Mike Harrington: Attack mode should be Sabres' preferred method - The Buffalo News
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Mike Harrington: Attack mode should be Sabres' preferred method

It was just after 10:30 Monday morning and Sabres coach Dan Bylsma was having his regular pregame briefing with reporters when the subject of the Dallas Stars came up. One look at some of the names in the Stars' lineup and Bylsma's nervous reaction is understandable.

"We have to play a patient game, a responsible game to get the opportunities that I think will come," Bylsma said. "You have to play defense against this group. You have to be aware which side of the puck you’re on and if you do so, you’ll get opportunities going back the other way.

"If you play a run-and-gun game up and down the ice with this team, you’re going to be in for a lot of tough scoring chances against. We just need to play responsible defensively, play good on the defensive side of the puck and that will lead to opportunities for our team."

I get it. But that's so so so coachy.

Poor Lindy Ruff's Stars are a disaster defensively. Goalies Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen are swiss cheese in the net. As in full of holes. Niemi gave up three goals on three shots Saturday against Minnesota and Lehtonen entered Monday's game with an .898 save percentage for the season. One or the other had been pulled five times in the last eight games.

So why are we talking about defense? How about saying it's time to attack?

There are many reasons the Sabres have underachieved offensively this season. Their passing stinks at times. Their defense has not done nearly a good enough job getting the puck to the forwards. Injuries have robbed Jack Eichel, Ryan O'Reilly and Evander Kane of significant time. Tyler Ennis finally returned Monday after 30 games.

But too often, it comes down to the system. Bylsma has this team playing the way a lot of coaches do and that's fine. But especially with Ennis back, this team can skate. This top six group of forwards can get up and go.

And that's why the first period of Monday's 4-1 win told you quite a tale. The Sabres had 31 shot attempts, Ennis scored after 19 seconds and Eichel was everywhere. The Stars were blown up into asteroids by the Sabres' speed and puck movement.

Eichel's empty-netter was Buffalo's 100th goal of the season (the standings list 101, counting Cal O'Reilly's November shootout winner against Pittsburgh). The only other teams yet to hit 100 are New Jersey and the pathetic duo of Arizona and Colorado. The Sabres have too much talent to be in the netherworld of NHL offenses anymore.

Eichel, who had a career-high 10 shots on goal, talked afterward about how the Stars were a "high-octane" team. Fair enough when you're talking names like Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Jason Spezza and Patrick Eaves. So with Ennis back, can we say the Sabres have potential for similar octane?

"He's such a skilled player. Obviously makes everyone better around him," Eichel said of Ennis. "He obviously adds a new dynamic to our team that's good for us."

It's easy to forget Ennis is a three-time 20-goal scorer in this league because Monday was just the 37th game he's played in Bylsma's two years as coach here. He's got quick feet and stupid-good hands, as his lacrosse move with the puck by scooping it on his blade and nearly throwing it behind Lehtonen in the first period showed.

Bylsma loved that one. Said Ennis has been trying it in practice for weeks and never thought he would actually pull it out for a game. The bigger picture is what Bylsma was accurately pondering.

"You hope that's just another arrow in the quiver to have in your team's offense," Bylsma said of Ennis. "And it's one we haven't had most of this year."

You have Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Kane, O'Reilly, Kyle Okposo, Rasmus Ristolainen. This team has to push the envelope more than it has. Especially with Ennis back.

Okposo, a first-year Sabre who watched from afar in Brooklyn and saw what was building here last year, credited the game to the kind of puck management that was absent for the final two periods of Friday's debacle in Carolina.

"We have good forwards and we're developing a lot of depth up front in our lineup," Okposo said. "We're able to play a game like that but structurally we want to be a little more defensive, a little more sound. Once you're down to the nitty gritty, you have to win games and that's what does it."

Perhaps. Still, I think the goal has been to win too many games 2-1 so far. That shouldn't be the way to play when you have high-end draft picks and big-money trade or free agent acquisitions.

Especially when you look at the standings. The Sabres are 8-3-2 against the Western Conference this year and have won five straight here against Western teams. One of their little issues is that 9-14-7 mark aginst the East and their 4-8-3 disaster in the Atlantic Division.

You can't go to the playoffs with just nine wins in 30 games in your conference. Pick up the pace and go grab some games. Stop looking like the Devils too many nights.

Come Tuesday night in Toronto, what are Auston Matthews and Co. going to try to do against the Sabres? Skate like the wind and run them into the ground. That's how the Sabres should be playing more than we've seen. Like they did much of the time Monday.

More, please.

email: mharrington@buffnews.com

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