Evander Kane was in a jovial mood Thursday morning after the team's pregame skate. As he headed out of the locker room, he joined a scrum of reporters interviewing defenseman Cody Franson. Kane took out his cell phone and inched it closer and closer to Franson's face, pretending to record his teammate's comments.
It was a more relaxed room in KeyBank Center before the Sabres played the Arizona Coyotes. Perhaps that's what contributed to the team avoiding the "here-we-go-again" mentality when the Coyotes tied the game in the third period after the Sabres had dominated for 40 minutes.
"Maybe," Kane said when asked if the team was more relaxed now that the trade deadline passed and the roster remained the same. "Obviously everyone was in a different situation at the deadline. I think maybe collectively as a team you’re thinking about other guys so maybe. At the same time everybody in the league’s going through it."
Not everyone in the league is battling the same woes as the Sabres, who had blown third-period leads in its last two games and entered Thursday on a four-game winless streak.
But Kane was part of the solution. After Arizona tied the game, 3-3, in the second period, Kane created a turnover at the Coyotes' blue line. Ryan O'Reilly picked up the loose puck, made a sweet behind-the-back pass to Kane, who used the strength of his shot to beat Mike Smith and give the Sabres a 4-3 lead.
Buffalo would score a pair of empty-net goals to earn a 6-3 win.
The win was a tonic for the Sabres, but Kane wasn't getting carried away with the post-game celebration.
"They’re not a very good hockey team. Let’s be real here," Kane said of the Coyotes. "We took it to them the first two periods but it was pretty even in the third period. Against a good hockey team we’re getting dominated. You know we squeaked one out, but we’ve got to stay aggressive and we’ve got to stay on the attack and we’ve got to come out whether up by a goal or up by two like it’s 0-0 for the third period and want to get the next one even though we don’t need to necessarily. It’s a work in progress."
The work Kane has produced on the ice for the Sabres this season has been consistent. That was his 23rd goal of the season and his 22nd at even strength. Kane is tied for fifth among all NHL players in even-strength goals this season despite not scoring his first until Dec. 3.
"I expect to score every game whether I’ve got zero goals or 100 goals. I had some great opportunities throughout the course of the game before I scored and disappointed not to bury those," said Kane who finished with six shots on goal and 11 total shot attempts. "Ryan made a good play and I was able to bury it."
Kyle Okposo took a big hit from Kevin Connauton in the second period. He immediately went to the bench, but played the rest of the second period.
Okposo did not return for the third period.
"He left the game with a mid-body injury," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "I know he was getting X-rays and he wasn’t coming back to play in the third period. I don’t have a final report on it. But it was a shot to the ribs or it was the boards against the rib cage. That is where the injury’s at."
The day after the trade deadline brought some relieved players into the Sabres locker room Thursday morning.
Wednesday "was a little bit of a stressful day," Franson said in KeyBank Center. "There’s no way around that, but I’m very happy with the turnout. I enjoy it here. I like it here. I’d like to remain here. When I didn’t get the call I was happy."
Franson, scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, was one of the players pundits figured was likely to be traded. The defenseman admitted to being "a little bit" surprised he wasn't dealt "with everything that’s been going on and been said. It’s one of those things you try to prepare yourself for so if it does happen it’s not catching you off guard. You try to be prepared and be able to put your best foot forward when the situation happens but to not have it happen I was very happy."
Also staying put as a member of the Sabres blue line is Dmitry Kulikov. Scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent this summer, he has been hampered by a back injury and has underperformed when in the lineup.
Captain Brian Gionta remained as well. The veteran forward has a limited no-trade clause and while some teams called, he had a good conversation with General Manager Tim Murray.
"At the end of the day, this game is a business and anything can happen," Gionta said. "I’m thankful for the open dialogue. I thought we had a pretty good conversation and it’s going to stay between us obviously but the fact that both sides expressed their positions, it was good."
The most surprising non-deal by the Sabres on Wednesday was Kulikov, who has not fully recovered from a pre-season back injury which has limited him to 38 games in which he has one goal, one assist and has a team-worst minus-17 rating.
“He’s a guy who needs to play better. He needs himself to play better,” Dan Bylsma said about Kulikov after Thursday’s morning skate. “He potentially, yes, could come out of the lineup if he doesn’t find his game here in the last 19 games.”
On Thursday, Kulikov was a minus-2 in 17:40 of ice time.
Kulikov said that he has “to show the best game I can show at this point.” But his transition to the Sabres this season never did go according to plan.
“It's been difficult,” Kulikov said. “You look at the beginning of the season, you come into a new team and you want to make a good impression but you can't really do it being in the medical room. When I was on the ice the first half of the season, there was always something bothering me.
“I'm working hard trying to get my form back. With that amount of games and that little rest time, you can maintain it but you can't get better at certain things. You go day by day trying to manage it and make it not a distraction.”