By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Who are these guys anyway?
These aren’t the Buffalo Sabres who staggered through the second half of last season in an epic collapse. These Buffalo Sabres are off to their best start in 11 years (also 5-0-1 in 2008-09) and catching the eye of the rest of the National Hockey League.
The latest example of the team’s turnaround came Monday afternoon, when they defeated the Dallas Stars, 4-0, in the KeyBank Center. That improved Buffalo’s record to 5-0-1, and it was quite an impressive day’s work.
“This was our best performance of the season, from start to finish,” coach Ralph Krueger said.
What’s going right here? Well, lots of things.
Goaltending and defense
Start at the back end. Carter Hutton had his first shutout as a Sabre on Monday, stopping 25 shots. It was his first shutout since Feb. 3, 2018 against … yup, the Buffalo Sabres, when he played with the St. Louis Blues.
“As long as we win it, it doesn’t matter how,” Hutton said. “This was a heck of a team effort. I only had three or four tough saves.”
Hutton improved his save percentage to .931 for the season. That’s very impressive, but it’s only tied for the team lead. Linus Ullmark also is at .931 in that particular statistic. If you stop 93.1 percent of the other teams’ shots, you are going to win some games.
“They are a great duo,” Krueger said about his goaltending. “They both work hard. Whoever is called is ready. We need a duo like that in this league.”
The defense deserves some credit for that team save percentage, even if the goalies get all the glory. Opponents haven’t been getting that many quality shots so far in the young season, and that has helped.
Powerful power play
It sure didn’t take long for Victor Olofsson to set an NHL record. The rookie struck yet again on the power play, his fifth goal of the season – and all with the man advantage. That means Olofsson is the first player in league history to score his first seven career goals on the power play.
Jack Eichel obviously has been making the special-teams unit go, as his passing has been superb so far. But someone still has to put the puck in the net, and Olofsson has been doing that. Add it up, and that’s why the Sabres went into the game with the top power play in the league (42.1 percent). It was 1 for 4 on Monday.
“I’m just trying to keep it on goal, and not think about anything different,” Olofsson said. “Just firing it.”
“He (Olofsson) uses a whippy stick,” Hutton said. “It’s hard to follow the flight of the puck. It’s hard to stop in practice, so I can’t imagine what it’s like to face in traffic. He’s a pure goal-scorer.”
You might expect someone like Jeff Skinner to see his offensive production drop when Eichel is not his center, but he scored his fourth goal of the season on Monday. He probably didn’t think Johansson would be his center at this point, or that Vladimir Sobotka would be the right winger. But there they are.
Krueger obviously came in with few preconceptions about the lineup, putting combinations together due to what’s earned on the ice. If he hadn’t approached it that way, Sobotka might be playing in the Kontinental Hockey League. But here he is, and he even had an assist on Skinner’s goal.
“Sobotka doesn’t get enough credit,” Krueger said. “He allows Johansson and Skinner to take some chances. He even won a couple of big draws. I’m glad he got an assist tonight. I hope that will give him confidence.”
But in other games, the Johan Larsson line has been a spark plug, while the trio of Eichel, Olofsson and Sam Reinhart has had plenty of good moments. The latter turned in a strong day playing five-on-five hockey.
The Sabres also may be learning from their mistakes. They let a couple of two-goal leads get away in the third period last week. This time they shut the door nicely, in spite of only getting three shots in the third period. Of course, they scored on two of them – which helps.
“We kept playing tonight,” Olofsson said. “We didn’t pull back at all. We played a simple game.”
The Sabres haven’t played a tough schedule so far. Pittsburgh is the only team of the six opponents to have more wins than losses at this point. Even so, Buffalo has done what it needed to do to be successful. It’s too early to get carried away by this, but it’s not too early to be impressed by the early returns.
“Anytime you get off to a good start and get results, confidence comes with that,” Skinner said. “You have to keep working, and use the confidence in a positive way. We still have things to work on, things we want to improve. Getting off to a good start is nice. Now we have to keep at it.”
The Sabres play three straight on the West Coast this week, starting with Anaheim on Wednesday night. Krueger will be surprised if the team takes a step backwards.
“They are working really hard,” Krueger said. “This is not luck.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)
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