Following an excruciating winless streak that stretched its way to 18 games, the Buffalo Sabres have finally been able to get their footing under them and capture some points in the standings, just barely escaping setting the longest winless streak in the NHL during the salary cap era. Since the firing of head coach Ralph Krueger, the team has taken a different approach to games, one that has finally begun to pay off, albeit the season is already lost. Any positives at this point are more than welcome, though, and can help build for next season’s squad.
The Sabres, 10 points behind the next-worst team in the MassMutual East Division, have only their pride to play for now. A slate of some fairly winnable games this week should inject some hope into players and fans alike that this team could get hot and play spoiler to some of their division rivals making a playoff push.
Sabres Riding 4-Game Point Streak
What seemed like it would never happen this season in the middle of the Sabres’ losing streak finally did — the team won a game to break the skid against the Philadelphia Flyers last week. The monkey was off their backs, and they could finally loosen up and find a different motivator to win some hockey games.
In their last four games, the Sabres are 2-0-2, picking up six of a possible eight points against their opponents during that stretch. While they have certainly shown their fair share of growing pains and frustrating mistakes, most players looked better and more invested in the games all of last week. A few changes to the lineup might have been key in shaking things up just enough to get them going.
One of the biggest reasons the Sabres’ top-six forward group has been effective over the last few games has been Casey Mittelstadt’s promotion to first-line center. Tage Thompson has played on his wing more often than not, and that has actually turned out to be a pretty effective pairing. Mittelstadt also showed some chemistry with Jeff Skinner while playing on the same line, and is starting to show that he’s ready to be an effective NHL player for the Sabres.
Some other Sabres players who have benefitted from a shake up are Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Dahlin. Reinhart has been playing at center instead of on the wing, and has shown he can carry a line without Jack Eichel, bolstering the team’s center depth for the future were they to choose to keep him there. Dahlin, who has been demoted from the top pairing in exchange for the freedom to make creative plays, has reaped the benefits of that change. And last, for something nobody saw coming, Kyle Okposo has scored six points in his last seven games.
“The nicest feeling in all of that is the players like playing for their teammates,” said Don Granato on the team’s newfound sense of camaraderie. “They work for their teammate, work for the team. They have clarity in what they’re supposed to be doing and how they can be successful.” (From ‘Mike Harrington: Sabres’ progress could make Don Granato a candidate for the job,’ The Buffalo News, 04/05/2021)
Granato is right that much of their success could be attributed to building chemistry between the players. “That’s the feel that you get, that you see. All the signs point to that… so that’s always a great feeling as a coach for personal reasons, but there’s enjoyment in watching your guys immerse in the moment and staying engaged in the moment.”
Granato Making His Case for Next Head Coach
When the Sabres pulled the trigger to fire Krueger a few weeks ago, general manager Kevyn Adams said in a press conference that the search for a new head coach would begin immediately. Popular opinion deems someone with years of NHL experience and success in getting teams to the playoffs should be the ultimate hire, with names like Bruce Boudreau, Claude Julien, Gerard Gallant, and even John Tortorella (if he was made available) emerging as the frontrunners. But what about Granato, the current interim head coach?
Since taking over the team, Granato has led the Sabres to a 2-5-2 record. In his first five games, the team lost all of them in regulation, but have since picked up some steam and gone 2-0-2. Even in losing efforts, the team has looked much better than it did under Krueger, and if they were to continue on this upward trajectory, it would be hard, and frankly unfair, to count Granato out of the conversation for the next full-time head coaching job.
In the first five games under Granato, the Sabres were averaging just 1.6 goals per game, and 4.2 goals against per game. However, in their last four games, they are averaging 3.25 goals for and 2.5 goals against, showing major signs of improvement in the new system. This new way of playing is obviously proving to be a recipe for success more than the old way of doing things.
Granato has 19 games left in the season to grow his candidacy for the position — a pretty sizable body of work when all is said and done. If he wants to stay, and Adams wants to commit to him, he is not a bad hire at all.
Ullmark Playing Lights Out for the Sabres
A key reason the Sabres have experienced a mini turnaround of sorts is the return of Linus Ullmark from injury. It was Ullmark’s injury and being out for a month that kickstarted the lengthy winless streak, after all, and his play of late proves as much.
Ullmark has posted a 7-5-3 record so far this season, good enough for all but just one of the Sabres’ total victories on the year (they are 8-23-6 through 37 games this season). Three other goalies have suited up for the Sabres this season — Carter Hutton, Dustin Tokarski, and Jonas Johansson, who was recently traded to the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for a draft pick. Those three goalies have combined for a collective 1-18-3 record on the season.
Ullmark has played exceptionally for the Sabres in the 2020-21 season, and one can’t help but wonder whether the team would be a in a different spot in the standings had they never lost him to injury at all. However, you can’t change the past, and with the way the rest of the team has played, it might not have had much of an impact, anyway. One thing is clear though: this team needs Ullmark to be competitive, at least until their next hopeful starter, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, is ready to make the jump from the AHL to the NHL.
Ullmark, who signed a one-year, $2.6 million contract with the Sabres in the offseason, is an unrestricted free agent after this season. It’s fair to say he’s putting himself in a position to get paid, big time.
The Sabres Week Ahead
The Sabres look to continue their four-game point streak, and hopefully make some noise in their division. They have four games this week, two at home and two on the road. They’ll start with two games against the New Jersey Devils, and wrap up the week with tilts against the division-leading Washington Capitals and the Flyers.
The Devils, albeit 10 points ahead of the Sabres, are a team that they are fully capable of beating, and have bested a couple of times this season. Same goes for the Flyers. If the Sabres are able to split their games this week, that would be considered a success in my book. They finally have some momentum, so the games should at least be entertaining.
The top storyline this week will undoubtedly be the looming trade deadline, now just one week away. This week could be the final auditions for some key Sabres players rumored to be on the trading block, namely Taylor Hall, Brandon Montour, and even Rasmus Ristolainen. Come next week, this team could look a lot different, but for now, the Sabres look to build on their recent success and hope it translates into wins.
Brandon is a Buffalo Sabres Contributor for THW, and Co-Host of THW’s ‘Sabres Scoop,’ who received his Master of Science in Sport Administration from Canisius College in Buffalo, NY, and founded his website, Seltytending, in 2017. He is an avid hockey writer and podcaster with prior work experience in the OJHL, NWHL, and NCAA. Twitter: @BSalts15