Kyle Okposo earned the assist on Rasmus Ristolainen’s overtime winner. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News).

Kyle Okposo knows about building programs with young hockey teams. There are great moments and there are head-scratching ones. Often in the same night.

That's where the Buffalo Sabres are right now. They've pulled some major wool out of the rabbit's hat three times in the last four games to get victories, but the fact is they were probably due for some good fortune after their unbelievable run of injuries over the first 20 games of this season.

Now, the Sabres have to look deeper. You can salute the mental toughness we're seeing while, at the same time, hope they realize this is a bit of fool's gold too.

They tied the Dec. 6 game against Edmonton in the final minute and won in overtime. They played 31 good minutes Tuesday against Los Angeles and got a win. They were putrid in the first period Friday against the New York Islanders and were still down after 40 minutes before surviving on Rasmus Ristolainen's second overtime winner in 11 days.

"It's a huge win. It's a long season," Okposo said after the 3-2 victory. "You're going to have some different games, some games where you're not at your best and you've got to find a way to win those. That's the sign of a good team, what good teams do. ... Find a way to win that game. The way we came out in the third period, that was pretty good."

Indeed, the Sabres dominated most of the final 20 minutes by getting 11 of the first 12 shots on goal and finishing with a 12-4 advantage. It was a game they had no business losing. The Islanders played the previous night at home against Chicago, suffering a 5-4 loss, and had dropped three straight. The Sabres had been off since Tuesday. The Isles were also starting third-string goalie J.F. Berube, who did a fine job even though he had played a handful of minutes all season.

If you want to climb out of last place in the Atlantic Division and have any hope of making a playoff push, you win these games. Getting outshot 16-7 in the first period is not the recipe for success.

"Obviously we don't want to start like that. We need to get going and start at a better pace," Okposo said. "But staying with it, finding a way to win is huge for us. We've got to continue with that mindset of getting two points at all costs."

Okposo lived through a lot of struggles with the Islanders, not making the playoffs in his first four years. If you're old enough to remember, this is a franchise that won four straight Stanley Cups in the early 1980s and we may never see that again. But the modern-day Islanders went 23 years without winning a single playoff series until finally beating the Florida Panthers last year in six games.

The Islanders built their team around John Tavares but are in deep trouble now that Okposo, Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin left in free agency and they woefully overpaid for Andrew Ladd. They have the look of a team getting to the playoffs only by watching on television.

Meanwhile, things can get overly giddy in Sabres Nation when Jack Eichel gets molten, like he was in the second half of Tuesday's game against the Kings. Balance is needed because the Sabres remain an infuriating group at times.

The Sabres are just about back to full strength now with Zach Bogosian on an any-day status. They need him too. Perhaps as soon as Saturday in Carolina. The defense was putrid at times Friday, to the point where it really misses 19-year-old Brendan Guhle, back in junior after his emergency recall.

Veterans Josh Gorges and Dmitry Kulikov struggled mightily at times, with Kulikov needing to really pick up his game to make the analytics lovers out there forget about Mark Pysyk.

Buffalo was sleepwalking for much of the first period, even as coach Dan Bylsma correctly warned his team the Islanders' best period figured to be the first one. Only several point-blank saves by Robin Lehner, who stopped 33 of 35 shots in one of his glossiest performances of the season, kept Buffalo afloat when the Sabres could have gone down by two goals. Lehner made three 10-bell saves on Tavares alone in the game.

Then the big free-agent addition made a sick play on the winner. Okposo had the puck on a 2-on-1 break but knew for a long time he was passing to Ristolainen, as the 6-foot-4 Finn tapped his stick on the ice 10 times calling for the puck.

"When I got to the red line, I knew it was going to Risto," said Okposo, who leads the team in goals (9) and points (22). "I just tried to suck the 'D' man in a little, create more space."

Worked great. Ristolainen snapped the puck past Berube and that was that.

With the win, the Sabres improved to 7-3-2 in their last 12 games overall and 6-2-1 in their last nine at home. They're 5-2-1 since Eichel returned.

"You have to get points any way you can get them in this league. It's not easy," Okposo said. "Every night is a challenge. We have to find a way to get those points."

Okposo said prior to this one there would be some odd emotion to the game but that it would be business as usual when the puck drops and it was. Afterward, Okposo was in the hallway greeting his old teammates with big smiles.

"It was strange to be honest, just a weird feeling," he said.

The result of the game was the feeling he wanted.

email: mharrington@buffnews.com

 

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