Who are these Buffalo Sabres, and what have they done with the previous incarnation?
After spending the past three months reversing their fortunes from league darlings to bottom-feeders, the Sabres have put together back-to-back impressive performances – Thursday night’s shootout loss to Tampa Bay and Saturday’s 5-2 win over the Washington Capitals.
Granted, it’s just a two-game stretch, and one against two of the NHL’s Stanley Cup contenders. But it’s one that makes you wonder what the Sabres could do if they play like this on a consistent basis and stick to their game plan.
“I just liked our consistency and our desperation,” Sabres coach Phil Housley said. “It was good to see that we could string another game of 60 minutes of just hard work.
“They can see (our game plan) is effective. Sometimes it’s not pretty and we have to make the right decisions. Obviously, we tell them they have to make plays, just make the right decisions… Usually when we’re managing the game we’re going north, we’re not chasing anything and using our energy in the right area.”
Buffalo got on the board early on when Jason Pominville gave the Sabres a 1-0 lead less than five minutes into the opening period. About 10 minutes later, Sam Reinhart got his first goal of the contest as a wrist shot whizzed past Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby’s right shoulder blocker-side to increase the Sabres’ lead to two.
Then, after Alex Ovechkin scored on a semi-breakaway shortly after the second period started, things began to look a bit dicey for Buffalo when winger Jeff Skinner got tangled up with recent Capitals acquisition Carl Hagelin and tumbled to the ice. Skinner was helped into the dressing room after not being able to put weight on his left leg and whispers began to circulate that he had injured either his knee or ankle.
However, as serious as his injury appeared to be, Skinner returned to play in the third to cheers from the Buffalo faithful, and appeared to not be affected by the collision.
“There’s a lot of things going through your head (when you get hurt),” Skinner said. “At first, kind of just wondering what’s wrong with it. Once you get past that initial stage and you get back here, there’s a pretty open line of communication going on.
“They’re kind of explaining what’s going on, what they’re seeing when they’re testing stuff out. The tests went pretty well and I was able to come back, so that was fortunate.”
Captain Jack Eichel described the reaction of the locker room following Skinner’s injury as a sigh of relief.
“When I first saw him go down, I thought he got high-sticked,” Eichel said. “But when I got over closer to him, obviously I figured out that it wasn’t a high stick. Obviously you think the worst when he’s down there and he’s in a lot of pain like that, but it’s great to see him come back and it’s great to see that he’s all right.”
In his absence, the Sabres, to their credit, continued to perform well. A tripping penalty by Washington’s Nic Dowd gave Buffalo the man-advantage late in the second and Rasmus Dahlin took advantage by scoring the eventual game-winner after he, Jack Eichel and Rasmus Ristolainen showed off a dazzling display of puck-movement following his stick breaking on the play.
“(Dahlin) actually didn’t have any tape on his new stick,” Housley said. “It was kind of funny that he didn’t have his backup stick taped and ready… I thought we really possessed the puck well on the powerplay and it was a big goal for us.”
As the contest moved on, the Capitals refused to go away quietly as Andre Burakovsky – the subject of recent trade rumors – got on the board in the third after deflecting the puck past Sabres goalie Carter Hutton. But a little more than a minute later, the tide would turn in Buffalo’s way for good as Reinhart scored on a redirection of his own as Matt Hunwick shot a bouncing puck from the point.
“I think Reinhart’s finally starting to get rewarded,” Housley said. “How many pucks has he tipped on the powerplay that just haven’t gone in? He finally gets one, he’s in the right position and he’s very good down there in front of the net.”
Reinhart then sealed just the third hat trick at the KeyBank Center by a Sabres player since 2011 (Thomas Vanek, Eichel) on an empty-netter with 55.5 seconds to go.
Despite the team’s strong play in their last two games, the Sabres knew that they needed to stay even-keeled going forward.
“We know what we’re capable of, but at the same time any team in this league is capable of having a performance like that,” Reinhart said. “We’re just trying to be more consistent and learn how to do that.”