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Sabres finally finding their way on home ice

Fans here have suffered long enough. Yes, there’s that word again. Even this season, with a lot of the pieces for the Sabres’ self-proclaimed “Next Chapter” in place, the hockey has not been good. No less an authority than coach Dan Bylsma referred to his club’s play at home in the first half of this year as “abysmal” after Saturday’s 3-2 win over Winnipeg.

Bylsma is right. A team full of energy, and a .500 record on the road, has not gotten the job done at First Niagara Center at all. But this month seems to be a defining moment. The Sabres have battled hard, getting outclassed only by the New York Rangers.

They’re 4-1-3 in their last eight games at home. They have two left against two bad teams, Toronto and Columbus. A 6-1-3 finish downtown would be pretty significant – to both the guys on the ice and the paying customers in the seats.

When the calendar hit March, the Sabres’ home record was just 11-17-3, and you’re never going anywhere near the playoffs with those kind of numbers. Jack Eichel, who has perspective on the game far beyond his experience level, has made that a talking point several times this season. It’s been one of the chief points of frustration around his stellar rookie campaign.

When I reminded Eichel of that Saturday, he was positively effusive on the topic.

“It’s great to play well in front of your home fans. We want to make this a building and an environment that opposing teams don’t want to come into and play,” Eichel said. “It starts with our play on the ice and we need to be better than we were at the beginning of the year and really the majority of the season. I think we’ve taken that next step and now we need to keep getting better.”

One thing the Sabres have shown is an ability to not get flustered in games. They were down, 2-0, just over five minutes into Saturday’s affair and there was simply no panic at all.

“We know going forward we have to be better here and make it a tougher place to play in,” said center Ryan O’Reilly. “Today I thought we started good but still got scored on. In the past, I thought we would deviate from our plan and dip, but this game we stuck with things. We said, ‘There’s a lot of game left and we’re doing things well,’ and it worked out for us.”

Sure did. The Sabres have had plenty of chances to dip this season but their mental toughness in games has been hard to argue. Saturday’s game was their seventh win when trailing after two periods and only Los Angeles, with eight, has more.

This was one of those games you might think back to for a long time. Exactly one year from the infamous night many fans in the building were rooting for the Arizona Coyotes, the Sabres won a game on goals by three guys who can’t legally have a beer in Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Hudson Fasching. They got points from six players, none of whom were over age 25.

Fasching and Casey Nelson had solid debuts, with Nelson assisting on Fasching’s first NHL goal. Fasching is a beast. He’s hard on the wall and burned Jets defenseman Jacob Trouba, a former first-round pick, by going wide for his goal. But he played only six minutes over the first two periods, which was bizarre. You wanted more. A lot more.

Bylsma said he lost Fasching in the second period because of penalties, a dubious notion at best. There was just one call, on Evander Kane, in the first 13½ minutes. As the clock ticked past 14 minutes, Fasching had played 50 seconds. But on the Jets’ two penalties, we were again subjected to Matt Moulson on the power play.

Fasching’s goal, remember, came just 8:37 into his career – and equals the production Moulson has given this team since Halloween. By the third period, Bylsma came to his senses. It was almost as if he was on Twitter and checked his mentions.

“I was just trying to take in as much of the game and as much of the systems as I could,” Fasching said. “I’m still learning, not quite as fluent as I’d like to be. On the bench is almost as beneficial as being on the ice, just to watch where I’m supposed to be and make reads.”

The kid is obviously politically correct. The vote here is for him to be on the ice. Fasching started the third period with O’Reilly and Evander Kane.

“He had some great wall play, making smart reads, good decisions and being physical,” O’Reilly said. “That’s what I saw when he got on our line too. He was reliable, can make the right play, has good speed and is aggressive.”

No question Bylsma should be rolling Kane-O’Reilly-Fasching and Zemgus Girgensons-Eichel-Reinhart as his top two lines going forward. You wonder if he’ll flip Kane and Girgensons at some point, as Eichel and Reinhart had been mostly quiet for four games without Kane’s work down low until breaking out in the third period Saturday.

Fasching was here in July for the development camp scrimmage that turned heads around the NHL for drawing 17,000 fans. But this was the real deal. A sellout of 19,070 for an official NHL game. Real noise too. The people are finally getting something to cheer about.

“You get on to the ice and you hear the crowd, it’s incredible,” Fasching said. “To see the support of the fans is really awesome.”


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