BUFFALO - The ascendancy of the Buffalo Sabres has been one of the better storylines of the 2018-19 NHL campaign so far. Sure, a lot of us figured they would much-improved and, dare I say it, scrappy, but a 10-game win streak? A playoff position in the top-heavy Atlantic Division, and better than the wild card? That’s something.
The reasons for Buffalo’s results are varied, from a healthier lineup (though that has changed recently) to great acquisitions by GM Jason Botterill. On top of rookies Rasmus Dahlin and Casey Mittelstadt, the Sabres also have a new scoring sensation in Jeff Skinner, who was snagged in a trade with Carolina - one that looked a little dubious for the Hurricanes in the first place and is only getting worse with every goal that Skinner notches with the Sabres.
But how is it feeling in Buffalo right now? Keep in mind; the Sabres were the worst team in the league last year and not much better the season before that.
“It’s different, for sure,” said right winger Kyle Okposo. “We have a belief in ourselves and everyone in this room trusts each other and knows they’re going to do the right thing. If a guy makes a mistake, he’s the first one to do the right thing next time; everyone is holding each other accountable and holding themselves accountable. It’s a lot better.”
The combination of youth and vets in Buffalo seems to be in sync. Okposo plays on a line with fellow Minnesota native Mittelstadt, who is coming along in his rookie NHL campaign. On the back end, first overall 2018 draft pick Dahlin has been on a defensive pairing with veteran Zach Bogosian. While Bogosian doesn’t take anything away from the character of last year’s team, he does believe that things feel a bit different this season.
“Winning helps,” Bogosian said. “We were a pretty close group last year too, but winning is the biggest difference. It’s nice to see us get rewarded as a group.”
The key now is to keep the good-time train going. The Sabres had a 10-game win streak in November, with victories over quality teams such as Tampa Bay, Winnipeg and, most crucially, an overtime thriller against Pittsburgh. Okposo believes the Sabres got away with the win on some of those nights - sitting back at times or starting off slow - and guarding against those bad habits will be important from here on out. Buffalo has lost four in a row right now, but the team has also had some time off after an intense game schedule of late.
“It’s been a nice mental reset,” Okposo said. “The past month was kinda crazy with how many games we were playing and being all over the place - one at home, one on the road - it was a lot. To have a little bit of normalcy is nice.”
Watching the Sabres practise, you can tell they are having fun at the rink and working with purpose. Coach Phil Housley and his staff seem to have a pretty good pulse on this crew and it’s obvious that the Sabres did not enjoy being doormats. Having said that, the Buffalo crew is aware that with better results come expectations and opponents are respecting them more this season - which means the Sabres have to be ready every night, too.
“You have to know you’re getting everybody’s best,” Okposo said. “You’re not going to get teams come in and sleep for a couple periods and try to turn it on in the third for the win; it’s not going to happen. They’re going to be ready to play.”
But with captain Jack Eichel leading the attack and a great mixture of skill, youth and veteran leadership, the Sabres aren’t making it easy for the enemy anymore.