After a trade deadline day characterized by no movement and a dismal three-game stretch against Western Conference opponents, the Buffalo Sabres knew something had to change, and for the better.
By emerging from Thursday night’s contest with a 6-3 win over an Arizona Coyotes team that upset them on Sunday night, the Sabres felt as if they were both righting a wrong and boosting morale in the locker room.
“It was our chance to make a statement and prove the last couple of games isn’t who we are,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “It became a tight-checking game for the most part tonight but we found a way to come up with some goals and get the two points.”
The morale boosting came courtesy of a meeting that Sabres general manager Tim Murray had with his players shortly before the game started.
“Everyone in this dressing room and this organization are on the same page. That’s what it was,” Marcus Foligno said of Murray’s message to the team. “Being on the same page and hearing it from Tim was nice. You hear it from your general manager and everyone is going to listen and respect what he said to us.”
Ryan O’Reilly thought Murray’s timing couldn’t have been better.
“It was good, something we needed to hear,” O’Reilly said. “It was refreshing to have him come in and say this is the group and he believes in us. You could feel it around the room. There was an excitement. It’s on us now. You could tell everyone felt good about it and knew we have to dig deep, go inside, collectively come together.”
Buffalo fell behind 1-0 in the first period after Teemu Pulkkinen connected on a feed from Max Domi on a two-on-one break, but the Sabres answered right back with a shorthanded goal a few minutes later. O’Reilly drew two Coyotes defensemen towards him and then fed Foligno with a pass in the slot, who promptly put the puck past Mike Smith to tie the game at one.
“You need big plays from your big players,” Bylsma said. “You got it from the first play on the penalty kill there. Obviously we’re out there to kill a penalty and they’re up 1-0 at that time. He comes up with a big play and it’s a big goal for us. I think that was a huge goal for our team mentally.”
In the second period, O’Reilly snapped a one-timer past Smith to give the Sabres a lead, but a short while later, Tobas Reider got a shorthanded goal of his own to tie the game at two. Jack Eichel then scored on a powerplay to make it 3-2 after two periods, but Arizona answered back midway through the third stanza when a shot from Alex Goligoski made its way from the point past Robin Lehner.
O’Reilly, however, saved his best for last. With 5:36 remaining, O’Reilly made a no-look, behind-the-back pass to Evander Kane, who lit the lamp and made the tally become the game-winning goal. Sam Reinhart and Foligno added a pair of empty-net goals to bring Buffalo’s goal total to six.
“I expect to score every game whether I’ve got zero goals or 100 goals. I had some opportunities throughout the course of the game before I scored and disappointed not to bury those,” Kane said. “Ryan made a good play and I was able to bury it.”
Getting the two points in the standings will be helpful for the Sabres, but the team wasn’t satisfied with the way they played.
“We allowed them to get back in the game and then we kind of snapped into shape a little bit and started playing again,” Eichel said “We’re still going to need to clean it up and we’ve got to be a lot better.”
Kane echoed those sentiments, knowing that the Sabres would have a tougher time closing out games against better opponents.
“They’re not a very good hockey team. Let’s be real here,” Kane said. “We took it to them the first two periods but it was pretty even in the third. Against a good hockey team, we’re getting dominated.
“We have to realize that moving forward to the next game to not be too high about this win and realize that if you’re up by a goal or two goals that we’ve got to go into a third period thinking we’re down or we’re even and push for the next goal. You don’t need it to win a hockey game, but if you score another goal, it puts that team out of it mentally. They don’t think they can come back, and that’s what you’ve got to do, you’ve got to take teams out of the game mentally.”Marcus Foligno