Buffalo, N.Y. (WGR 550) – When was the last time we could say that the Buffalo Sabres have won seven out of 10 games?
That’s exactly what they’ve done following Wednesday night’s 4-3 shootout victory over the NHL’s best road team, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Sabres were able to do well against the Pens this season, picking up five out of six points, but you’d have to say the games in Pittsburgh were a fluke. Buffalo won 2-1 on Nov. 17 despite giving up 46 shots on Dustin Tokarski, and the Sabres lost 3-2 in overtime on Dec. 17, giving up 48 shots on Malcolm Subban.
On Wednesday, the Sabres limited time and space, allowing only 26 shots on Craig Anderson in 65 minutes of work. Anderson also stopped Bryan Rust and Sidney Crosby in the shootout.
What impressed me most was the defense the Sabres played. It’s a five-man unit, and it’s in, what head coach Don Granato likes to call, layers. When they’re doing it right, they have each other’s back.
Buffalo allowed nine first period shots and not too many chances, but two plays could’ve turned into disasters. Luckily for the Sabres, they didn’t.
Mattias Samuelsson calmly snuffed out a 3-on-1 rush, and Rasmus Dahlin stepped up out of nowhere to kill a play that was turning into a 2-on-0 rush. A month ago, that would’ve resulted in a 2-1 Penguins lead.
Tage Thompson scored two goals and added another in the shootout. His 27 goals average out to 37 goals over 82 games. The 24-year-old is just so confident right now. He is now 5-for-9 in shootouts, and comes in with the body language that he’s going to score.
Anderson had some bad luck in net, but he was there for the big save at the big time. The first two goals against went off Henri Jokiharju, and the third was a screened shot off the stick of Kris Letang. That late power play goal tied the game at 15:04 of the third period, and earlier in the season, "uh-oh" would’ve set in on the Sabres' bench. It also would’ve likely resulted in a loss.
In this game, nothing changed. They continued the forward surge to try to get the lead back.
In overtime, there were times that Pittsburgh did wind up with the puck, which in the past meant game over for the Sabres. In this one, Buffalo didn’t lose confidence without the puck, and they didn’t give up glorious scoring opportunities. They stayed patient, and killed plays to get the puck back.
This was a game where Dylan Cozens had to play against Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, and did a good job.
It was also a game where the line of Cody Eakin, Zemgus Girgensons and Kyle Okposo played like they did at the start the season. Being tenacious got them a goal when Girgensons and Okposo simply outworked the Penguins behind the net, leading to Girgensons scoring.
If you’re a Sabres fan, I think you have to be very excited about what the left defense is going to look like for years to come.
Dahlin and Samuelsson will be joined by Owen Power soon, which means the left side will have players that are 19-, 21- and 22-years-old. Casey Fitzgerald is 25-years-old and is ready to contribute on the right side along with 22-year-old Jokiharju.
Add in 24-year-old Jacob Bryson, 20-year-old Ryan Johnson and 22-year-old Oskari Laaksonen and Buffalo is developing some very good young depth.
The Sabres play the second-best road team in the NHL on Friday in the Washington Capitals. Buffalo then plays the fifth-best home team in the New York Rangers on Sunday.
Buffalo has been winning lately against some very good teams, so they will continue to be tested this week.
***Photo: Micheline Michaelina (@MiMiV4682)