By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
It might be time to reevaluate what the immediate future of the Buffalo Sabres looks like.
The last few years have taught us not to be too hopeful about what this team will do in the long term, because they’ve always found a way to be disappointing. Even this season, after a great start, Buffalo went completely in the other direction for a while.
But the Sabres have reversed course again. They defeated the Nashville Predators, 4-3 before 17,211 in the KeyBank Center on Thursday night. That’s three straight wins for Buffalo, and it has been against three good teams in Edmonton, St. Louis and Nashville.
It’s not just the wins, though, that can change minds. It’s the way they have come.
You might be able to write off the Oilers’ game, because outcomes in overtime contests are essentially a coin flip. But against the Blues and Predators, Buffalo had a third period lead, and didn’t give its opponent much of a sniff at coming back down the stretch. That’s what good teams do – step on their opponents and don’t let them up.
“Coming off the St. Louis game, which was one of the biggest lessons for us in how to manage the game, we had a similar time frame against an outstanding hockey team,” coach Ralph Krueger said. ”Nashville never gave up, never stopped pushing. They are so dangerous offensively. I thought the guys did an excellent job of defending down the stretch. We battled hard, lots of shot-layings, lots of one-on-ones on the boards. It was just an outstanding hockey game all around, and we’re really pleased with that result.”
Back to the Eighties
It was Aud Night, something of a salute to a dear departed building and some of the players who performed there in the 1980s. The building was decked out in colored t-shirts for the fans that made the KeyBank Center look like Memorial Auditorium. The image was so striking – gold by the ice, orange on top, red and blue in between – that it was almost a shame that people were allowed in the building to spoil the visual effect.
Then again, they had the chance to see a close, exciting game in which the home team comes out ahead. That’s the sort of picture that tells a thousand words, and it also is what we’ve been seeing quite often this season. Buffalo improved to 10-3-3 in the KeyBank Center with the win.
“We’re trying to identify our strengths as much as possible,” Jack Eichel said. “What makes us successful as a group is when we wear teams down in their zone, when we’re good in the neutral zone, and we take care of the puck. We’re a tough team to play against. That’s what we want to continue to do.”
The Sabres stuck to what’s been working on Thursday night. It starts with Eichel, who extended his point streak to 15 games as he put up two more goals. It’s the best run of his career to date, according to just about everyone including Eichel.
“I’d have to say so,” he said. “When you get on a run like this and the team is playing well, I’m trying to do the little things every night. It’s rewarding. You try to take care of your end and be responsible, and good things happen. I’ve been fortunate. I’ve had some good bounces, some good breaks lately, and our team has been playing really well. You put those things together, and I’m the beneficiary of a lot of good hockey players.”
“The consistency he’s shown (has been terrific), and it’s a lot more than his play on the ice,” Sam Reinhart said. “The leadership he’s shown on the ice – it’s everything he’s putting into it. He’s been a heck of a player. He’s coming up huge for us.”
The crunch line
Then there’s the matter of the line of Johan Larsson, Zemgus Girgensons and Kyle Okposo. They had a rare night as of late without putting their names on the scoresheet, but their two-way game against opposing scorers continues to attract attention. The trio can change the momentum of a game with a single shift.
“They created so much,” Krueger said. “They pushed Nashville back into their end a few times. I remember that time in the second period where it happened, and Jack’s line came out after the faceoff and finished it off. Later right after we scored, they played against their top line and ground them back on their heels. The line has so much confidence right now, and it’s a lot of fun to watch.”
The finishing touch in terms of scoring on Thursday came off the stick of Victor Olofsson. He just missed a tip-in around the net in the third period and the score tied, 3-3. But instead of sulking, he went across the goalmouth to pick up the loose puck coming off the boards, and jammed it home for what turned out to be the game-winner. Good fortune often comes to those who pursue it, and that’s why Olofsson is one of the top rookie scorers in the NHL this season.
“I’ve got to bury the first one, but I was happy to get a second chance,” he said. “I got a pretty pass and had an almost wide-open net but kind of fanned on it. It was nice.”
After smoothly killing off the final 11 and one-half minutes, the Sabres found themselves almost back where they started. They check in at 16-11-6, so they will have the chance to level the wins and losses at 17 each when they play the Islanders in Long Island on Saturday.
What’s more, it’s another chance for a team that is starting to realize what it can do to show that fact to everyone else. The list of converts is starting to grow, particularly among fans who need to be convinced after years of poor hockey in this town.
“The St. Louis game took it to a new level,” Krueger said about the fans’ support. “Tonight, being down quick, it quieted down everyone for a few minutes but we surged back. Even after giving up the lead in the second period, you could feel the push from the fans and the belief in what we’re doing here. It’s just another level of support as we’re evolving. It’s confirmation not just from each other, but from your fan base. They like the game we’re playing. We want to stay on our toes, stay aggressive right through the game. We’ll continue to fight like this, continue to grow.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)