By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The most famous game between the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes took place on March 26, 2015. That was when the teams were around the bottom of the standings, with Connor McDavid the potential reward for winning the draft lottery. The game gave us the unlikely sight of seeing and hearing the Sabres’ fans in Buffalo cheer when the Coyotes scored the go-ahead goal in the third period.
Fast forward more than four years. Times have changed for the better, at least for now. Much has been made about the Sabres’ hot start that has put them at the top of the National Hockey League’s overall standings. Yet the Coyotes aren’t doing badly either. Their 3-2 shootout win over the Sabres before 15,358 in the KeyBank Center moved Arizona to 7-3-1 in the young season – right in the midst of a late October “battle” for first place in the Pacific Division (if such things are possible in late October).
It was Buffalo’s first home loss of the season, spoiling an attempt to tie a team record with six straight home wins to open the season.
“They worked hard. They played a good game,” said Buffalo’s Jack Eichel, the team’s consolation prize for finishing second in the lottery in 2015.
It’s a little tough to follow the Coyotes from Buffalo, since Phoenix isn’t exactly a hockey mecca and news about the team can be tough to find. Outside of Phil Kessel and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, the number of well-known names to most is rather limited. But the Coyotes couldn’t have played a better road game. The 44-26 margin in shots for the game was a sign of that.
They even overcame a couple of early obstacles presented by the Sabres in the form of two Buffalo goals. Eichel had a goal on a wrist shots only three seconds into a power play with the game’s first four minutes. Less than eight minutes later, Jeff Skinner converted a superb pass from Marcus Johansson that set him up on an open right side.
Yet the Sabres couldn’t hold that lead.
“We’ve been starting fast, but you don’t want to give up a 2-0 lead at home,” Eichel said.
“We had some good opportunities, but we could have had more,” Skinner added. “They like to transition, so they are good at clogging lanes and turning pucks over and feeding off that. For us, for whatever reason, we couldn’t consistently find a way to break through that.
The visitors’ comeback was part of an odd night for Sabres’ goalie Carter Hutton, who had a few saves that were candidates for grand larceny status. On the other hand, the pucks that entered the net weren’t exactly ready for highlight status on SportsCenter. Late in the first period, Conor Garland threw the puck from an odd angle, and it somehow landed in the net.
Then in second period, Carl Soderberg was applying a screen when the puck hit him, bounced up in the air, and fell in for the tying goal. When 20 minutes to go in regulation, you’d think the Sabres would have come out flying. But they didn’t getting, outshot by a 15-6 margin.
“We got off to a good start, things seemed to be going well, and then our energy level (left us) back on our heels,” Krueger said. “Compliments to Arizona – we knew they were going to be a hard-working team and come at us. They were relentless throughout the game. … Down the stretch they were the better team, and we were actually pleased to get it to overtime.”
The extra five minutes were a bit bizarre. Most of the NHL teams have stressed puck possession over everything else in overtime these days, which means frequently players skate around the rink as if it were an open skating session in Amherst. Then something happens, and a team has a breakaway or odd-man-rush or something. The Sabres had no shots on goal in OT, but hit two goalposts and Casey Mittelstadt’s attempt to bat a bouncing puck near an open net went off-target.
“It just bounced,” Mittelstadt said. “I hit it out of the air, and I didn’t see where it went.”
The teams went to the shootout, Nick Schmaltz (the Coyotes’ leading scorer, just for the record) beat Hutton, Darcy Kuemper stopped all three Buffalo shots, and Arizona had the win.
Thus ended Buffalo’s schedule for October. The Sabres ended up 9-3-1 for the season’s first month, and perhaps simply ran out of energy after 13 games in 24 days.
“We feel that way in the coaches’ room,” Krueger said. “It’s been quite a month. We’re pleased with what happened.
“But now we have two days of practice in a row. That’s rare in this league. Yahoo!”
The Sabres play in Washington on Friday before returning home on Saturday to host the Islanders.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)