The Buffalo Sabres may have had their historic win streak snapped at 10 games Thursday night in Tampa, but over the past three weeks, they’ve won much more than games: they’ve won the hearts of their fans and a belief in one another.
The matchup with the Lightning was never going to be an easy game. The Lightning are a very talented, veteran, well-coached team. They feature elite talent with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov up front and one of the best defenders in the game, Victor Hedman. Not to mention depth throughout their lineup.
The seesaw drama saw the Lightning have leads of 1-0 and 3-2. The Sabres held leads of 2-1 and 4-3. With the win, the Lightning leapfrogged the Sabres and now sit atop the NHL with 37 points. The Sabres rallied twice to tie the score and even took the lead with surging Tage Thompson’s goal early in the third period. It was his fourth goal of the season and fifth point in the last six games.
Ultimately, they couldn’t hold on, losing 5-4. The loss prevented the team from amassing their first 11-game win streak in franchise history. Instead, they’ll settle for matching the franchise-best streak at 10 for the third time. It was the team’s first loss in regulation since dropping a 3-1 decision on the road to the New York Rangers on Nov. 4.
Rejuvenating Sabres Fans
The streak captured the imaginations of the blue and gold faithful; a patient fanbase deserving of some much-needed excitement. They’ve endured more than their fair share of suffering over the past seven seasons, including some really dark years. The sheer joy and exhilaration that came with every win was like a drug that had them yearning for more.
The three-week span which included ten wins brought back feelings in Western New York that haven’t been around for nearly a decade.
With the Sabres playing two games in Florida and the Buffalo Bills playing the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, a strong contingent of Buffalo fans made the trip to the Sunshine State. The sellout crowd was filled with “Let’s Go Buffalo” chants.
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Galvanizing a Team
While the NHL is a business in which winning matters and there are no points given for moral victories, it was impressive how captain Jack Eichel and his teammates handled the loss. They accepted defeat but are determined to get back to their winning ways Friday night against the Florida Panthers. “There was great compete by us… trying to make it a game. Unfortunately, they were able to get the late one, but it was a great stretch by us. Ten games in a row is pretty good,” said Eichel.
To a man, this team has learned a lot about one another and what it takes to win in a league built for parity. There’s a razor-thin margin for error that separates winning from losing. “I think [the streak] has shown that we can win every night we go out there. And I think that should be our mindset. We’re going out there to play against the best team in the league at home, whatever it may be.”
“That’s kind of the confidence you build through a winning streak like that. We built some camaraderie and some chemistry and I thought, just that never-quit effort. You saw it again tonight. Obviously, we come up short but did a lot of good things.”
Jack Eichel on win streak: "It shows we can win every night we go out there, and that should be our mindset, no matter what .. That never-quit effort. You saw it again tonight." pic.twitter.com/xR3ZTtsL51
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) November 30, 2018
The game had a playoff-type vibe, played at a frenetic pace with few whistles. The game was full of sloppy officiating. There were late checks, scrums after whistles and plenty of missed calls. Since the referees weren’t policing the game, players on both sides took it upon themselves to police one another with retaliation hits and face washes.
“You could say a lot about out group and how we’ve grown. I think tonight was no different,” said alternate captain Kyle Okposo. There’s been some guys that haven’t played in some games like that. It was as close to a playoff game as you’re gonna get. I really liked the way that we hung in there and now we just have to make sure that we’re moving on to the next game and we come out strong tomorrow.”
The belief in one another breeds both confidence and trust for one another. They weren’t playing for a streak or for another two points against one of the best teams in the league over the past few seasons. They were playing for each other and for the success of the team.
A Few Sabres Setbacks
Besides losing the game, the Sabres lost the services of defenseman Jake McCabe to injury. He was sidelined late in the first period, barely played in the second, and finished with 7:29 of ice time. It was especially tough as fellow blueliner Nathan Beaulieu was given a 10-minute misconduct for a scuffle at the end of the first period, leaving the team with only four defensemen for nearly half of the second period.
Adding insult to injury, the Johan Larsson was assessed a double-minor for high sticking Lightning center J.T. Miller in the second period. The team stepped up without Larsson, one of their best penalty killers, allowing only one shot. The penalty kill unit has allowed only three power play goals in the last 33 chances.
Carter Hutton had his personal eight-game win streak snapped. He made 32 saves, but was unable to stop the Lightning’s relentless, potent offense.
Rookie sensation Rasmus Dahlin had a few rough shifts. In the first period he got caught pinching in the offensive zone, leaving Zach Bogosian to handle a 3-on-1 rush. Nikita Kucherov rifled a shot past Hutton under the crossbar, sending Dahlin to the bench in disgust. He slammed the bench door and showed his frustration.
Sabres Ready to Start a New Streak
The past three weeks have been a wild roller-coaster ride of emotions ending in nothing but victories. It’s united the team and its dejected and at times disparate fans. Winning has brought them together and given them hope for the future.
“I’m proud of our guys, we were in position many times to fight back,” said Sabres coach Phil Housley. “It was just unfortunate. It was a challenge for us against a really good team. We gave too much.”
“When you go on a streak like that, teams are going to take notice and be ready for you,” said Sam Reinhart.
The Lightning were definitely ready. Even better, fans of the blue and gold are noticing. The team’s winning streak may have ended, but they’ve started a new love affair with their fans.
The team hopes to start a new winning streak Friday against the Florida Panthers at BB&T Center in nearby Sunrise, Fla.
Jeff has been covering the NHL for over a decade for various sites. He’s been with The Hockey Writers as a lead Sabres writer three years, while also writing a satire column called “Off the Crossbar.”