In their 67th game last season, the Buffalo Sabres came into Toronto and blew a third-period lead before losing 4-3 in a shootout. Walking out of the Air Canada Centre that night, the Sabres were a miserable outfit well on its way to becoming the worst team in the NHL, one that gave up goals by the bushel and couldn’t win on the road.
It’s a stretch to say the Sabres turned the tables on Monday night, but they did manage to erase a third-period deficit and win a shootout by the same 4-3 score against the same team in the same building. Is that progress? Well, if you look at the standings, the Sabres walked out of the Air Canada Centre in 23rd place in the league instead of 30th. Instead of having a goal differential of minus-99, they’re at a far more respectable minus-21. Instead of having just seven wins in 34 road games, they have more than double that with 15 in 33.
The Sabres are indeed taking baby steps, which is entirely fitting since it the relative NHL babies in their lineup that are giving them some sense of hope. Last season, the Sabres top line of Jack Eichel between Evander Kane and Sam Reinhart didn’t even exist. But now, almost a full year later, they’re the ones leading the brigade for a franchise that doesn’t have much more to sell at the moment than hope for better days ahead. The Sabres are 18 points ahead of where they were at the same juncture a year ago and the next goal they score will be their 161st this season, which will match their output from all of the 2014-15 season.
The Sabres are ranked second in the league in THN’s annual Future Watch edition – just behind the Arizona Coyotes – largely because of the play of their under-21 stars in Eichel, Reinhart and defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen. All three of them were prominent in the Sabres win over Toronto, with Eichel scoring a key goal, Reinhart getting two well-earned assists and Ristolainen leading all players on either team in ice time with 28:18.
It’s not only the result that should have the Sabres excited, it’s how they got the result. For two periods, the Sabres top line looked like a train wreck, sleepwalking through the first shift of the game, then almost going minus-2 when Eichel made a lazy and blind backhand pass that led to a clear-cut chance for Leo Komarov. For much of the game, the Battle of the Young Guys was beginning to look like a rout for Nikita Soshnikov, Morgan Rielly and Zach Hyman of the Leafs. But by the end of the night, though, Eichel had scored his 20th goal of the season, Reinhart was displaying the on-ice acumen everyone has seen in him, Kane was playing with an edge and Reinhart was finishing the evening with a brilliant shootout goal.
“Our group didn’t play well, our top line included, for a good portion of the game,” said Sabres coach Dan Bylsma. “I was really disappointed about the way we played, including the top line. I knew we needed more from them. They needed more from each other. And it’s good to see them come out in the third and come through for us and collectively play better and the result is a win for our team. It’s one we’ll add to the (win) column.”
And it’s one they’ll add to the confidence column as well. When young players are in a negative environment, sometimes they begin to accept losing a little too easily. That could have happened to Eichel and Reinhart Monday night. They could have chalked it up to a bad night early and gone through the motions. After all, what’s another loss when you’re that low in the standings? Instead, though, they managed to battle through two periods of playing badly to get their team back in the game. If these players are indeed going to be the Sabres leaders of the future, they might as well get started early accepting responsibility and being accountable for their play.
“It says a lot about our team that we stuck with it,” Eichel said. “It was really big for us to be resilient in the third and play a simple game and be able to get two goals and force overtime and a shootout and see what happens. It’s nice to win a shootout.”
The Sabres will not make the playoffs this year. They might not even make the playoffs next year. But things are looking a lot brighter now than they were last season when fans at the First Niagara Center cheered a Coyotes overtime goal late in the season with the two teams in a heated battle for last place overall. Those baby steps will get bigger as the babies mature and the Sabres will once again be a contender in the Eastern Conference.
That’s the plan, at least.