Once Nicolas Deslauriers learned he was joining the top line for the opening shift of the second period, he knew what he had to do. It sure wasn’t win a puck battle, carry behind the net and set up Jake McCabe for a game-changing goal.
That’s what happened, but that certainly wasn’t the plan.
“Obviously, I would have loved to get a fight there,” Deslauriers said Saturday night. “But I don’t think there’s a player out there that would have been good for that.”
Since Deslauriers couldn’t beat them, he joined them. On the ice with the Sabres’ Ryan O’Reilly and Evander Kane while matched up against Columbus scorers Nick Foligno, Brandon Saad and Alexander Wennberg, Deslauriers turned from fighter to playmaker.
It was almost as unreal as the Sabres’ 5-3 comeback win. In a 3-0 hole after 20 minutes, Buffalo used Deslauriers’ assist just 18 seconds into the second to develop a pulse.
“I wanted some passion and energy in the game injected at the start of the second period,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. “I didn’t necessarily think it was going to come in the form of a backhand pass to Jake coming to the top of the circle for a goal, but to his credit he gave it.
“It energized our team. Not just the play, not just the goal, but the play from him.”
It’s hard to overstate how bad the Sabres were during the first period. There’s been a lot of terrible, lifeless hockey during the past few years, but the opening 20 minutes ranked down there with any of it.
Then, after a few intermission chats, Deslauriers got the Sabres and KeyBank Center crowd into it. After going 34 games without a point, he earned an assist for the second straight night. This time, it was with the top line.
“I enjoyed that,” Kane said. “He did a great job of setting the tone right when we got the puck in, and he ends up making a nice play out front to Caber from behind the net to keep his point streak going.
“He’s a great guy in the room, and it was great to see him give us that spark.”
While Deslauriers helped light the Sabres, Robin Lehner extinguished the Blue Jackets. The goaltender entered in relief at the start of the second and stopped all 24 shots he faced. He made 13 during the second to allow Buffalo to exit in a 3-3 tie, and he made a game-saving stop on Cam Atkinson with 33 seconds left.
“We might have struggles, we might have our ups and downs, but we never quit,” Lehner said.
The five unanswered goals allowed the Sabres to end a three-game losing streak and move to 2-6-2 in the last 10. It was the first regulation victory while trailing by three since Dec. 29, 2009, against Pittsburgh.
“We had 40 minutes to show up, and we did a good job,” left wing Marcus Foligno said. “There wasn’t any yelling. There was just talking amongst ourselves that it wasn’t good enough.”
That’s an understatement.
“They took it to us,” right wing Tyler Ennis said. “Maybe we weren’t as ready as we should have been, but we came out in the second, got one early and took it to them after that.”
While Deslauriers didn’t get to punch anyone on his big shift, the Sabres’ physicality turned the game in their favor. Marcus Foligno got into a scrum with Brandon Dubinsky after a big hit on Ennis. Josh Gorges mixed it up with Nick Foligno. Deslauriers, Zach Bogosian and Columbus’ Scott Hartnell earned 10-minute misconducts after the second-period buzzer.
“Being hit, getting hit, hitting people, that’s how you get into the game,” Ennis said. “That’s how you’re ready to go, and that’s how you play good hockey. That’s how we should start every game, just make sure everyone gets a bump in. That’s what happened in the second.”
As the Sabres head toward another playoff-free spring, the final month is about learning lessons. A terrible one would be that it’s OK to just play 40 minutes. A good one is that passion leads to success.
“You saw the emotion guys were playing with,” left wing Matt Moulson said. “It’s too hard to flip the switch in this league. You’ve got to bring that every shift, every game. You’re not going to get away with that too many times, especially against a team like this.
“But you see what we can do when we do play like that.”