By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The Buffalo Sabres are on a winning streak. And the arrow describing their fortunes is pointing upward again.
The Sabres made it two wins in a row on Tuesday night, a 5-2 victory over the St. Louis Blues – usually called the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues – before 16,521 in the KeyBank Center. Yes, two straight wins aren’t going to put the league on notice that the Sabres are a contender, but it’s a moment of progress. After all, Buffalo hadn’t put together a winning streak taking three straight in mid-October.
First was a win in Edmonton on Sunday. Now came a victory over St. Louis with some good-sized travel in-between.
“Those were two division leaders with completely different styles,” coach Ralph Krueger said. “We went from the attacking style of Edmonton to the physicality of St. Louis. I like the way we adjusted in those two games.”
A modest turnaround
The NHL’s point system – which features a gain in the standings even with a loss in extra time – gives the outsider a chance to look at things in a couple of different ways, and it’s all true. Buffalo has picked up a point in seven of its last eight games, which is quite good. On the other hand, the Sabres have won four and lost four in that stretch. That’s not brilliant, but it’s much better than the 1-7-1 stretch that preceded it.
“It’s nice,” Johan Larsson said about the current stretch. “It’s a mindset. Every day we’re coming to work. It’s different. It’s still early, and we have things to work on, but it’s coming together.”
If you are looking for heroes from Tuesday’s game, one of the usual suspects and one mystery guest stepped up. The surprise is Larsson, who in one span this season had one point in 12 games. Now he’s put up points in four of his last five games.
The center had a big goal in this game. With the score tied, 1-1, and the second period headed toward expiration, Larsson was in the right place at the right time. A shot from the right side missed the goal, but bounced off the board on the other side of the net … where Larsson was waiting. It was an easy tap-in for a goal.
“I’m really happy for him,” Zemgus Girgensons said about Larsson. “He’s been working hard all these years and he deserves it.”
St. Louis re-tied the game early in the third period, but a few minutes later Jack Eichel did his best impression of Wayne Gretzky. He held the puck behind the St. Louis net – an area Gretzky used to call his office – and waited. The Blues’ defensemen became preoccupied with cutting off potential targets for passes. That let Eichel walk out in front of the net for an unobstructed shot, and Buffalo had the lead for good.
“Behind the net, you’re not going to score from there,” Eichel said. “I think they tried to take my options away. I went to move out a little bit, and all of a sudden I’m in front of the net. Then I’m just trying to find the back of the net.”
No rest by the defense
That play also extended Eichel’s point streak to 14 games. From there, the Sabres went about the business of defending that lead over the last 14 minutes or so, and did so superbly.
“They never let up under pressure,” Krueger said about his team. “The mental strength we showing, giving up the 1-0 lead and the 2-1 lead and then bouncing back right back to take the 3-2 lead and how we managed it – it was the best management of a lead this season by far. The patience and resilience we showed was needed because they kept coming in waves. It’s the type of game we haven’t seen this year from anybody, and the group reacted quickly and adjusted to it well. I’m really played about that.”
Buffalo even added the frosting when the Blues pulled goalie Jake Allen. Girgensons picked up an empty-net goal, and so did Eichel – his 20th of the season.
Here’s one more thing to look at. Despite all of their problems before this turnaround, the Sabres are in second place in the Atlantic Division at this point. They are looking down at teams such as the Maple Leafs and Lightning. After 32 games, it’s a nice view.
“They’re keeping it really simple,” Krueger said. “How much have we spoken about small picture, constant improvement? That’s a real simple process, but to get there on a daily basis in this league is difficult. You can feel the guys in that space believing in what we’re doing here together, and they’re working very hard for it. I felt we had more energy after coming back from the West than they did down the stretch. That’s a sign of the work that these guys are doing to prepare for those challenges.”
The next challenge comes Thursday, when Nashville comes to town.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)