It’s six games into the schedule so let’s not get crazy. And the scars of last season remain open wounds to fans. But this certainly feels different.
We’re seeing real live maturity out of the Buffalo Sabres. Confidence. Purpose. A plan.
And the learning is almost immediate. Monday’s 4-0 whitewash of the Dallas Stars had much deeper meaning when you study the way it finished.
The Sabres, remember, had blown two-goal leads in each of their last two games but had survived past regulation to get two points against both Montreal and Florida. Still, that’s not a pattern that’s sustainable. You have to get the game home and preferably do it where you don’t yield a point to a division rival.
Through 40 minutes Monday, the Sabres had a 2-0 lead. They had given up only 13 shots on goal and goalie Carter Hutton said he felt like there were only three or four saves that he even had to stress over.
The Sabres sat back too much in the third period of their last two games. Florida had 19 shots on goal in the final period against Buffalo here Friday and tied the game with 10.2 seconds left. The Sabres stopped attacking, didn’t handle the puck well and got burned both times.
Didn’t happen Monday. Early in the third period, Henri Jokiharju made yet another strong play to move the puck out of his zone and through the neutral zone, Vladimir Sobotka made a sublime backhand pass to Jeff Skinner and Skinner burned Ben Bishop with a nifty deke.
It was 3-0 and the Sabres had a reeling Dallas team in major trouble. Less than two minutes later, Marcus Johansson fired home a 50-footer that startled Bishop and that was that.
Hutton made 25 saves for his first shutout with Buffalo and the Sabres (5-0-1) are off to their best start since 2008. No one saw this coming. Except for maybe Ralph Krueger.
“Believing that we could get control of a game of this nature is important for the psychology of the group right now,” Krueger said. “I just liked the way we managed the whole game. It was definitely our best performance of the season start to finish. The third period showed a lot of maturity and learning out of the last couple of games.”
When you make mistakes against the Sabres, you’re in trouble. You take foolish penalties against them and you’ve got serious issues.
The Sabres’ power play took advantage of a bizarre sequence in the second period when the Stars were called for delay of game after an icing call, for taking too long to get the same players back on the ice. Dallas coach Jim Montgomery explained after the game that defenseman John Klingberg had tweaked an ankle and didn’t know if he could stay on the ice, but officials felt Klingberg wasn’t in difficulty and said he didn’t report for duty like he should have.
Mistake. The Sabres’ power play is almost unstoppable when it gets set up in the offensive zone. With Rasmus Dahlin out top and Olofsson and Jack Eichel on the flanks looking for one-timers, it’s been the NHL’s best thus far. As it turned out, Olofsson’s fifth goal of the season was the only one Buffalo needed.
“That was a rock-solid game,” Hutton said. “I thought early on it was a tight game and then there were a couple power plays where our power play clicks and that was the difference in the game. We get a power-play goal and we take it from there.”
Olofsson has been a revelation on the power play and is the runaway leader right now for NHL Rookie of the Month for October. Forget about all the hype surrounding the top two choices in the June draft, New Jersey’s Jack Hughes and Kappo Kakko of the New York Rangers. It’s Olofsson who is getting the early jump in the Calder Trophy race.
“They were snapping it around again today,” defenseman Marco Scandella said of the power-play unit. “That power play is lethal. Everyone can shoot the puck and make great plays. It’s fun to watch.”
The Sabres are getting performances from across their lineup. Scandella and Sobotka, two of the fans’ personal pinatas last season, look as good as they once did in Minnesota and Boston, respectively. And there hasn’t been a single game where Hutton and Linus Ullmark have been unreliable.
“As long as we’re winning, that’s all that matters honestly,” Hutton said after his first shutout since beating the Sabres for St. Louis here in 2017. “It’s always a feather in your cap to have a shutout, but realistically, that was a heck of a team effort tonight.”
There’s a certain disbelief at the way this team has responded to Krueger. Sure, there are some new players here, but this is largely the core that tuned out Dan Bylsma and didn’t respond to Phil Housley.
Krueger is understandably incredulous when I bring up previous versions of this club and about the way this group is quickly learning. This is going exactly as he planned. Exactly as it did for him with Switzerland in the Olympics and with Team Europe in the World Cup. Why can’t it go the right way in the NHL?
“You’ve asked me before about being surprised and I’m not because of how this group has bought in right from day one on the 13th of September,” he said. “I just remember that first day, those two sessions and the interest and communication going on here. It’s not surprising me. We were very disappointed with the way we managed the puck lately and everybody wanted to change that. You can see in their behavior that they mean it.”
So the Sabres have been a rousing success in what’s essentially the first stage of the season, a six-game run that included four games at home. Now comes a new challenge, the annual three-game tour of California and a good chance to pile up more points. Los Angeles and San Jose are struggling and Anaheim has looked good under new coach Dallas Eakins, but is not expected to maintain its spot in the league’s upper echelon.
“Road hockey. Play confident,” Scandella said. “Keep it simple like we have been and work for each other.”
“This is showing up in practice and carrying it into the games,” Krueger said. “It’s not just showing up on game days. These guys are working really, really hard. This is not luck what’s happening here.”