By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
It was a busy night on Thursday, and that was even before the game between the Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres even started.
We’ll get to the Sabres’ 3-2 overtime win – finished off by a penalty shot by Jack Eichel, no less – in a few paragraphs. But let’s recap what happened before the dramatic contest even started.
The first hint of the pregame commotion started a little after six p.m., when Marco Scandella went out the back door of the Key Bank Center in something of a hurry. No doubt bystanders thought to themselves, “Um, aren’t you playing tonight?”
No, he wasn’t. The Sabres made it official shortly at 6:26 p.m. when they announced via text that Scandella had been dealt to Montreal for a fourth-round draft choice. The defenseman was scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after this season.
Just to add a touch of the bizarre to the scene, a fan tweeted me that Scandella was on the cover of the Sabres’ program on Thursday night. It was the continuation of a trend. Evan Rodrigues – the Buffalo forward who reportedly had asked for a trade earlier in the week – was on the cover of Tuesday’s program. We’ll see if this turns into something like the Sports Illustrated cover jinx – maybe Zach Bogosian, another reportedly disgruntled Sabre, will be on Saturday’s cover.
In this age of instant news, the media immediately started pounding out short stories about the transaction filled with statistics along with implications for the lineup and salary cap, and placing them on the Internet.
Then at 6:46 p.m, the other shoe dropped. The Sabres took that fourth-round pick and shipped to Calgary in exchange for right winger Michael Frolik. And those same media members started to furiously rewrite the story they had just written.
Frolik is a veteran who had five goals and five assists this season for the Flames. He also will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. Frolik won a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2013. His offensive production actually peaked when he was a rookie, with 45 points in 2008-09 with the Panthers.
For the record, Frolik is from Kladno, Czech Republic. That’s the same city that was the home of Jiri Dudacek, Buffalo’s No. 1 draft choice in 1981. Dudacek played one game in Memorial Auditorium as part of a touring Czech team.
You didn’t have to be a hockey genius to figure out that something like this was coming. The Sabres had eight decent NHL defensemen on the active roster, with a couple of more prospects in Rochester who could fill in for the Sabres in case of injury. Meanwhile, their depth at forward has been shaky for quite a while, and the recent injury to Jeff Skinner didn’t help matters any.
Maybe some sort of move was necessary under the circumstances. Buffalo had suffered a horrific loss on Tuesday, giving up the last five goals in dropping a 6-4 decision to Tampa Bay.
“As we’ve talked before, we were trying to add to our forward group here,” general manager Jason Botterill said in a news huddle in the first intermission. “With Michael, we like his even-strength play. He’s a very strong five-on-five player. He has a championship pedigree. He’s been in the playoffs before.
“If you look at how we’ve played over the last few weeks, I think we’ve played pretty well five-on-five. But our special teams have to be better. Maybe he can come in and help our penalty-killing.”
Frolik is expected to arrive in Buffalo over the weekend after he straightens out visa issues. And he’ll be joining a team on a one-game winning streak.
Passing a test
The Sabres had lost four in a row entering the game, including Tuesday’s meltdown against Tampa Bay. That made Thursday’s win nearly crucial by January regular season standards.
“I think with the position we’re in right now, this was really important for us,” Sam Reinhart said. “We all knew how important it was to battle back.”
The first seven minutes of the game resembled the final 27 minutes of Tuesday’s game, as the Oilers picked up two quick goals to grab the early lead. Curtis Lazar, who has been playing as if he doesn’t want to go back to Rochester any time soon, got one of those back a short time later.
Still, Buffalo went into the third period down by that same 2-1 deficit. The Sabres probably weren’t conscious of the fact that they hadn’t rallied to win from a 40-minute definite yet this season. But with 16:07 left, Reinhart tipped home a shot from the blue line by Bogosian. The teams played scoreless hockey the rest of the way, setting up overtime.
Lazar won the opening faceoff, which is crucial in extra time. The idea is to hold on to the puck and never let the other team have a chance to score – sort of like a football team driving the length of the field for a touchdown at the start of OT.
In this case, Eichel had the puck behind his own net, and then waited …. and waited … and waited.
“I was just catching my breath a little bit, getting some energy,” he said.
Then he took off. Eichel went past one Edmonton defender, and defenseman Oscar Klefbom couldn’t prevent him from getting into the clear – leaving little alternative but to use the “grab and hope” approach on defense. The puck skittered away from Eichel’s stick, but an official didn’t just call a penalty – he called a penalty shot.
Eichel’s approach was simple: “Just try and score,” he said. “Come down and shoot it. The ice isn’t good, so try to keep it simple.”
The center did just that, snapping the puck into the top corner to make the Sabres winners for the first time since the last decade (Dec. 21 to be exact). It also was the first penalty shot overtime goal in Sabre history.
The only down note was that Victor Olofsson suffered a lower-body injury in the third period and did not return. We won’t know his status until Friday. Buffalo can’t afford to lose the NHL’s Rookie of the Month for December right now.
No, it wasn’t just another regular season game. It was the end to a fascinating day.
“I’m really proud of how the guys, with the adversity that’s happened of late, found our game, stuck with it and stayed patient,” coach Ralph Krueger said.
“It’s huge. If you look at the struggles of late, the way the players have processed through them and continued to work through them, it’s important to kick off the year with a win against a very good hockey team. They pushed us, they tested us. We needed to play our best hockey to turn this around, and we did. … It’s more than two points for sure, with all that’s going on as of late.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)