Cal O’Reilly has been in the Sabres’ dressing room enough to recognize the temperature of the place. He was around when Buffalo was struggling last year. He was a fixture late in the season when things were going well.
When the center arrived Saturday morning on his first recall of 2016-17, he noticed players weren’t in the best frame of mind.
“Guys were obviously a little tense,” O’Reilly said. “They really needed a win. The pressure was starting to get on them a little bit.”
If he could sense it after a few minutes, imagine how the players living through the six-game winless skid felt. Then picture how relieved they were to finally celebrate.
“It’s a feeling you would like to have after every game,” Sabres goaltender Anders Nilsson said after a 2-1 shootout win over Pittsburgh. “This was a huge confidence boost. Hopefully, we can take this win with us and continue the path, continue to develop and improve our game, play an even better game Monday.”
In the moments after a long-awaited victory, the Sabres were already setting a goal of two straight. They host Calgary on Monday in KeyBank Center, and one win has rejuvenated the formerly downtrodden club.
“We needed something for our confidence,” left wing Marcus Foligno said. “We’re looking forward to Monday’s game, going in fresh. We battled, and that’s what we want to have the rest of the year.”
O’Reilly and Nilsson provided the defining moments Saturday night, allowing the locals to let out a roar at the final buzzer. O’Reilly scored the only goal of the shootout, while Nilsson earned First Star honors. He made 46 saves in regulation and overtime, then added three more during the breakaway challenge to end the Sabres’ 0-4-2 skid.
“We really wanted to end this losing streak,” Nilsson said. “We really needed these two points. Maybe it wasn’t the prettiest win, but we ended up with the win. I think it’s going to give us confidence moving forward.”
Nilsson improved to 2-1-2 with a .951 save percentage and 1.74 goals-against average. He added to an impressive date in Sabres goaltending history. Martin Biron earned his first NHL shutout on Nov. 19, 1999, and Ryan Miller debuted on Nov. 19, 2002. Nilsson did his part and earned every accolade thrown his way.
“He was the best player out there,” said Sabres left wing William Carrier, who scored his first NHL goal.
Nilsson deflected the credit like the Penguins’ shots. He said Buffalo’s forwards kept Pittsburgh’s stars to the outside, while the defensemen cleared traffic and rebounds. He was right.
With their top players out, the Sabres need everyone in order to win. Everyone finally showed up.
“It’s great to win, especially that way,” center Johan Larsson said. “We had to fight every minute, and every guy did a great job. That’s a really good team on the other side, so that was a great win for us.”
The Sabres still scored just one goal in 65 minutes, so there’s room for improvement. Coach Dan Bylsma feels the improvement will come now that the team knows it can win a 2-1 game after losing a couple of them. Buffalo won for the first time in five overtimes and shootouts.
“A win we desperately needed against one of the better teams, if the not the best team in the league,” Bylsma said. “We want to be comfortable in a tight game. Our guys did a great job of battling within that framework.”
They did so well, they’re ready to do it again.
Said O’Reilly: “It’s definitely good for the team confidence.”