By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
If the Buffalo Sabres are going to contend for a playoff spot this season, they will need to beat the teams that have similar aspirations on a regular basis in order to move up the ladder.
Tuesday’s 3-2 victory over the New York Rangers in the KeyBank Center certainly qualified. It was Buffalo’s second straight win and third consecutive game in which it earned a point. And if you are giving out game pucks to players, the guys on special teams should form a line to get their souvenir.
Let’s start with the power-play groupings, which was already hot after getting three goals in Sunday’s win in Washington. They added two more goals on Tuesday. One came from Dylan Cozens, who opened the scoring in the first period with a one-timer from the slot. The other turned out to be the game-winner from Jack Eichel, who broke a 2-2 tie late in the second period.
Power plays can be funny animals, in that they are often streaky. Teams can go on a run of a couple of goals per night for a while, and then go 1-for-February or something. However, it seems as if the Sabres’ roster has been constructed so that certain players are an obvious fit in man-advantage situations. That sounds simple enough, but it really hasn’t been the case here.
“We have two units firing right now,” Sabres coach Ralph Kruger said. “Very few teams have that kind of productivity from both units. That makes it hard to stop. We are moving the puck extremely well. We’re getting away from that stationary power play. We’re looking for movement and surprise.
“The second unit is showing that kind of danger and it shows the depth we have. Last year the second power-play unit was a gimme to the opposition. It certainly isn’t this year. Let’s keep that up. Special teams will be a difference-maker in this division.”
Cozens’ goal was his second of the season. For a rookie, he certainly hasn’t been out of place at either end of the ice in National Hockey League games.
“I think as the games have gone on, I’ve gotten more confidence with each game,” the former first-round draft choice said. “Each and every day I work to get better and improve.”
The Eichel goal was noteworthy not just because it was the game-winner. It was his first of the season, so it’s always a welcome sight to have a non-round number on the seasonal stat sheet. Six games without a goal at any point of the season is annoying, but it’s even more maddening when it happens right from the start.
“You loosen up a bit,” Eichel said about the effects of the goal. “Your stick feels a little looser. When you have a drought and deserve a better fate, it’s nice to see one get in. You want to capitalize on your opportunities. It’s been a long year for a lot of people (because of the Covid-19 break). It feels like we’re still getting our feet wet. It’s tough for people to take that long from playing the game. I think my game is getting better. I’m excited to see that.”
Cozens added, “We’ve all been there at some point in our career. We’re all super happy to see him put it the net.”
Sandwiched in-between those two goals was a score that was a result of good penalty-killing, even if it didn’t count as a short-handed goal. Tobias Rieder got behind the New York defense in the last few seconds, grabbed a loose puck, and scored on a breakaway early in the second period. It certainly took away any momentum the Rangers had carried into the period when they took the lead in the final seconds of the opening period.
“As soon as you clear the puck, I want to get up the ice and put pressure on them,” Rieder said. “I thought I could get in a footrace. It worked out pretty well. You have to read the situation, and sometimes it happens that you get a step ahead.”
If the Sabres had any complaints, it would be how the third period went. After a boring eight minutes or so, the Rangers had the better of the play for the rest of the game and finished with a 15-2 edge in shots. That’s not exactly a case of slamming the door on opponents. When Taylor Hall picked up a penalty with 1:37 left, Buffalo’s task became a bit tougher. But, the penalty-killers (including goalie Linus Ullmark) kept the score at 3-2 until the buzzer.
“The first penalty we took (with 12 minutes left) kind of broke the flow,” Krueger said. “We got into a protectionist mode. Linus had to make the first saves, and we took away the secondary chances. Teams in this league are going to throw the house at you in that situation, and I thought we weathered the storm.”
Ullmark made 28 saves on 30 shots, raising his save percentage up to .912 for the young season. That’s going to be an important number to watch this season. He was at .915 in 2019-20, and the league’s best netminders usually are at .920 or better.
Ullmark passed the test on Tuesday. He and fellow goalie Carter Hutton will need to keep it up as the season continues. They’ll have their next chance on Thursday, again against the Rangers.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)