By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
It was the 2000s night for the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday – and they celebrated this part of their 50th anniversary in the proper way.
That was the decade when the Sabres made the playoffs several times, and won some big games in memorable fashion. It was only appropriate, then, that Buffalo came back to win an exciting 4-3 decision over the Columbus Blue Jackets at the KeyBank Center. For a moment there, it felt like 2006 all over again.
“It’s been a lot of fun here with the 50th anniversary nights, going through the decades,” coach Ralph Krueger said. “All of us know someone in that group. … Everyone on the bench has been in touch with someone. … The atmosphere was something that inspired us. After 30 minutes, we weren’t happy with where we were sitting, knowing that.”
The Sabres were trailing, 2-0, to the Blue Jackets late in the second period. Despite some scoring chances, Buffalo looked a little discouraged after coming up empty offensively. Then, as usual, it was a case of Jack Eichel to the rescue.
Eichel changed everything by skating into the zone, and – using a Columbus defenseman as a screen – zipped the puck into the net. A 2-1 lead seemed much more surmountable than 2-0 at that point.
“I think we needed a little momentum going into the third period,” Eichel said. “I thought we’d been getting chances and not capitalizing. It was nice to get that one. It got the crowd going a little bit and got the bench up. It gave some confidence to the room.”
The Sabres carried that moment into the third period. On a power play, Eichel hit Victor Olofsson – just back from an injury – with a pass on the right side. Olafsson cranked the puck into the net for the tying goal, just like he did so often before he sprained his ankle.
Buffalo looked as if it would carry that momentum to victory, especially after Evan Rodrigues put his team ahead with a good rush into the zone and a clear shot from the slot. But Columbus answered with 1:13 left and its goalie pulled. Buffalo had the puck bouncing around the Blue Jackets’ crease in the final seconds but couldn’t quite score.
“We didn’t get down when they scores,” Rodrigues said. “We still had a sense of optimism that we’d win it. It was that never-give-up attitude.”
It was the third time in three games that the teams have gone into overtime this season. Last time, the Sabres won the draw and they never let the Blue Jackets have the puck again. This time was a bit more even, as both sides even had a breakaway in the third minute of overtime.
Then Eichel came into the zone with some speed and broke down the Blue Jacket defense. It didn’t take long to figure out Columbus was in trouble. Eichel hit Olofsson, who delivered with the winner.
“Jack made a great play,” Olofsson said. “He carried it into the middle. I think everyone thought he was going to shoot himself, and I tried to find that open space. He fed me a great pass.
“It was great to be back. I didn’t feel great in the first couple of periods. I had to find my game a little bit. It’s hard to be out for six weeks. I’m happy with the way I finished the game.”
With Olofsson and Kyle Okposo, the Sabres fielded a lineup that was fairly close to their best possible group of forwards. That hasn’t been true very often in recent weeks, and Rodrigues thought it provided a sense of normalcy.
“We rolled four lines today, and everyone was into it,” he said. “I think we had a lot of scoring chances from every line. When you get in that rhythm, you feel confident and make plays, and the team builds off that.”
We’ll see how that lineup looks on Sunday night when Toronto comes in to finish the homestand.
A change of subject
Here’s a sentence that isn’t typed too often – it was interesting to check up on the Blue Jackets as an opponent.
The Blue Jackets might have been one of hockey’s most anonymous franchises for several years. They entered the league in 2000, and missed the playoffs for their first seven seasons. The Jackets reached the postseason once, and then sat home for six of the next seven years.
Columbus brought in a Stanley Cup champion coach in 2016 in John Tortorella, and he got to them to the playoffs twice. But as of the spring of 2019, the Blue Jackets still hadn’t won a playoff series. And that’s when the story gets interesting.
Columbus opted to go “all in,” as the poker players say, at the trading deadline when they were on the fringes of a playoff position. The Blue Jackets had some good players scheduled to leave as free agents on July 1. Management opted to give up all sorts of future assets in favor of trying to put together a playoff run. Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel and Adam McQuaid arrived in Columbus in trades involving most of the team’s draft choices in the immediate future.
And, for a few weeks, it worked. The Blue Jackets qualified for the playoffs, and – how about that! – shocked the Tampa Bay Lightning in one of the biggest upsets in NHL postseason history. In a sweep, no less. Alas, the magic departed in the second round, and the new players along with Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin left in July.
Obituaries were written for the Blue Jackets’ chances in 2019-20, and then the season started. What do you know? The Blue Jackets find themselves right in the middle of the playoff fight again. You have to admire a team that throws the book of conventional wisdom out the window, and manages to survive quite nicely. Tortorella ought to receive coach of the year consideration for what he’s done.
Columbus has lost star defenseman Seth Jones, and the postseason berth is up in the air with about seven weeks left in the season. They probably feel like they let one point get away on Thursday. Still, they have a chance, and that’s better than other teams closer to home have these days.
The next NHL trading deadline pops up a week from Monday. Will anyone follow the Blue Jackets’ path this time around? You never know when a team will try some new approach in order to change the subject.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)