After more than a month of agony, the Buffalo Sabres finally gave their fans sweet release with Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers, the team’s first win since Feb. 23. The 18-game winless streak was the longest in the salary cap era, and was “capped off” by a devastating 4-3 overtime defeat to the Flyers on Monday when the Sabres blew a 3-0 third period lead.
Of course, things are still far from gravy in Buffalo. The team sits at a league-worst 7-23-5 (19 points), a full nine points worse than the next-closest team. But if nothing else, Wednesday’s win lifted an enormous monkey off the team’s collective back.
Here are some takeaways from Buffalo’s two-game set against the Flyers.
Sabres Are Playing Noticeably Better Under Don Granato
Interim coach Don Granato earned his first career victory as an NHL head coach against Philly, but it wasn’t the first time the Sabres have looked like the better team with him behind the bench.
As noted earlier, Buffalo was cruising after two periods in Monday’s game before collapsing down the stretch. Even in Saturday’s 3-2 loss to the Boston Bruins, the Sabres had every chance to win. It’s clear that this team is playing with a lot more confidence than they were under former coach Ralph Krueger.
This seems in large part due to Granato granting his skaters much more freedom on the ice than Krueger did. Defenders are being encouraged to jump into the rush, while the forwards are making better zone entries and exits.
The Sabres were still outshot in both games — 36-32 on Monday, 32-27 on Wednesday — but the numbers are at least respectable as opposed to past games when they were getting absolutely dominated. The penalty kill has also looked strong in recent games; the Sabres successfully killed all five Flyers power plays in the past two contests.
Nobody is making the argument that Granato is the long-term solution as a head coach. But it’s clear that this team has a lot more life than it did under his predecessor.
Contributions Are Coming From Unlikely Sources
Even with Wednesday’s six-goal outburst, the Sabres still sit 31st in the NHL in goals per game (2.14). From the big names to the depth players, just about everyone on this team is struggling to score.
But in the last two games, some of those less-heralded players have stepped up. Kyle Okposo, who looked done as an NHL player at times this season, is currently on a five-game point streak and has seven points in his last nine games, including three assists in two games against Philly.
Cody Eakin scored just his second goal of the season on Monday (and his first non-empty netter), while AHL call-up Steven Fogarty netted two points on Wednesday, including his first career NHL goal.
Perhaps most promising of all was Brandon Montour scoring three goals in two games — including two on the same penalty kill to seal Wednesday’s victory. One of many unrestricted free agents expected to be available at the upcoming trade deadline, the Sabres have to be thrilled with how Montour has boosted his stock in recent days.
It’s more than can be said of Taylor Hall, who also figures to be traded sooner rather than later and is still sitting at just two goals for the season. As the Sabres continue to sell off assets, it will be important for the depth players to continue contributing to keep the team competitive down the stretch.
Sabres May Be Onto Something With Blue Line Pairings
Ever since Jake McCabe went down with a season-ending injury, the Sabres have been struggling to find any consistency with their defensemen pairings.
This has especially been true with Rasmus Ristolainen, who was playing exceptionally well with McCabe before his injury (to the tune of a 56.8 expected goals for percentage (xGF%) for the duo, per MoneyPuck), but has struggled when paired with the likes of Rasmus Dahlin and Matt Irwin.
On Wednesday, however, Ristolainen was paired with Jacob Bryson, and the results were eye-opening: both players recorded two assists and identical plus-four ratings.
It may be a flash in the pan — for the season, the Bryson-Ristolainen pair has an xGF% of just 45.3 in over 123 minutes together — but as Ristolainen seeks to regain his pre-COVID form, it makes sense to keep the two together.
The other pairing that has looked like a keeper has been that of Dahlin and Henri Jokiharju. Both youngsters have struggled mightily this season but have been making strides recently. Dahlin, in particular, looks like a different player under Granato, making some of the up-ice rushes that were so rare when Krueger was in charge.
With a Montour trade likely happening in the next two weeks, these pairings need to provide some stability for the Sabres on the back end.
Linus Ullmark Looks in Fine Form Post-Injury
You don’t need to look much farther than the win column to understand Linus Ullmark’s importance to the Sabres. After Wednesday’s victory, he has been in net for six of Buffalo’s seven wins on the season.
Even coming back from a significant lower-body injury that kept him out of the lineup for 15 games, it’s clear that the Sabres’ chances of victory are exponentially higher when Ullmark is in net. Despite allowing four goals in Monday’s loss, it was apparent that the team’s collapse was as much the fault of the defensemen and forwards as it was of the goaltender. On Wednesday, he received a much better fate, earning the ‘W’ after stopping 31 of the Flyers’ 32 shots on net.
Ullmark’s .920 save percentage (SV%) is 15th in the NHL among goalies with at least 10 games played, remarkable considering how bad the team in front of him has looked for most of the season. He won’t be able to play every night, but on the nights that he does, the Sabres have to feel like they have a shot any time he’s in net.
The Sabres continue a four-game homestand with a doubleheader against the New York Rangers on Thursday and Saturday as they look to win back-to-back games for just the second time this season.