Special teams have been a special point of emphasis since Ted Nolan took over as coach of the Buffalo Sabres.
Friday night, the units started to come together. A power-play goal and a big penalty kill helped key the Sabres to their 3-2 overtime win over the Toronto Maple Leafs at First Niagara Center.
“That’s what makes the difference in hockey games,” Nolan said. “It’s the difference between winning some and losing some. Our special teams did a great job tonight.”
It started with a power play goal from Matt Moulson in the second period. And while the Sabres went just 1-for-4 with the man advantage, they did generate scoring chances. Working the puck in the Toronto zone, with leftover power play time to start overtime, Christian Ehrhoff notched the game-winner 10 seconds after a penalty to Paul Ranger expired.
“Special teams are huge in the NHL,” Moulson said. “It’s hard to get goals five-on-five. You have to take advantage when you have the power play. I thought we had a lot better power play today than we have in the last couple games. ... I thought we were competing for pucks. That’s the biggest thing. I think we can still do a better job of that but I thought we were competing to get back pucks after we lost them or after rebounds. Being hungry in front of the net. That’s how you get goals in this league.”
The flip side of that is being hungry to clear the puck on the penalty kill.
Toronto had just one power play all night when Henrik Tallinder was called for high sticking early in the third with the game tied, 2-2.
It was an opportunity for the Sabres to sigh with a hear-we-go-again mentality. That’s certainly been the prevailing attitude over the previous five games in which the Sabres have given up at least one power-play goal.
But this time the penalty kill cleared pucks and kept the Leafs from setting up shop in their zone. It did wonders for the Sabres’ confidence.
“The PK shutting the door and not giving them any momentum is a big deal,” said Sabres captain Steve Ott who was on the ice for half of the penalty kill. “What I think happened more than anything is killing momentum.
“We’ve put a lot focus on it. It’s a big thing for guys who penalty kill. We want to be successful. There’s a lot of issues there. Guys put out there are usually heart-and-soul guys that want to block shots, want to do well on the penalty kill. ... bearing down, getting the clears, putting the extra work in and just sacrifice to get the kill.”
In his first game as a Buffalo Sabre, Matt D’Agostini made the key defensive play of the night.
With 20.4 seconds left in regulation, while the Sabres were on the power play, Toronto’s James van Riemsdyk found himself on a partial breakaway. But before he could get off a shot, D’Agostini swept the puck out from underneath him.
“I couldn’t believe I was last man back,” D’Agostini said. “I thought I just tried to get as much puck as I can. I think he tried to step through me, through my stick there. I think it was a good no-call.”
He was on the ice for Ehrhoff’s game-winning goal as part of the power play unit, he had three shots in 15:39 of ice time.
“I’m just trying to contribute in any way,” D’Agostini said. “Early on you don’t want to try to do anything special, just work hard, shoot the puck. I think I passed up a couple shots when I had opportunities but it felt good to get the first one under my belt.”
With Ryan Miller getting the start Friday night, Jhonas Enroth should get the nod tonight in New Jersey.
Nolan said earlier in the week that the goalies would rotate in the sixth back-to-back games for the team this season.
It will be the first start for Enroth since he gave up four goals on 22 shots in a 4-2 loss to the Maple Leafs in Toronto Nov. 18. That was the second game behind the bench for Nolan, who seemed ready to give most of the goaltending duty to Miller after that. Enroth is 1-5-1 and has appeared in eight games this season He has a 2.88 goals against average and .906 save percentage.
Scratched for the Sabres were defensemen Jamie McBain and Brayden McNabb along with forward Mikhail Grigorenko.