Jerry Sullivan: Sabres showing signs of a competitive edge - The Buffalo News
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Jerry Sullivan: Sabres showing signs of a competitive edge

Jake McCabe had stitches above and below his right eye, which was puffy and discolored. He had a nasty cut on the bridge of his nose. His right hand was wrapped. He looked as if he'd gone eight rounds with a hedge trimmer.

The Sabres' young defenseman wore his wounds proudly, like ribbons from a victory well-won.

"I think that one takes the cake," McCabe said of his hit on Winnipeg's star rookie winger, Patrik Laine, during the Sabres' rousing third-period comeback against the Jets on Saturday afternoon.

Yes, the hit on Laine was the biggest of McCabe's season, and likely his NHL career. Seasoned fans might agree it was the most thunderous hit by a Sabre since Brian Campbell laid out the Flyers' R.J. Umberger at the Arena in overtime of the opening game of the 2006 playoffs in Buffalo.

They say fans don't truly pay attention to the Sabres until the Bills season is through. So in their first home game since the merciful end of the local NFL season, the Sabres responded with an emotional, 4-3 comeback that could be the biggest win of the Jack Eichel era.

The hit was only the most resounding part of it. The Sabres, who were so dreadful for half the game that coach Dan Bylsma gave them a tongue-lashing on the bench during a TV timeout, came to life in the third period by scoring twice in a 26-second span to tie the game, 3-3.

Fans were still celebrating Zemgus Girgensons's game-tying goal when McCabe leveled Laine, the league's leading rookie scorer, near the Jet's blue line. Laine lay on the ice for several minutes and had to be helped to the dressing room, his afternoon at an end.

Seconds later, Winnipeg center Mark Scheifele sought retribution for McCabe's crushing hit and wound up with a roughing penalty. After the final buzzer, Dustin Byfuglien tried to get at McCabe and a lively scrum ensued deep in the Sabres' end, with the net dislodged and Byfuglien and goalie Robin Lehner throwing wild haymakers at one another.

Oh, did I fail to mention that Brian Gionta, who hadn't scored a goal in 10 games, netted the game-winner with 10:06 left? Or that ex-Sabres Drew Stafford and Joel Armia had scored earlier, inspiring disgusted fans in KeyBank Center to boo Buffalo off the ice after the second period?

It was lively stuff, and a sign that this maddening Sabres team might be finding its competitive personality. They still have a lot of  shortcomings and a tough road ahead, but in that third period they looked like a team that's developing a healthy disdain for losing.

"Oh, I think it's got to be our call and our cry," coach Dan Bylsma said. "We've got to be – all of us – tired of not winning hockey games. We can't accept not winning hockey games here and the guys came out and answered the bell."

It cannot be a coincidence that the Sabres discovered their passion after Eichel went into a tirade after a loss in Boston on New Year's Eve, tossing equipment and epithets around the dressing room after his team dropped both ends of a home-and-home with the Bruins.

Eichel is only 20, but he's the franchise, the team's competitive conscience and a rising leader. Maybe he's growing tired of a culture that accepts losing – that actually encouraged it two and three years ago. Whatever the case, the team has taken five of six points since – and Eichel seethed about the one lost point.

"Yeah. I think that emotion needs to be there every night," said Eichel, who saw his five-game point streak snapped. "Play with that little edge, a little swagger. We've got a lot of guys who can do that. It's the type of team we need to be.

"We got a huge hit from 'Caber' and we scored a couple of goals," he said. "The crowd got into it after they booed us off the ice in the second. So it's a great team win. That's how we got to play in this building. It's probably the loudest I've heard it."

Bylsma said the team's response in the third period was similar to Eichel's in the dressing room after the loss is his native Boston:  Embarrassed, frustrated, angry and determined to turn things around.

The fans in the arena, which has been likened to a library in recent years, rose to the moment. The question persists: Is it the Sabres' often listless play that puts the crowd to sleep, or the lifeless fans who fail to bring out their emotional best on a more regular basis?

The Sabres are 8-8-3 at home, the same point percentage (7-7-6) as on the road. They had a worse record at home than away last year. They haven't won more than they've lost at home since the 2011-12 season. You're a playoff fraud if you don't have any semblance of a home-ice advantage.

On Saturday afternoon, they finally woke up and showed how electric the place can be when the team and the crowd are passionately engaged. The mystery is why they can't do it more often, why they come out flat so often, as they did again against the Jets.

"It's a simple thing," McCabe said. "Once guys start figuring out what makes you successful, you get in a little bit of a streak. That's what we need to get ourselves back in the playoff hunt.

"I think everyone was pissed off. It wasn't just Jack. Everyone. It's frustrating, it really is. We see how we can play. We played well in New York and Chicago, we just need to continue to sustain this."

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