By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
It’s almost difficult to fathom that one weekend in February can make a difference in a team’s outlook in the midst of a six-month season.
Yet, that’s exactly where the Buffalo Sabres stand on this particular Sunday night.
The Sabres completed their biggest weekend of the hockey year by beating the Winnipeg Jets, 2-1, in the KeyBank Center on Sunday afternoon. Buffalo backed up its impressive effort in Pittsburgh on Saturday afternoon – a 5-2 victory – with another solid effort a little more than 24 hours later.
Just like that, the Sabres are only six points behind Toronto in the race for the third playoff spot in the Atlantic Division. And it should be mentioned that those same Maple Leafs, who have been rather schizophrenic throughout the season, lost on Saturday to a Carolina team that used a 42-year-old emergency goalie when its other two netminders were hurt in the contest. We can only guess how Toronto might react to the ramifications of losing to a guy best known for driving a Zamboni.
The big picture can wait for a moment, as Sunday’s game deserves a review of its own. It’s the story of two players – a veteran and a rookie – coming up large at the right time, but also the story of a team effort when it was needed.
Doubling his pleasure
The veteran is Kyle Okposo, who scored both of Buffalo’s goals in the win. The right winger has had points in his last four games, looking like the player the Sabres hoped they were getting when they signed him as a free agent in 2016. For a number of reasons, Okposo hasn’t been able to reach the scoring levels he set while with the New York Islanders. But he’s contributing in a variety of ways now and enjoying the ride.
“I feel good,” Okposo said. “It’s fun playing with those two guys most of the year (Johan Larsson and Zemgus Girgensons). They do a lot of the work, and we’ve had offensive chemistry as of late. I just can’t give enough of the credit to those two guys.”
“Kyle has been an unbelievable leader,” coach Ralph Krueger added. “He’s supplied the support system that Jack (Eichel) needs. He had success tonight after going down in the first period tonight with pain. He’s played against the opponent’s best lines. They’ve given us defensive stability and chipped in offense. They are playing the right way. It’s a special day for them.”
The game also was a triumph for goalie Jonas Johansson, in more ways than one. The rookie earned his first victory in the NHL, and deserved it with a solid performance for all 60 minutes. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t relieved when time had expired.
“It was a great feeling,” Johansson said. “The last period went by pretty slow, but it was nice to hear the buzzer go off for sure.”
The rookie had not played in a game since an overtime loss against Anaheim two weeks ago. Johansson looked ready throughout the game, keeping the Jets off the scoreboard for the most part. He credited his work during those 14 days for his play this time.
“You’re just trying to have an extra focus in practice when you aren’t playing much,” Johansson said. “You stay sharp, work on details, and stay ready when the opportunity shows.”
Closing the door
Perhaps most importantly, Johansson had plenty of help when it matters. Once Buffalo pulled ahead with 12:13 left in the third period, it more or less closed the door to any Winnipeg hopes of tying the contest down the stretch.
“That was really an excellent finish,” Krueger said. “It’s something we’ve seen in spots during the season. If you look at the power they have in their forward group, the way we were able to shut them down – they didn’t have one scoring chance for the last 9:45. I’m really proud of the way the guys managed that and stayed together. We stayed on our toes. It was a great effort to take those points home.”
The Sabres have won five games out of six for the first time since October. They are four games under the breakeven mark (29 wins, 33 overall losses with 66 points) for the first time since Jan. 16, and are in the midst of a four-team logjam with Toronto (72 points) , Florida (70) and Montreal (66) for the third playoff spot in the division.
In other words, the Sabres have the opportunity to get in the playoff discussion if they continue to play well.
“That’s what we’ve been talking about for years,” Jake McCabe said. “Now we’ve got our wish. It’s time to step up to the plate.”
Yet, this is where it gets complicated – because the trading deadline arrives Monday afternoon. Buffalo can’t be considered a favorite to reach the postseason this year, in part because of a schedule that picks up in difficulty from here (12 out of 20 on the road, starting Wednesday in Colorado). The temptation for general manager Jason Botterill to give up a bit of the team’s future before the deadline for a piece that might help the team right now is greater than it was, say, Friday. A playoff run, even if ultimately unsuccessful, would energize the franchise and its fans, and perhaps serve as a springboard for next season.
But how big a piece? And for what? It’s a delicate situation – and it may define Botterill’s future here, even if there is so much out of his control. At the least, though, having a whiff of the postseason is better than playing and watching six weeks of irrelevant hockey.
“I think we made their jobs a bit more difficult, and that’s what we wanted to do,” Okposo said about management’s task through Monday afternoon.
That they did.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)