By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
If you want further evidence that this Buffalo Sabres’ team has little to do with last season’s Buffalo Sabres’ team, consider the postgame reaction after Tuesday’s 2-1 win over the powerful Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Sabres were worried about how they played in picking up their third straight victory.
“Our standards are higher this season,” Kyle Okposo said. “We have to play to our identity, and we’re a really good hockey team when we do that. We’re finding ways to win, guys are making plays, and that’s great. That’s a sign of a good team. But in saying that, we need to get back to playing our process.”
Last year’s Sabre team would have figured out a way to lose most of those games.
This was one of those nights at the KeyBank Center where the game more or less resembled a slightly fluky baseball game. Sometimes a team will hit the ball hard for nine innings, pile up a ton of hits, but leave 17 runners on base and lose by a 2-1 count. It happens, and it happened to the Lightning.
“It’s going to happen sometimes,” coach Phil Housley said. “That’s a good hockey team, and you have to play 60 minutes. We got away from some things. But it’s a credit to our team. In the last three games, we’ve found a way to win.”
Throw in the romp against Ottawa, and the Sabres moved to 10-6-2 for the season, which puts them at two games above the breakeven mark for wins and losses. That matches a season high for the team.
A good start, at least
It was an unusual night of hockey in several ways. Buffalo held off Tampa Bay’s initial rush and had the better of the play in the later stages of the first period. What’s more, Jeff Skinner scored his 13th goal of the season – remember, we’re not even through a quarter of the year – to give the Sabres the lead. Buffalo had the Lightning – one of this season’s Cup favorites – on the ropes a bit as the period came to an end.
Okposo added to the lead when he scored less than six minutes into the second period. But any hopes of an easy night disappeared only 15 seconds later. Anthony Cirelli scored for Tampa Bay on a breakaway, and the Lightning spent the rest of the period playing as if they were thoroughly enraged about falling behind to this team on this night.
“I think that’s been our problem,” goalie Carter Hutton said. “The full 60 minutes, we’ve had little blips in the game. You know they were going to come on.”
Yet, like a clever veteran of a starting pitcher, Hutton and the Sabres kept Tampa Bay off the scoreboard for the rest of the period. The shots were 14-2, and it felt more one-sided.
“He’s been locked in for us all season,” Housley said about Hutton. “He’s been standing tall for us.”
The Sabres regained some of their composure at the start of the third period. Still, the Lightning always seemed on the verge of scoring during the final 20 minutes. It was particularly true in the last couple of minutes, when Tampa Bay went with six attackers.
“That was mayhem,” Hutton said about the last few moments. “(Steven) Stamkos made a great play at the end with the fake shot. He walked to the middle and got it to (Nikita) Kucherov. I just battled. You never quit until the buzzer goes. They pressed us, but we did the job.”
The Sabre goal didn’t feel relief when the buzzer sounded. Just excitement.
“Those are the moments you embrace,” he said. “It’s like scoring a goal for the other guys. You get to show what you are made of. It was a free-for-all, and we came out at the right end of it.”
If you take a look at the standings, the Sabres are only three points behind the first-place Lightning in the entire Eastern Conference. That’s almost preposterous for a Buffalo team that finished last overall a year ago. Admittedly, the win-loss records in November offer few guarantees of future performance. But, it’s better to be ahead of schedule than to be hopelessly out of the playoff race as Thanksgiving approaches.
“It’s great,” Hutton said about the turnaround to date. “I think coming in, that was a big question. What’s new, what’s different? We’ve had a great culture and a great work ethic. Our older guys have done a great job of leading. We’re resilient. We’re finding a way to win hockey games. That’s what you need to do in this league to get better.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)