of the lines and defensive combinations.
In other words, the Sabres had a good-sized sense of urgency for the contest with Minnesota Wild. And it was with some degree of relief and joy that they came away with a 5-4 shootout win before 16,847.
“It was huge, especially with the homestand we’re on,” Evan Rodrigues said. “It wasn’t the start we wanted against Chicago, not even close. It wasn’t pretty today, but we found a way to get a W.”
This one had all sorts of twists along the way, which made it an entertaining night for those whose jobs weren’t affected by the outcome. The game ultimately came down to the final round of the shootout. With the first two scorers on both sides failing to connect, Sam Reinhart led off the “top of the third” with a shot that just dribbled through Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk.
“I had no idea (the puck went it),” Reinhart said. “I was turning up the ice after the shot and heard the crowd roar. It was nice to hear.”
Then Linus Ullmark stopped Zach Parise on the final shootout attempt of the night, and the Sabres had their much-needed victory.
Behind the lines
Much of the talk during the preceding 36 hours was about the lines. This gave us all something to talk about before the game, since little news usually comes out of practices and everyone in the media has to tweet something out each day. (Been there, done that.) But the reality is most of these guys are used to playing with more than a couple of teammates, as combinations get scrambled by power plays, injuries, etc. during the course of a game.
In other words, it usually comes down to execution … and goaltending.
The Sabres looked to be in pretty good shape about halfway through this game, when they had a 3-1 lead. Rodrigues, newly recalled C.J. Smith, and Rasmus Dahlin had goals – with the first and last scores coming on the power play.
“When you have a 3-1 lead, it’s time to lock it down,” Housley said. “You have to keep it simple. Guys were beating us back up the ice.”
Sure enough, the Wild had 19 shots in the second period, and three of them went in – two by Jared Spurgeon, one by Charlie Coyle. That set up a tense third period, which became a little more relaxed when Jake McCabe set up Reinhart with a fabulous pass for a tap-in goal.
“It was definitely him seeing the lane,” Reinhart said about his defenseman. “He got the pass by a couple of guys.”
Not quite done
That could have been the winner, or it could have been over when the Sabres killed off a penalty with about five minutes left. But Parise figured out a way to score with 1:37 left on a goalmouth scramble, and we headed to bonus hockey.
It was actually fitting that Ullmark made the game’s final play to wrap up the victory. He finished with 41 saves on 45 shots. That’s at least four goals allowed in seven of the last night Buffalo games, but no one was complaining about goaltending after this game. For a guy that allowed four goals, Ullmark was outstanding.
“Some of the saves he made were incredible,” Smith said. “He’s the main reason we won. He made some really good saves, some timely saves.”
The conversation might have looked a little different if the result in the shootout had gone the other way. But it didn’t, and the Sabres hope this result gives them a little momentum going into the rest of the homestand – starting Thursday against Carolina.
“Hopefully we can string a few together here,” Rodrigues said.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)