By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The Buffalo Sabres may have reached the point where playing good defense has become a trend.
Just in time, too.
The Sabres and Islanders didn’t play the most exciting game of the season, but no one was complaining on the Buffalo side on Tuesday night. The Sabres came away with a 3-1 win before 16,894 in the KeyBank Center.
The score meant Buffalo has given up a total of five goals in the last three games. It wasn’t that long ago that five goals against wasn’t even a night’s work.
“We’ve put a real onus on it,” Kyle Okposo said about the emphasis on better defensive play. “(Against Carolina) we lost, 6-5, in overtime. That’s not good enough. You can’t give up six goals in this league, especially at home. That was a big wake-up call. If we’re going to make the playoffs, we have to be good defensively.”
“Any team is a good team when it plays well defensively, when it plays with structure,” Jason Pominville said. “You get away from it, you hand opportunities to them.”
The loss to the Hurricanes was part of a stretch in which the Sabres allowed 45 goals in 10 games. That wasn’t going to get anything done, and it appears that message has gotten through in the last few days.
“We’ve kept it simple from the start and played solid defense for all 60 minutes,” goalie Linus Ullmark said. “It’s basic – chip it in, chip it out.”
Ullmark sharp again
There are a couple of other elements involved in the equation. Good goaltending has to be present, and Ullmark has shown he has a short memory about the Carolina game by turning in good performances against the Red Wings on Saturday and the Islanders on Tuesday. Ullmark’s goals-against average is under 3.00, and he’s showing signs that he could become a No. 1 goalie in the NHL someday – even if making that declaration is still a good-sized amount of time away.
As for Tuesday, Ullmark came up with some big saves when the Islanders put on some of their best pressure in the game in the third period – including a breakaway – when the Sabres were hanging on to a one-goal lead.
“That’s very gratifying,” Ullmark said. “I’d rather have zero shots against and zero goals. When we do give up a breakaway, I obviously want to make the save.”
In addition, keeping the puck as far away as possible from the Buffalo goal – in other words, in the opposing end – traditionally is the best way to keep the goals-against down. The Sabres did a good job of that Tuesday in a game that didn’t feature a great many shots or, for that matter, a great many faceoffs.
“It’s good to clean it up,” Eichel said. “You just have to move it forward. … I think the more we feed off our forecheck and play in their end, and get pucks below their goal line, it’s a recipe for success and makes it easier on our defensemen.”
Eichel leads the attack
As for the offense, Eichel play a key role in the scoring even though he only finished with one shot on the night. On the first goal of the game, the center drew a faceoff in the Islanders’ zone back to Skinner, who beat ex-Sabre Robin Lehner.
Then after New York tied the score late in the first period, Eichel played a huge role in untying the game for good. His pass through traffic found Jason Pominville at the doorstep, as his linemate had gotten just far enough behind the New York defense to knock it in.
“Not many guys can make that type of play,” Pominville said. “I had to find a hole. But it also starts with defense, creating a turnover.”
Johan Larsson wrapped up the result with 2:25 left by scoring what must have been the shortest goal of his career – maybe less than six inches – after Okposo’s shot trickled past Lehner.
“When you look at the Islanders, they are a good checking team. You aren’t going to get a lot from there,” coach Phil Housley said. “I thought the guys did a terrific job. They stuck to our game.”
We’ve finally can see the end of the seven-game homestand, with the Rangers coming on Friday night. Buffalo has gone 3-2-1 in the first six contests. Another win would give the team nine out of a possible 14 points, even if the ride has been a little bumpy to get there.
“It’s probably been a bit inconsistent,” Eichel said. “We have a good test on Friday against a team that’s been playing really good hockey. The Rangers have beating some good teams, so it’s important for us to come out and have a really good effort on home ice to end this homestand.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)