By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
For a while on Sunday, the Buffalo Sabres’ problems were erased by memories of better days.
That’s partially due to the fact that the team won a game, a 4-3 shootout decision over the St. Louis Blues at the KeyBank Center that ended a seven-game losing streak. The outcome made the building feel as if it were November, when most of the team’s highlights for the season seemed to be crammed into about three weeks.
But in another way, the Sabres’ game felt like it was about 1977 again. That’s because late in the third period, Buffalo’s line of Johan Larsson, Zemgus Girgensons and Kyle Okposo started hitting everything in sight. They delivered about five checks in 30 seconds that sent a few bolts of energy through the crowd. It set the tone for the rest of the contest.
“Obviously we haven’t given them much to get up for as of late,” Evan Rodrigues said. “But in the third period when there are a few hits being laid and they are up in their seats cheering, it was definitely nice to see. They were loud for us at the beginning of the year.”
Those of a certain age could close their eyes and imagine the days of Jim Schoenfeld and Jerry Korab crunching opponents at Memorial Auditorium, where some wiggles from the boards were expected every night. Hitting has become less of a feature of the National Hockey League over that time, so the stretch was a throwback to happier times in both cases. And the Sabres received their rewards for their efforts – something that rarely happened during the now-concluded losing streak.
“I think over the skid we’ve been on, we’ve played some good games,” Conor Sheary said. “It’s been a matter of making mistakes at the wrong time. We limited them as much as possible this time. Our fans were into at the end, which was really helpful.”
No disasters this time
The game played out in an interesting way, perhaps typical of a team that had been struggling as of late. The Sabres never trailed in the contest and yet adversity seemed right around the corner for the team and its fans who had gone through some suffering in recent days.
The first order of business was making sure the goal horn still worked, and Larsson’s goal relatively early in the first period provided that test. Some dust might have come out of the speakers, but it functioned properly. The Blues’ Pat Maroon answered that, but Rodrigues put Buffalo back in front before the end of the first period. The Sabre forward used a possible two-on-one as a decoy, and he slid the puck right along the ice, and it found the far corner.
Rodrigues hadn’t scored a goal since Feb. 7. It had been a long wait.
“It’s funny how it works,” he said. “You get some Grade A (chances) and some great looks and they don’t go in. You put one on net, and it goes in. It was nice to get one, and I thought our line has been playing well for the last couple of games.”
And when Sheary made it a 3-1 game in the second period, a win seemed more than possible. Alex Nylander picked up his second assist of the game on the play, making a nice feed to the winger to make the play possible.
But these are the Sabres of today, and nothing comes too easily. David Perron and Brayden Schenn tied the score for the Blues, and it seemed like business as usual – until the body checks starting flying. Every Buffalo hockey fan on Twitter had the same idea at the same time: “Where has this been all season?”
Hitting the pipe
Still, nothing was decided until the shootout. Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart scored, and then Carter Hutton saw Ryan O’Reilly – perhaps you remember the name? – just missed keeping the game going. Game over.
“O’Reilly doesn’t normally do that move,” Hutton said. “It was a great move, but it hit the crossbar.”
“I was happy for him,” coach Phil Housley said about Hutton. “He hasn’t gotten any results lately. We got a break when (Tyler) Bozak missed the net.”
The win doesn’t cover up the fact that the Sabres’ recent collapse has everyone wondering what’s next for the franchise. But at least for the time being, the team can relax a little bit, perhaps take a deep breath and get on with the business of finishing the season as painlessly as possible – starting Wednesday against Toronto.
“Last night we had a great effort,” Hutton said. “Tonight we brought it again, and we appreciate the crowd getting into it. It gives us a lot of momentum. It was wide-open hockey, and it felt like old times.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)