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Pegula: Things looking up for Sabres

Owner Terry Pegula sees exactly what you do: After two straight last-place finishes in the NHL’s overall standing, the Buffalo Sabres appear to be turning a small corner this year.

“I think we’re on target. Things are looking up,” Pegula said Friday in brief remarks with The Buffalo News in Ralph Wilson Stadium. “We’ve had a few beat-up players early in the year, lost our goalie early but we’re on target.”

Even without No. 1 netminder Robin Lehner, the Sabres entered Friday’s game against the Arizona Coyotes – a victory – with a 10-12-3 record. And although they were just three points ahead of last year’s record through 25 games (9-14-2), optimism is high under new coach Dan Bylsma and with the addition of No. 2 overall draft pick Jack Eichel.

Pegula rarely speaks to the media aside from formal news conferences, but was available after the announcement that the Sabres and the city will be hosting the 2018 World Junior Championships. He had not spoken about the hockey team since the firing of Darcy Regier and Ron Rolston combined with the subsequent hiring of Ted Nolan and Pat LaFontaine in November, 2013.

Asked his impressions of Eichel, a smiling Pegula said, “What do you think? You’re all watching it, too. He’s going to be a great player. He is a great player.”

Pegula said he did not attend any of the 2011 World Junior games played here, which were staged less than two months before his purchase of the Sabres was complete. But he said he’s regularly watched the tournament on TV and is impressed how it’s positively impacted his young players.

Pegula is particularly thrilled with the way the World Juniors have helped several Sabres, referring to Rasmus Ristolainen’s overtime goal for Finland that won the 2014 tournament in Malmo, Sweden. And he said it will be particularly interesting to watch the presumptive USA-Canada matchup outdoors at The Ralph.

“I really like to watch World Juniors,” Pegula said. “When Rasmus did his thing, he was sick as a dog, skating 18- to 20-second shifts to win the ‘Golden Game.’ Can you imagine coming out here and playing in a game, maybe in the snow a little bit? It will be pretty awesome for these kids.”